Some discarded handmade birds led one woman down a path to discover the real reason her grandmother crafted — and why it may be time to pick up a paintbrush.

I noticed the green felt birds piled in a trashcan as we cleaned out my grandparents’ house. I quickly pulled them out and demanded to know who’d thrown away the sequined (and slightly gaudy) birds. They had been the only decorations on my grandparents’ Christmas tree for as long as I could remember. After a few awkward glances and whispered conversations, I learned the sad history of the birds: my grandmother had made them while dealing with depression in a psychiatric facility.

I decided to dig deeper into the story, and discovered that the facility was onto something. Research suggests that crafting is much more than just an outlet for personal expression or a way to pass the time. Crafting can help reduce anxiety, improve mood, and increase happiness, all of which can help fight depression.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, major depression — a mood disorder that causes a persistent feeling of sadness and loss of interest — is one of the most common mental disorders in the United States. Traditional treatment with medications and psychological counseling are very effective for most people with depression. But alternative treatments are getting more attention these days, and researchers are beginning to study the mental health benefits of creativity and crafting.

Studies suggest that painting pictures, making music, sewing skirts, or creating cakes can have the following positive benefits for mental health.

Reduced anxiety

Anxiety and depression often go hand in hand. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, nearly one-half of those diagnosed with depression are also diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. A study called “The Influence of Art Making on Anxiety: A Pilot Study” suggests that a little time working on art can significantly reduce a person’s state of anxiety. Another study indicates that art allows people to forget about their condition for a while, allowing them to focus on the positive things in their life. Being wholly focused on a craft project can have an effect similar to meditation, which research suggests can help in the management of anxiety and depression.

Improved mood

What researchers are beginning to document regarding crafting and our mood, we’ve known instinctively for quite a long time. Quilting bees offered colonial women an escape from isolation. Craft competitions at county fairs provided purpose for individuals in the 20th century. More recently, scrapbooking has given people a sense of pride and camaraderie. Recent research is providing evidence on how crafts and creativity can lift a person’s mood.

For instance, a study on clay work published in Art Therapy suggests that handling clay is effective for reducing negative moods. Another study finds that creativity allows people to change their perspective on life, which then helps them turn negative emotions into positive ones.

Increased happiness

Dopamine is a chemical associated with the reward center in your brain. Among other things, it provides feelings of enjoyment to help you start or continue doing certain activities. A study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry suggests that people with depression are lacking in dopamine. Crafting is a nonmedicinal way to stimulate dopamine, which ultimately makes you feel happy. In a study of 3,500 knitters, researchers found that 81 percent of knitters with depression perceived that knitting made them feel happier.

If you or a loved one is struggling with depression, talk to a healthcare provider. They may recommend medications or counseling. In addition to traditional recommendations, consider taking some time to get creative. Here are some ideas:

  • Join a knitting group. Not only can group members help you improve your skills, they can also become friends and keep you from feeling isolated.
  • Bake and decorate a cake.
  • Color in an adult coloring book.
  • Paint a picture.
  • Make a door wreath.
  • Create a seasonal centerpiece for your kitchen table.
  • Sew a dress or pillow cover.
  • Get out in nature and take some photos.
  • Learn to play an instrument.

I have to believe that making those green felt birds helped my grandmother cope with her depression. She must have had fond memories of making them, despite the fact that she was dealing with challenges in her life at the time. I like to believe that sewing the felt and picking out the sequins helped her forget her troubles, elevated her mood, and made her happy. And I like to believe that using them to decorate her tree every December reminded her of how strong she was.

I kept one of those funny-looking birds, and every year, I hang it on my Christmas tree. I always smile as I place it among the more sophisticated glass and ceramic ornaments. It reminds me that in the midst of our struggles, we can always create hope.

Laura Johnson is a writer who enjoys making healthcare information engaging and easy to understand. From NICU innovations and patient profiles to groundbreaking research and frontline community services, Laura has written about a variety of healthcare topics. Laura lives in Dallas, Texas, with her teenage son, old dog, and three surviving fish.