Knitting and Taking Control

Someone once commented that spikes in knitting come with stressful times.  I’d buy that.   I knit and sew more during stressful times than otherwise.  There are a lot of theories on why this might be so in general.  Part of it, I am sure, is the soothing nature of a repetitive physical motion (rocking a baby, anyone?).  But I think it’s more than that.  Sewing has a similar effect on me, and that’s not quite as repetitive as knitting.

Most crisis intervention therapies have routines to promote a sense of competence and mastery to the patients.  Basically, if you can’t feel in control of something or accomplished about something, you run out of cope real, real fast.  That’s a very normal human reaction.   While you can’t necessarily plot a curve from one point, I know the kick I get out of sewing my own wardrobe or knitting a garment for someone.  It’s a sense of accomplishment.   It’s a way to restore a sense of competence.  Knitting and sewing are relatively simple skills to learn.  Elizabeth Zimmerman, the Ur-geek of knitting, put it this way:

Really, all you need to become a good knitter are wool, needles, hands, and slightly below-average intelligence. Of course, superior intelligence, such as yours and mine, is an advantage.

You can learn to knit a garter stitch scarf relatively quickly. And at the end of the project, you have something physical, tangible, and dare I say  useful as well.  That kind of thing can do a lot to restore a sense of competence.

If it seems goofy to say, “I can’t control the economy, but by God, I can make this sweater!” don’t be too quick to sneer.  That sense of competence can and does fuel intelligent action in other areas.  Anyone who engages in a repetitive but ultimately useful and creative thing like knitting1 will tell you that in the process of creation, your mind relaxes.  You enter a meditative state and often that relaxation of the mind engages the creative centers that allows you to come up with the creative solutions you need in other areas of life.

It also has to do with how the brain works and how it encodes stressful experiences.

Psychological theory suggests that when we’re exposed to a horrifying situation, we take it in through two channels. One is the basic, primal sensory channel: the sights, sounds, sensations, and smells of the situation. The other is an intellectual channel: our brains trying to make sense of what’s going on, and putting it into words and a context that we can talk about.

The experimenters wondered what would happen if you specifically blocked one of these channels while the traumatic event is going on. And they found that if you were pre-occupied with a “visual-spatial task,” like typing a pattern on a computer, you didn’t encode the images and sounds of the traumatic experience as strongly. As a result, subjects who kept their hands busy had fewer flashbacks.


Does make for an interesting take on the old saying, “Idle hands are the Devil’s workshop.”

1Or woodworking (ever sanded a bookcase?), or cooking, or even scrubbing a floor (see Wintersmith by Terry Pratchett for an interesting discussion of the principle). It needs to be physical, but not too mentally demanding.

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