How to stay positive, creative & productive when you have physical or mental health issues
We often hear about the positive effect craft can have on physical, mental and emotional wellbeing and how the practice of making and creating can enhance the quality of people’s lives. What’s less talked about is the difficulties that people with mental or physical health conditions can experience when crafting, and the consequences this can have on their lives, particularly when their creative outlet is also their business and main source of income. If craft makes you feel better – and you rely not just on its benefits to your health and wellbeing but also the financial security it brings – how do you cope when you can’t do it?
Marilyn Long is the maker and jeweller behind Gema Inspirations. She is also bi-polar and has dyspraxia, and over the last decade these conditions have caused her to rethink the way she works and develop strategies that help her handle shifts in her mood and dexterity. In this article, Marilyn shares some of the tips that have worked for her and the techniques that have enabled her to keep designing and making.
We’d love to hear your experiences too. How does making affect your mental and physical health issues and vice versa? Let us know in the comments.
Tips for crafting with health issues
By Marilyn Long from Gema Inspirations
Recent studies have shown that engaging with arts and crafts has encouraging health benefits, and physical and psychiatric Occupational Therapy has been used since the 1930s. Gentle hand movement may help ease stiff arthritic joints; mild to moderate depression, anxiety or lack of motivation may be helped by being creatively occupied; and negative self-esteem may be bolstered by adding a focus to your day.
On the flip side, physical and mental health difficulties can cause frustration just doing everyday tasks. Crafting projects that don’t run smoothly – and let’s face it, many don’t – can result in frustration escalation! So if crafting has such potentially extreme health outcomes what’s the point if you risk end up feeling worse? In this article I’m going to talk about the changes I’ve made in my work that may work for you.
Make a work space that suits you and your health issues and needs
Photographs of ‘ideal’ work spaces may look fantastic – and tempting – but may prove detrimental to your work by not adapting to your personal needs. For example, I need a comfortable, safe space with everything nearby but quick to clear away. When my health nosedives, I don’t want to be reminded of what I can’t do.
In short: go for comfort and convenience that works for you
Don’t be afraid to change direction
Health – good and bad – can be fickle. A new condition, a flare-up or an ongoing problem can sap your energy, demotivate, or depress you, diminishing your ability to craft. For me, problems with my hands brought frustration and the fear of sinking back into depression. I could still work machines so I decided to design bags. This was creative, enjoyable and doable.
In short: consider your other creative skills – you may be very pleasantly surprised
Use your strengths and embrace your limitations
Physical and psychological limitations and an inability to do what you love can cause further problems. You may not even be able to recognise that you have other strengths. Ask other people what stands out in your work to them. For instance, my dyspraxia makes following instructions extremely difficult, so I turn that into a positive by freeing my creativity to reinterpret new ideas rather than working to patterns created by other people.
In short: believe in happenstance, trust your instincts, listen to others and exploit your strengths to make your creations stand out
Health changes may mean new challenges, perhaps lost dexterity or increased fatigue. Consider whether smaller, lighter projects would be more manageable. In my case, my early projects included small components but as I developed co-ordination difficulties I began to design with leather, ribbon, larger beads and magnetic or toggle fasteners which were all easier to handle.
In short: explore options that could prove more doable
The right tools can really help you make and create when you have health issues – and more expensive doesn’t necessarily mean better. I try not to be swayed by persuasive advertising. What I buy must work for me.
My ‘great buys’ jewellery tools include:
- ‘helping hands’ clamp
- flexi-clip end stops
- jump-ring tool
- sticky jewel setter
My must haves are:
- flexi-neck table lamp with magnifier
- folding table and lap-tray
- tablet / books / magazines for research
In short: research what’s available for your craft and think about other options before buying specialist items
It’s easy to be disorganised when you spend your ‘well days’ being actively creative. It’s probably the best part of those days.
But getting organised will help immeasurably when you’re ready for a new project. You may even find things you’d forgotten. Things that help me are:
- colour coded storage
- measurements on beading mats
- bags for different fabrics
- and lots and lots of labelling
In short: take time to organise to save time
Troubleshoot in more than one place
Crafting is not free from problems and it’s easy to think the fault is yours. When a solution for softening unusable FIMO didn’t work I believed the fault was mine, so I bought a new batch. When that too became unworkable I started to research why and look for alternative fixes. I learned FIMO become malleable with water not oil. It was the advice that had been wrong and not me.
In short: be confident – if a ‘solution’ doesn’t work it may be the solution that’s wrong
When your health has highs and lows or your memory is poor, then keeping notes is vital for keeping track of your progress, projects and your creative business. I usually have several projects on the go at one time, so keeping notes is a must for me. Although I use a computer, I am not paper-free and find the following useful:
- wallets for ideas and inspirations (I find ‘moodboards’ unworkable)
- notebooks to record processes, especially those that work well
- records of purchases and suppliers – useful for reordering or finding suppliers you like dealing with
- financial records if you are selling or plan to sell (if you are not using a computer programme, then it’s a must)
- folder for invoices and receipts (important if you sell)
In short: record everything (purchases, designs, creations, sales) for your business records, but also look back on these when you have dark days to reflect on just how much you’ve achieved
Slow down and enjoy your skills
My key words are play, plan, prepare – and these can work for every activity at all levels.
Playing lets you explore: how certain leathers work together, how fabric textures will interpret your designs.
Planning a process will help plan your time: having been inspired, work out what resources you will need and the time slots necessary for it to be manageable.
Preparation will make the project run more smoothly: source resources and prepare your workspace. It will save time and frustration and that can only be good.
In short: mindfulness can seamlessly co-exist with crafting. Pace yourself and immerse yourself in the enjoyment and exploration of your creative self
The strategies I’ve developed won’t always guarantee success but, enough of the time, the benefits far outweigh any downsides and that is reason aplenty to keep going.
We are all unique. No-one else will have your difficulties or be able to offer solutions that are perfect for you. Over the past 10 years mental and physical health conditions have forced me to change my approach to crafting, developing strategies that work for me. Even those won’t always guarantee success but enough of the time the benefits far outweigh any downsides and that is reason aplenty to keep going.
About the Author
Marilyn Long was born in 1950 in South London. After being forced to abandon her degree in English and Librarianship at Strathclyde University due to serious illness, she married and had two children and then trained as a primary school teacher in 1987. She also gained a research MA on Children’s Poetry in the Victorian Period, but by 2001 she had taken early retirement twice due to recurring illness, with many admissions to hospital. No longer able to work full-time, Marilyn took a part-time job at a Rethink Print Shop, where she learned to design and use Photoshop, and a part-time post in the Patient and Public Involvement Department at an NHS Mental Health Trust. In 2013 she and her husband retired to Snowdonia where they have settled contentedly in a Victorian School surrounded by sheep and have a stock cupboard (above left!) full of craft materials that she uses in her Gema Inspirations shop.