About a year ago, the Michaels store in our neighborhood closed down. This really bummed out my daughter as she loves browsing through the countless aisles of artsy crafty things, imagining how to turn all of the random objects she’s collected over the years into new projects. So when we passed a Michaels store the other day that was open, my daughter excitedly dragged us in.
An hour later, we left the store with two bags of yarn. Because for whatever reason, my daughter decided she was going to try her hand at knitting for the first time. Specifically, a giant chunky blanket (this one , to be even more exact).
As she got started, and the blanket began to take shape, I started getting kind of curious. So she walked me through the process, and even let me knit a few rows of my own.
I was surprised at how addictive it was.
There was something very satisfying about making something with your hands, and seeing a tangible, usable object begin to take shape right in front of your eyes. And there was something about the repetition of knitting that also felt really soothing, almost meditative.
So it felt like an interesting coincidence (in hindsight, probably less a coincidence and more a function of the various apps on my phone colluding with each other behind the scenes) when the next day, I stumbled across an article about British diver Tom Daley, who had been spotted knitting in the stands at the Tokyo Olympics.
I learned that he has called knitting “his secret weapon,”1, explaining that this is how he stays calm, manages stress, and stays in a more mindful state before competing.
Daley ended up winning a gold medal in the 10m synchronized diving event. Which made me wonder…
Could knitting be a viable tool for managing nerves on the day of a big performance or audition?
Research on knitting?
When I started looking for studies on the potential psychological benefits of knitting, I found that there has actually been a fair amount of interest in this topic over the last 15-20 years.
It’s still a relatively new area of inquiry, so most of the studies I found were qualitative case study or survey-based studies. But researchers have found that many knitters do describe their experience of knitting in therapeutic terms, saying that it helps them relax, unwind, cope with stress, achieve flow states, or improve mood.
I was a little bummed that there weren’t a ton of studies looking specifically at the effect of knitting on anxiety or performance. But I did find one study that seemed like it could be relevant (yay!).
An eating disorder study?
The researchers in this study (Clave-Brule et al., 2009) looked at the treatment and recovery of several dozen individuals who were admitted to a specialized inpatient eating disorder clinic.
The participants in this study were all being treated for anorexia nervosa, an eating disorder that’s associated with an intense fear of gaining weight, severe restrictions on how much food is eaten, and extreme efforts to control one’s body weight and shape. Anorexia can lead to a number of serious health issues. And in some cases, anorexia can even be fatal.
Umm…and how is this related to performance?
Well, one of the key factors in successful treatment of anorexia is managing the intense degree of anxiety, and the intrusive thoughts about controlling eating and weight that many struggle with.
Unfortunately, it’s actually quite difficult to find effective strategies that enable those suffering from anorexia to successfully manage their anxiety and shift their attention away from the anxious preoccupations that can consume their thoughts.
So when the researchers observed that some of the patients in the clinic seemed noticeably less anxious when they were knitting, they were understandably intrigued.
Does knitting have any effect on anxiety?
To take a closer look at this, they gave a questionnaire to the 38 patients in the clinic who knitted during part of their scheduled leisure or recreation time. About a third of them were new to knitting, while the rest had had some knitting experience before starting treatment.
On average, the patients in the study spent about 1:20 per day knitting, and did report a number of positive benefits associated with knitting.
74% reported that knitting helped to distract or distance them from thoughts and feelings about eating/weight.
74% also reported feeling more comfortable and relaxed.
And 53% noted a decrease in stress, and less of a tendency to ruminate obsessively and act on these thoughts.
This is a somewhat different sort of anxiety than the kind of pre-competition anxiety that you might experience backstage or when waiting around to perform.
And this is also just a self-report survey, rather than a true experiment with random assignment, a control group, and so forth. So there are a lot of questions that this study can’t answer. Like, it’s not clear how the seeming benefits of knitting might compare to some other activity, such as playing cards, reading a book, painting, or even just playing with yarn in no particularly structured sort of way.
It’s also not clear how much of a change in anxiety there might be between the periods of time when patients are knitting and when they aren’t.
Even so, there does seem to be enough intriguing data both in this study and in others, to make knitting seem like a worthwhile strategy to explore further.
So…if you’re not a knitter, and are up for a new hobby, maybe now is as good a time as any to give it a try?
I really did enjoy helping with that giant blanket project my daughter started with. It’s pretty simple, takes just a few minutes to learn how to do, and requires just some yarn and your hands, and leaves you with a nice big cozy blanket for the upcoming fall/winter months. So at least for me, that was a great place to begin. The exact videos we followed are here (more of an overview) and here (more detail) , if you’re curious.
If you give it a go and discover it’s not for you, no biggie. But if knitting does draw you in and resonates on some level, maybe this would be a great thing to try when you’re feeling generally stressed.
And then, maybe give it a try if you’re feeling stressed before a lesson.
And then perhaps before a studio class. And before a dress rehearsal or low-key performance.
Eventually you could see if it helps to keep you in a better headspace before mock auditions, and ultimately, on the day of an actual audition or performance – whether in your hotel room, or backstage at the hall.
