Art as Therapy

Creativity has been a huge part of my recovery. Learning to crochet and create jewelry was one of my best coping skills to deal with the anxiety that was brought upon by eating and weight gain. It kept my hands and mind busy, and the repetitive, detailed work was calming.

It appears that making things is part of what is known as the effort-driven rewards circuit. The effort is the actual crafting part: the drawing the yarn over the needle, the making of the wire-wrapped loops. And the reward is the end product, knowing that you have created something totally unique.

Neuroscientist Kelly Lambert found that

"a well-engaged “effort-driven rewards circuit” helps us effectively meet emotional challenges, thus ameliorating depressive symptoms to some extent. Brain-wise, moving our hands activates larger areas of the cortex than movement of other parts of the body such as our legs or back muscles."

Writes Cathy Malchiodi (author of the blog post cited above):

So does “making things” offer a possible intervention for depression? It seems it might, at least as part of a program to treat what is not always alleviated by pharmacology plus talk therapy. While the arts serve as a means of self-expression and perhaps emotional reparation, we humans have consistently returned to the pleasure of crafting things with our hands for some more fundamental reason. Lambert’s research also brings new questions to the perennial debate about connections between depression and artists (more about that in a future post). But for now, it is exciting to know that we all may have access to an internal effort-driven rewards circuit to simply chase our blues away.

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Anonymous said...

As a fellow jewellery maker I 100% agree Carrie. . .

I always found anything repetitive that kept my hands busy AND was creative really helped to distract me. . .

I have also perfected the art of reading and beading at the same time -- so there you go! :P I can create and learn new things at the same time1


Ai Lu said...


I am so pleased that you wrote a post about creativity, especially since it is something that I have been thinking about recently.

This week I heard a segment on Brenda Dayne's knitter podcast ( about a similar topic. She interviewed a knitting designer who mentioned research about how using both hands in coordinated activity led to some kind of positive neurological functioning....I found it fascinating but without a bibliographic reference I had trouble finding the scientific article that she was referring to. Perhaps you have done the search for me. Thank you!

Ai Lu

Ai Lu said...

P.S. How is the job search coming along? If you're willing to relocate, check out the jobs available in psychiatric research at Columbia:

Carrie Arnold said...


Reading AND beading? Wow- you're good. I'm still working on the walking and chewing gum thing... :)


I'm hoping to hear on a position today- which is leaving me verrrrrrry nervous because I need to move on, you know, Monday.

Thanks for the NYSPI suggestion- I will keep it in mind. But I tend to write about science, rather than actually doing it. My background is (oddly) in public health and molecular microbiology.

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I'm a science writer, a jewelry design artist, a bookworm, a complete geek, and mom to a wonderful kitty. I am also recovering from a decade-plus battle with anorexia nervosa. I believe that complete recovery is possible, and that the first step along that path is full nutrition.

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