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Pandemic stress and social unrest have led to peaks in psychological distress, with over 8 out of 10 Americans displaying “moderate to severe” symptoms of both depression and anxiety in a screening organized by Mental Health America. My psychotherapy clients tend to be consistent in the questions they ask: How do I deal? How can I heal? True change is a long-game, and therapy sometimes demands patience. Still, there are adjustments we can make to our day-to-day that help expand our potential and relieve some of our pain, especially during one of the most collectively difficult eras of our time.
My most applicable answer is one surely shared with many other therapists: Mindfulness. This abstract word is one we hear and see often: touted by colorful self-care Instagram accounts, promoted by yoga teachers, and displayed on subway ads for meditation apps. Mindfulness certainly sounds serene, but what exactly is it?
What Is Mindfulness?
The American Psychological Association defines mindfulness as "a moment-to-moment awareness of one's experience without judgment." Let’s break down what that means, beginning with moment-to-moment awareness. To cultivate full awareness of one’s literal “here and now” requires being one-hundred-percent present; a sometimes enormous effort in a modern American life that's inundated with nonstop phone notifications and endless to-do lists. Awareness of experience without judgment is equally challenging, with targeted ads leaving us feeling like our lives are perpetually lacking, and anxiety disorders at extreme levels. If we figure out how to pull off this sense of inner calm and self-acceptance, though, living the "zen" life has bountiful benefits including reduced rumination, stress reduction, boosts to working memory, less emotional reactivity, cognitive flexibility, and increased empathy.
How To Practice Mindfulness
A clear cause-and-effect: when the mind is uncluttered, and we aren’t overly entangled in thought-and-feeling loops, we feel better cognitively, emotionally, and even physically. But how do you practice mindfulness? Despite its descriptive definition, mindfulness can still feel fairly ambiguous until it's practiced in-action. So, the first step is to pick a task and immerse ourselves in it. We attempt to pay attention to the physical and sensory experiences of whatever the task may be because when we figure out how to be mindful with one task, then, over time, mindfulness becomes easier to apply to other areas of life.
This is why many therapists suggest beginning with dishwashing: handwash slowly, paying attention to the sensation of the water, the texture of the plate. Eventually, it will be easier to center ourselves during moments of distress. Dishwashing is one way to start, but the main point is simply to practice awareness—as well as a non-judgmental mindset—which can be done with any task of the client’s choosing.
The Link Between Embroidery and Mindfulness
Perhaps this is why the embroidery arts have become so popular on Instagram during the pandemic. The process of producing pleasing art pieces—while practicing mindfulness—might be a little more fun than facing a sink full of dishes. In October 2020, professional textile artist Ruth Singer published the results of her research project for Gawthorp Textiles Collection, entitled Textiles in Lockdown. The research uncovered that 75 percent of respondents who identified as "hobby makers" had gotten into textile arts for "well-being, relaxation, creative expression" during the pandemic. 30 percent responded that they began because they finally just "had more time." Another 30 percent shared that they made PPE for frontline workers.
Artist Sophie MacNeil, who contributed to Singer’s project, agrees that working with a needle and thread has been beneficial to her well-being. "I think we all have innate desires to make things with our hands," she says. "I first started stitching as a way to keep my hands busy during a very stressful time in my life when I was constantly turning to my phone for distraction. Embroidery curbed my phone-addiction and reacquainted me with the art of slowing down and being present. I find it meditative, relaxing, and so rewarding when I finish a piece."
Artist Fenny Suter, who is known for her ocean-scapes and tropical themes, echoes MacNeil's sentiments. "Sometimes I can get lost in stitching the tiny details," she says.
How do we define embroidery? Suter defines the practice as "utilizing a needle and thread/yarn/fibers to embellish or create an image." An inherently aesthetic and creative act, embroidery is also easy to get into. Suter believes this contributes to its appeal. "It’s accessible and versatile. All you need to get started is a needle and some thread. You don't even need fabric. You can stitch on paper, clothing, or other objects," she says.
Kate Ward, the founder of Zen Stitching, considers stitching to be "active meditation," citing that the repetitive movements of stitching are soothing and calming to our central nervous system. Ward leads online stitching courses for beginners and advanced stitchers, often focusing on a style called "sashiko."
"I love [sashiko] because it combines the simplicity of a running stitch with complex patterns, which makes the process absolutely captivating," Ward explains. "Not only is the act soothing, but there's also the delight of having created something using our own hands."
The common theme amongst all of the artists: an appreciation for a feeling of connection to their hands, which embroidery seems to induce. This experience, too, is consistent with mindfulness. Body-awareness is a key tenet of mindful practice.
How To Get Started With Embroidery
MacNeil offers a simple piece of advice for those looking to get started. “Don't overthink it," she says. "I had no idea how to embroider and am hopeless at following instructions, but I learned by trial and error and experimenting. I still don't know any ‘proper’ embroidery stitches, but that's never stopped me. I started with a hoop, scrap fabric, an old needle, and a few skeins of thread. Embroidery is so versatile. I learned quickly that I preferred working with a single strand to get more detail, but everyone has different preferences. And remember there are many different types of needles and fabric, so play around until you find the right fit."
Suter shares the same line of thought. "The first few pieces might look wonky, but your skills will improve with time and practice," she explains. "If you don't know where to start, there are a plethora of Etsy sellers who sell kits or patterns. If you see an artist on Instagram or Pinterest whose work you admire, check out their website for patterns or tutorials. But, please don't copy their work or try to create something exactly the same. Try drawing something you love and embroidering it."
In Ruth Singer’s reflections on her research, she writes about the feelings of achievement and control that finishing a textile project brings and how that is especially important when everything else in our lives feels out of control. These words seem succinct and truthful. We all need a little help in inhabiting the here-and-now. Embroidery may just be the creative approach to meditation you need.