Image above: NameDesignStudio on Etsy

After receiving so many positive comments from readers who read my most recent email campaign, I decided to put it out here for the world.

Not that long ago I took an online course on how to do your own PR. One of my angles was that stripping a chair down to its bare bones and building it back up again is therapeutic and quite calming. The course instructor happily agreed that I should pitch that idea to Mindful Magazine and other wellness publications. Believe me, it’s a hard sell-to convince people that a skill or activity as basic and simple as upholstery is therapeutic.

Although I see it and hear it in my studio classes all the time, it’s just hard to convince people that it really truly has a mood lifting effect. As it turns out, there’s a little piece of scientific research supporting this premise that handiwork can, in fact, treat depression. I think we all readily accept that music and art therapy contribute to a feel good state of mind, but additionally, actually fixing something, accomplishing a task, taking an idea from the idea and planning stages through problem solving and completion has added benefits that tap into and light up brain geography more than we may have realized.

Kelly Lambert, chair of the psychology department at Virginia’s Randolph-Macon College and author of “Lifting Depression” conducted some lab rat research which proved that ‘worker’ rats who were trained to claw through cage bedding to find food showed more boldness and persistence than ‘trust fund’ rats who received food freely. Boldness and persistence being a hallmark of mental health.

Lambert identified a network of geographically connected brain regions that appears to strongly influence well-being when activated by physical labor. This “effort-driven reward circuit,” as she calls it, includes areas involved with not only reward (the nucleus accumbens) but also emotion (the limbic system), movement (the striatum), and higher reasoning associated with anticipation, planning, and problem-solving (the prefrontal cortex).

What this means is that we short circuit beneficial brain activity when we cut out those simple ‘idea, planning, problem solving, accomplishment’ physical activities that we’re hard wired to do, but our culture has diminished.

Nowadays, we have to find ways to spark our own effort-driven reward circuitry. This mental and physical communication and coordination ‘squirts a cocktail of feel-good neurotransmitters, including dopamine (the “reward chemical), endorphins (released with exercise), and serotonin (secreted during repetitive movement).’

When we knit a scarf (or learn how to reupholster a chair, rebuild a motor, plant a garden or redecorate a room)-for instance, Lambert says, the brain’s executive-thinking centers get busy planning, then the happy anticipation zone begins to zing with activity, talking back to the executive top brain and reaching out to other parts that make us dive our hands into the action.

When the project is finished, or the repair is made, there’s a tremendous sense of well being that floods you. We say it’s that sense of accomplishment, but it’s far more than that. It starts with the idea that you can do it, then continually provides beneficial by-products all the way through the process.  Once you get a taste of that good feeling, you’ll be looking for more ways to utilize your built-in mood lifters. It’s so very simple.

Due to the loss of many family members in a short span of time, on certain days, I thought I’d never make it. But every time I went back to my work, I saw a glimpse of hope that I’d get through this.  Working with my hands and creating things became a dependable activity that soothed and comforted my aching heart. It slowly lifted me up and out of a few very dark and sad years.

*I am not a psychologist, expert, or counselor. I’m only saying, from my personal experience, that getting your hands into a project, especially one that has a repair, construction, improvement, or rehabbing result can make you feel good and get your mind off of your troubles for a while. We all need a rest from those every now and then.

Happy Making, Fixing, Building, Rebuilding, Creating!