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When Managing Anxiety Starts With Your Hands

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I learned how to knit when I was 12 years old. A family friend brought over a ball of yarn and some needles as a gift, and I went wild. I learned knitting and purling in alternate rows made the stockinette stitch. I even learned how to rib. Eventually, I moved on from “flat projects” and taught myself to make hats. At that point, I hadn’t yet labeled my constant need for control over the shifting elements in my life as anxiety. But regardless, knitting provided me with a productive way to relax. I would sit back, churn out stitch after stitch and somehow make it to the next day. 

When I moved across the country for college, I was unprepared for the transition. Thrust into a group of strangers in uncharted territory, I began to view the world around me as hostile. I felt stifled, in the sense that no amount of crying or rationalizing could take away the pain of this unwelcome adjustment. I blamed this onset of depression on my parents’ divorce, but really I just felt out of control in the new environment that college presented. I couldn’t mold myself into the simple, happy version of my personality I felt would be desirable to others. I couldn’t force others to understand my condition as anything different than self-centered, dramatic behavior. My anxiety welled up as the winter months of my freshman year approached.

Knitting was the only defense I had. 

When I knit, my main objective is to indulge in the repetitive motions, knowing they will eventually produce something complete and beautiful. It’s a simple interaction between my hands, the knitting needles and the yarn, and this allows my mind to tune out. Knitting becomes more and more therapeutic over time. When you’re first learning, it takes a lot of patience and perseverance until your muscles memorize the motions and everything clicks. Whether I’m watching television, on the train or talking to a friend, I can knit and know the anxious tension in my hands will be accounted for.

I’ve taught many people to knit over the years and now that my company AK Kerani is formally holding workshops for this purpose, I’m excited for the challenge. Teaching someone to navigate the first few loops can be a struggle, but my favorite part is to step back and watch as their rows progress. Even if it’s shaky, watching a new knitter set out on their first journey reminds me how flexible the human brain is and how it yearns for creative ways to implement energy. 

I grew up a serious musician and runner, turning to both activities every day for solace. I still use songwriting and running as ways to release my anxious tension into something productive. However, knitting has that extra element of producing a tangible substance that can be felt and worn. I can remember the less than healthy state I might have been in when I made a given infinity scarf, but if I wear it with pride in the days that follow, I’m proudly representing my ability to overcome. 

My journey with knitting has been somewhat unexpected in terms of its importance in my daily life. I always thought I’d be a writer, a musician or even a business person generally involved with the media.  I never expected I would base my entrepreneurial dreams around knitting. But I’m glad I have. Knitting is a personal creative outlet for me and it’s the main activity I look forward to engaging in at the end of a long day. Moreover, it gives me a tangible way to advocate for my mental health and those of others. I’ve learned people are interested in their mental health and ways they can maintain it. Curiosity is the beginning of a universal fight against stigma that we can perpetuate by offering solutions to daily anxiety, as well as the negative energy that can overtake us during the rougher times.

I believe creative outlets in general are a large part of pursuing a healthy mindset. If you work on creating something every day, you may not always reach your ideal mental state, but you did accomplish something. The little victories towards our mental health we make each day serve to fight the overall feeling of hopelessness that depression and anxiety rely on to grow. I am not finished fighting to understand and defeat my anxiety. And as I struggle with being physically far from those I love, losing friends who are near and maintaining the high level of energy I need to stride through my day, I often do feel thoughts of helplessness beginning to well up.

But equipped with my knitting, I know I will continue to get closer to my goals and more aware of my limits, if I simply allow myself to progress one stitch at a time.

Originally published: March 2, 2016
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