You can probably gather from previous posts that I have a disability and have found craft extremly valuable in helping me live with the symptoms my condition creates. I work closely with a local community centre – Third Age Centre, Southampton and they kindly invited me to have a stand celebrating the benefits crafts bring to wellbeing. I had an excellent day and met some lovely people and had some great feedback about the display I’d put together. I’m hopeful this may lead onto some work with different agencies and businesses who were really interested in the “stress busting” aspect of crafting!
1. Life feels like a vicious circle
The hardest part of living with any form of long term illness is learning to unpick what makes it worse or better. In the early days especially it often feels like you’re riding a crazy roller coaster where the track can suddenly shape shift and what appears to be an up, is suddenly a down or a plateau. Its not just the illness that worsens symptoms, its a whole gaumont of daily experiences we all have, that unknown to us affect our bodies and make our symptoms worse.
For example, if I’m worried about something I often find the muscle of tone in my left side and legs increases and I develop some really strange movement patterns – one friend described it as walking like you have cerebral palsy. I understand the process – anxiety causes tense muscles – my nervous system and brain interpret tense muscles as a defence mechanism and think “oh she’s in pain” – the body’s response to pain is to tense those muscles even more -the movement centre in the brain then thinks “oh if she walks this way it’ll hurt less” and so on! And of course when I start walking funny my muscles tire more easily, I fall over more and get increasingly frustrated, which starts the whole cycle going again! And I perceive that I’m having a “bad day” or “flare up” depending on how long it lasts.
2. Breaking the Cycle!
The above sounds pretty relentless and out of control, but actually with time, practice and by tuning in to the body its possible to break the cycle. In the above situation, I use a range of measures to help – muscle relaxation helps my muscles to loosen up and anxiety to reduce through deep breathing. Pacing myself with small periods of activity, broken up by regular breaks is another tool – and when I’m sitting resting I can get on with some knitting – lessening the feelings of frustration and guilt at not doing what I’d planned. The pain message over drive up to the brain is gradually reduced and although not perfect, my walking slowly improves. My muscles are less tired and so I can do more.
There are so many ways we can break the cycle from physical exercise – gentle and appropriate to your condition to doing something nice for someone – helps give us a sense of achievement, boosts confidence and lifts mood. Crafts are ideal in that they absorb the mind – providing a distraction. If you’re not convinced, concentrate on the pain next time you experience it for 30s, then do something that absorbs your mind – for however long you think 30s is. Compare the level of pain and the actual time for both experiences – you’ll probably find that 30s seems much longer when your pain level is high, compared with when you are distracting yourself.
Crafts help us relax too – combating anxiety and muscle tension. The sense of achievment boosts endorphins, lifting the mood, helping us feel useful again and lessening the emotional impact of the illness – productive people don’t need to feel guilty about what they can’t do after all! Craft can help us reach out too – we can get to know other crafters and perhaps help them learn a new skill, extend exisiting skills or by providing friendship and a listening ear – both ways. Its great to listen to others, but its also important to share our thoughts and feelings – bottled up feelings feed negative emotions, depression and anxiety – talking constructively to someone with a common bond is not moaning – and you may be surprised at the advice and support you find. Getting out of the house is important too if possible – yes its hard when you feel tired, ill, in pain, depressed. Getting out of bed in itself is a major hurdle – but just do it! I know how much better I feel for getting up, however long it takes and making it into the lounge – after all everyone sits around in the lounge! Getting out gives a sense of freedom and purpose too! I’m having a bad day today – woke up to a blow torch screaming around my back – but its ok – its happened because I went out with a friend yesterday after knitting group – we had a coffee, a potter round the yarn shops and I thought I could cope on sticks for one leg of the trip – yes I over did it – but I managed to walk / shuffle on my own 2 legs from the car into a shop and buy some yarn for the first time in 4 weeks! And no one can take that achievement away from me!