Keep your pandemic hobbies — your brain will thank you

Any hobbies that help you attain a "flow state" are good for your brain, scientists say

Published August 29, 2021 2:00PM (EDT)

Tom Daley of Great Britain knits during the preliminary round of the men's 3m springboard at the Tokyo Aquatics Centre on day ten of the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan. (Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile via Getty Images)
Tom Daley of Great Britain knits during the preliminary round of the men's 3m springboard at the Tokyo Aquatics Centre on day ten of the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan. (Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

British swimmer and Olympian Tom Daley is renowned for his skill and form. Not just at diving, but also at knitting. Though he hasn't won any medals for it, Daley's knitting has arguably earned him as much attention as his diving: a photo of the 27-year-old knitting from his perch in the stands at the Tokyo Aquatics Center during the 2021 Olympics went viral. Daley, who picked up knitting at the beginning of lockdown, often posts his projects on his yarn-centric Instagram account, where he now has 1.4M followers. Stitching a medal pouch, a dog sweater, and a team cardigan, all while he watched others compete during the Tokyo games, Daley said he learned to knit and crochet to help him remain calm during long and draining competitions.

Daley is not unique in finding solace in traditional pastimes like needlework and knitting during stressful moments. Throughout history, humans have turned to crafts to improve both mental and physical health, and science has confirmed what most of us already supposed: engaging in beloved pastimes, including crafting, can help improve mood and a person's sense of well-being. Due to their ability to distract from worries and promote mindfulness, crafts in general are excellent for easing stress and anxiety.

Like Daley, many looked to hobbies at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in order to ease the boredom of lockdown and tame the anxiety that spread along with the virus. Kate Walter, an author based in New York City, opted to teach herself harmonica because the instrument was small and portable, and because she was "bored and wanted a challenge." Walter says it provided a welcome escape from her daily quarantine routine. Risa Kerslake, a registered nurse and health freelance writer in Minneapolis, MN, learned to crochet simply to make a blanket for her daughter. She had no idea that the act of crocheting itself would turn out to be a "tremendous stress reliever."

The trend of adopting a hobby at the start of lockdown was international. In the UK, Hobbycraft, the country's largest craft supplier, reported a 200% boom in online sales during the first few months of the pandemic. The same is true in the U.S. where leading craft store Michaels saw a 150 percent increase in viewers on its Facebook Live tutorials. Interest in Internet search terms including "crafts," and demand at stores such as Jo-Ann, also rose.

It has long been acknowledged that hobbies can help ease stress and improve well-being during worrying times. But what is it that makes them so beneficial? According to neuroscientist Dr. Stan Rodski, author of "The Neuroscience of Mindfulness", hobbies promote a state of relaxation when they require three things: control, repetition, and focus. Experts have noted that such attributes can help a person enter what is called a flow state.

Flow state, a term which was popularized by psychologists Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Jeanne Nakamura, occurs when one becomes fully immersed in the task at hand. "There's this focus that, once it becomes intense, leads to a sense of ecstasy, a sense of clarity…you forget yourself, you feel part of something larger," Csikszentmihalyi said in a 2004 TED Talk.

It is thought that activities that induce this flow state activate the autonomic nervous system (ANS). Also known as the visceral or involuntary nervous system, the ANS is made up of two parts: the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems, and it functions without our conscious, voluntary control. This part of the central nervous system influences the activity of most tissues and organ systems in the body. When parts of the ANS activate it can help us relax and keep us in balance.

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The good news is there is no one-size-fits-all calming activity. You don't have to take up knitting, or even a type of craft to experience stress relieving benefits from a hobby. Any pastime can help keep you calm as long as it promotes the three qualities of control, repetition, and focus to help induce a flow state. For stitcher Kerslake, though she did not start to crochet in order to use it as a stress relief tool, she soon realized how much her anxiety would ease after an evening spent crocheting. It seems that in crochet she found an activity that helped her enter that flow state. "There was something about doing the same repetitive stitch over and over again that really calmed my mind," she said.

 Dr. Rodski notes that it is also important that the activity one chooses be non-competitive. If the brain senses evaluation or comparison it will cause the nervous system to enter an aroused state, reducing the relaxation effect. Harmonica player Walter enjoys playing the instrument precisely because the pursuit is free of competition. "It is fun," she said. "There is no pressure."

The good news about our pandemic hobbies is that their benefits can follow us long after the pandemic is under control. Activities to soothe our psyches and occupy our minds during the pandemic can be more than just fleeting fancies.

For diver Tom Daley, he has not only turned his pandemic passion into a tool for relieving the stress of competition, but he is now auctioning off his finished products to raise money for causes dear to his heart. Kerslake, too, is thrilled with her new diversion.

"I'm pretty sure this crochet hobby is the best thing that ever happened to me," she said. "It's not even about the stress relief, though that's a huge perk." Rather, it's the joy of creating something new that makes her happiest. "Hats, mittens, blankets, shawls — I love it all," she added.

By Ruth Kogen Goodwin

Ruth Kogen Goodwin is a writer and editor living in southern California, where she writes a free monthly newsletter on writing, needlework, and the nervous system. More at www.ruthkgoodwin.com or follow her on Twitter.

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Brain Explainer Flow State Health Knitting Mental Health Relaxation Stress Tom Daley