Rest & Digest: HOW SEWING HELPS US COPE WITH STRESS AND AMBIGUITY

The news seems to be constantly filled with talk of anxiety and overwhelm and uncertainty.  I think I’ve learned more about the fight or flight (or freeze) response in the past six months than I’d ever known in my entire life.

It’s useful information.  It’s good to learn to recognize my own feelings and see that maybe, what’s happening right this second DOESN’T need me to ACT right this second, maybe I’m having an understandable response to the world around me that’s telling me, via my lizard brain, that I need to RUN to be safe, or DEFEND MYSELF, or that if I stay very, very STILL, I can protect the people I love from whatever is Out There.

It’s also exhausting to constantly analyze our own thoughts and emotions.  We’re all–the WHOLE WORLD–pretty worn out.

So you can imagine how relieved and delighted I was to discover the idea of

Quick refresher from high school biology: our brains have two settings, controlled by the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous systems.  The sympathetic nervous system runs on “fight or flight,” and activates our heart rate, our blood pressure, our breathing in the event of danger or threat, to get us the heck outta Dodge when the circumstances demand.

And thank goodness, because there are times when we need that, badly.  The worrisome part comes when we’ve been “activated” for too long, when our bodies are flooded with those commands and need a break.

You know, like in the middle of a pandemic during an election year when schools may or may not go back/stay back and we’re all confronting social justice issues while trying to work from home.  Like that.

After all that stress, the body needs a way to RECOVER EQUILIBRIUM and heal the physical and emotional effects of cortisol on the brain.

This is where the parasympathetic nervous system comes in.  This flip-side of the sympathetic nervous system UNDOES all the other reactions: it lowers blood pressure, it helps us digest food so we can get nourishment, it allows us to sleep and to eliminate waste.  This is a cleansing setting, one that takes all the leftover gook from the stress response and sweeps it away from our brains and our bodies in order for us to function better, to be the best version of ourselves.

We have to SPEND TIME in the rest-and-digest mode in order to learn the difference between stress and not-stress.  It’s an exercise that’s essential, where the more often we can TURN OFF the sympathetic nervous system, the more often we can CHOOSE to flip that switch ON PURPOSE.  By training ourselves to understand when our fight-or-flight has been activated, the shorter and less intense our stress reactions become, and the faster we move the waste products out of our brains and bodies.

Sewing does ALL THAT for me.

When I sew a quilt or a garment, I can allow myself to turn off the worry for a while, to find a flow state where my brain is focused on what’s in front of me without the rest of the world creeping in.  One of the things I’ve always LOVED about sewing is that YOU CAN’T HIDE YOUR FEELINGS AT THE MACHINE.  They show up as rushed stitches, the same mistake three times in a row, upside-down pattern pieces.  We are forced, as we sew, to SLOW DOWN, to take deep breaths, to narrow our focus in a way that gets us better results–and also heals our brains from the effects of stress.

Turns out sewing really does activate our parasympathetic nervous system and give us a place to put worry on the back burner, to wait out those adrenaline rushes, to digest information and extract nutrients from it, to slough off the unnecessary and keep only what nourishes us.

Sewing is a rest and a respite, and that’s not just me saying it: that’s SCIENCE.  The more we practice entering our sewing space, the more we can access it quickly and easily when stress inevitably arises.  Every time we sew, we are training our brains to identify the difference between safe and not safe, and learning how to renew our minds to face the next challenge when it comes.

Free sewing pattern:

Prayer & Meditation Cushion

There are definitely times when I’ve felt too keyed up to even sew, like I’m so disoriented or frustrated or unsure that I can’t even seem to START a project.  I’ve discovered that intentional breathing helps, and that having a PLACE TO DO IT makes it 100% more likely that I actually will remember AND take action.

I designed this Prayer & Meditation Cushion a few years ago and sold the pattern on Craftsy.  It’s now available as a FREE DOWNLOAD from the League of Dressmakers.  It sews up quickly, has a clamshell design that avoids pressure on ankles or hips, and I’ve filled mine with a mix of nutshells and lavender that smells amazing.

Download a copy of the pattern here.

This post previously appeared as part of an email sent exclusively to newsletter subscribers, who are always the first to know about the launch of a new Murder Mystery Quilt, updates to the catalog at the League of Dressmakers video library, and treats + freebies from the Whipstitch studio. You can sign up using the form in the sidebar!

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1 Comment

  • Reply
    Debra
    September 24, 2020 at 9:28 am

    I feel you; what is interesting is that my husband and I just had this discussion two nights ago, following our first tone-of-voice argument in ten years. Following our outbursts, he said, “Baby, we’ve got to give our souls a break.” Bingo! — back in high school biology, discussing the nervous system. Education matters. I sew partly for stability; he builds or improves things to steady himself and remain serene in his strength. So … I wish I had read this two days earlier! I’ll sign up for our newsletter; thank you.

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