Working With Your Hands Can Heighten Your Mood


One more tool to consider putting in your coping-with-depression toolbox is the concept of doing meaningful activity with your hands. What that meaningful work might be will depend on individual interests, but whatever the activity our bodies are wired to reward us for the effort. Researcher Dr. Kelly Lambert of Randolph-Macon College calls this phenomenon “effort-driven-rewards.”

Our reward for working with our hands is a rush of feel-good neurotransmitters into the brain. A release of our body’s natural antidepressants, such as serotonin and dopamine, is triggered when we engage manually with the material world. This is especially true of “food, clothing, and shelter” activities such as sewing, knitting, remodeling the kitchen, gardening, decorating, or cutting up veggies for dinner.

The Untouchable Virtual World

In a world where many things have become virtual, it may be that we need to make an effort to keep crafts and DIY (do it yourself) projects in our lives. They allow us to experience the deep pleasure and satisfaction that humans feel when their time and effort results in something tangible.

A neighbor, Sandy, is a graphic artist. When she started her career, graphic arts was a hands-on skill that required an artistic eye and also the manual ability to get ideas conveyed on paper or another medium. “One day a computer was dropped onto my drawing table and I was told my work would be done on it from then on," Sandy said.

“They weren’t kidding. The transition was like lightening. Within weeks my beloved graphic tools were collecting dust on a shelf. Now, I love working on computers, but something lovely was lost when we stopped working with paper, ink, and glue. I used to get a deep, visceral satisfaction from my work and that disappeared with the computer.”

DIY for Depression

Aside from the idea that using elbow grease triggers the release of chemicals such as serotonin, there are at least five other reasons that manual skills, crafts, or DIY projects may help alleviate depression.

  1. It gives you something to focus and concentrate on, disrupting depressive circular thinking.
  2. When people ask what’s going on in your life, you will have something besides work, symptoms, or the weather to share with them.
  3. At different points in your activity you will have to make decisions or problem solve; doing both helps us feel confident and competent.
  4. You can use the project to practice mindfulness, keeping your awareness in the moment and your attention on the task at hand. Mindfulness is a powerful antidote for negative thinking and anxiety.
  5. If you do not know other people who enjoy the same activity you do, you can always find people or groups online ready to support your interests and share expertise.

Anyone who has cooked scrambled eggs for the first time, or made a clay dish that their dad used to hold his change and car keys, knows the good feeling behind pointing and saying, “I did that.” By purposely tapping into this maybe we can help ourselves feel better and enjoy life a little more.

Photo by John Nyboer


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