If, on the other hand, you’re already a knitter, I’d be curious to know what your experience with knitting and its effect on anxiety or stress has been. Have you found knitting to be a useful pre-performance activity, ala Tom Daley? Or generally useful for de-stressing? Please do share in the comments below!
More about knitting and mental health
The phrase “knitting therapy” might make you roll your eyes, but here’s a nice 20-min video where physiotherapist Betsan Corkhill explains how it is that knitting could indeed be therapeutic and have mental health benefits for those struggling with anxiety, depression, a history of trauma, loneliness, etc. She also drops some interesting tidbits like whether color or texture of the yarn matters more for improving mood, and how to make it a maximally rewarding experience, from Day 1, even if you have zero prior experience.
And if you want to really dig deeper into the research in this area, this 2016 master’s thesis might be a great place to start:
- Knitting as a Vehicle of Personal Transformation, by Mélanie J. Smith
Clave-Brule, M., Mazloum, A., Park, R., Harbottle, E., & Birmingham, C. L. (2009). Managing anxiety in eating disorders with knitting. Eating and Weight Disorders – Studies on Anorexia, Bulimia and Obesity, 14(1), e1–e5. https://doi.org/10.1007/bf03354620
I haven’t tried knitting ahead of an upcoming performance, but I have found myself doing repetitive, perhaps even slightly mundane, tasks at such times.
If I play guitar too much on the day I tend to overthink any slight problems or mistakes and this is generally not helpful, as I just spend the day over practising. If I do nothing I overthink in a different way and generally enter the “spiral of doom” in my head.
I occupy my time with a little playing (warming up) and mostly stuff like painting, other DIY projects or model making.
I guess all these things keep our mind occupied with something that is interesting enough to keep us from stressing too much about the performance.
Yep! I think that’s the real benefit of this sort of thing – thanks for the input, Richard!
I use knitting to relax as well as take my mind off anxious events, including warmup before a concert. There are different types of knitting projects; I usually pick a mindless one with only one or two stitch patterns I can execute on auto pilot during a warmup. I’ll do a more difficult technique such as using multiple colors when I have more free time to focus on not making a mistake. Every once in a while I make myself knit the same number of minutes I’m on my phone in an attempt to fight my technology addiction. I think there are some interesting studies that knitting activates relaxing alpha brain waves and also activates the brain’s creativity center. Highly recommend!
Sounds like finding the right sort of project might be important for being able to get into the right sort of rhythm or flow with this backstage, which makes a lot of sense.
Out of curiosity, can I ask what instrument you play? I’m wondering if finger fatigue could be a factor (though I don’t know how much tension/effort is involved in knitting, of course), where perhaps the usefulness of this backstage might also depend on the instrument one plays?
I was picking up my knitting this morning as a opened your article. Intermittently I knit – usually when I am a passenger in a vehicle. Traveling can be stressful on busy roads and not being the driver leaves one without control. Knitting while riding on long trips definitely makes it less stressful. I can extrapolate that it would be helpful for other stressors too. I heading back to my knitting my mittens before I start practicing violin later this morning – maybe my practice will be more productive!
Thanks for weighing in, Kaylene! By the way, do you find that knitting before practicing warms up your hands at all? Like, do you feel less cold, and more easily able to jump right in as compared to times when you don’t knit before practicing?
A friend of mine – now sadly deceased – was a tenor with the English National Opera. His between rehearsal/waiting-to-perform activity was cross-stitch and his colleague’s was crochet. Both good, absorbing, repetitive activities that have a creative feel. FWIW.
Thanks for sharing, Haydon!
I learned to knit in my early teens and knit a fair amount back then (closeted, as so many aspects of my self were at the time), but I put it aside after high school and didn’t return to it until I was in my 50s. Since then I’ve done a lot of knitting. I also took up cello in my 50s although I’d studied piano for many years. I tried knitting before an adult student chamber music recital one time, and although knitting is wonderfully relaxing and fulfilling for me, the anxiety of the moment was based on performing at the cello and I did not find knitting had the strength to take my mind off it. In fact, it was almost a distraction. But since I’ve had more experience since then, I shall try it again some time.
I’m an avid knitter and quilter with no end of ideas or gifts to create. Arthritis in my hands slows me down to balance piano practice with crafting.
Many men knit, too, and publish the most original, colorful, designs.
The balance of knitting is not to do too much because it can increase repetitive motion strain for me. Violin actually decreases any osteoarthritis discomfort for me (as long as my hands stay tension free of course!). It is a good “physiotherapy.” If I get on a knitting kick my hands get grumpy, so a small amount of knitting is the perfect balance to warm my hands up while putting my mind into a more balanced, calm state. Knitting could almost be a kind of meditation or mindfulness assist.
Thanks for the great article.
Hi Noa, I’m a flutist, and I’m also a life-long knitter, quilter and embroidery hobbyist. I find that all of these hand-crafts have a meditative quality, and are great for relieving stress and anxiety. However as others have noted, the big caveat for musicians with these types of activities is the danger of repetitive stress injuries. For this reason I would never use knitting, etc. immediately before a performance to relieve jitters. Going for a run in the morning, yoga practice, etc. work for me.
@Kaylene & Carolyn,
Thanks for the input on repetitive stress. Good to know!