When You Have Anxiety, the Maker Lifestyle is More Than Just a Hobby -- It's a Form of Survival.
I recently found myself staging my bathroom for a bathtub shelf built out of reclaimed lumber. It was the magic hour. As I poured some wine in a glass, a bath bomb fizzled, and a few drops of blue food coloring gave the water an enticing, lagoon-like effect.
Or so I thought. As soon as I was done snapping away, I ran downstairs to feed my son. By the time he was settled and my husband took over, I had absolutely no desire to utilize my ready-made bathscape.
So I pulled the plug.
Oh, the symbolism of that moment.
If you’re like me and the other 33% of women on this planet who deal with anxiety, you know how hard it is to relax. Most of the time you feel like your own worst enemy, because deep down, you know what you should be doing to feel better, but you can’t seem to find the motivation to do it.
While I must say Zoloft has done wonders, isn’t doesn’t stop there. There’s another special therapy in my life that has been extremely helpful for getting out of my head.
My treatment plan goes something like this:
When I feel terrible -- I make.
When I’m overwhelmed -- I make.
When I feel restless -- I make.
When I feel like running away from life -- I make.
No matter how bad I feel, I can usually muster up the energy to do something DIY-related.
This is how I know that a DIY-driven life is more than just a hobby.
Whether you make soap, build furniture, or shape clay, creative work is a refuge. Even if you’re just dabbling in something, you’ve probably experienced its freedom. Freedom to breathe and think without someone yelling at you to “just breathe” (completely useless adage, by the way).
I can think of at least 15 different life hacks for anxiety based on my DIY background. If you’re struggling to find ways to cope, consider these benefits as you work to design a better life for yourself.
Anxiety Hack #1: Solitude is Not the Enemy
Who hasn’t woken up in the middle of the night feeling like your brain won’t shut off? Racing thoughts are a common side effect of the stress response produced by our bodies when we feel anxious. Every night I listen to guided meditation videos and huff lavender like it’s going out of style – doesn’t work. I still have insomnia.
My bedroom smells nice, though…
When I’m in full-on creative mode, it’s a different story. My tunnel vision takes over. I no longer have 1500 competing thoughts running through my brain.
Surprisingly, I have no trouble spending 4, 5, 6 hours doing nothing but working on a woodworking project. Sometimes I have to remind myself to eat because it gets pretty intense! It’s strange, because with most other activities I have shiny object syndrome.
Takeaway: find what gets you “in the zone,” and go there as often as possible. Designate an area in your house where you can go and do you work with zero distractions.
Anxiety Hack #2: Destroy Stuff on Purpose
One of the most common symptoms of depression (yeah, I have that too) is not sadness, but anger.
On my worst days, I see red. I’ll be running on a treadmill and all I want to do is put my fist through a wall.
Truth: in the DIY realm, you can take out your frustrations on nails, screws, and stubborn pieces of wood nobody cares about.
Everyone wants the “aged” look (i.e. Restoration Hardware, Pottery Barn), in their homes. So when I’m feeling especially upset, I’ll take a piece of fresh pine and bang the crap out of it until it looks like it’s been through the ringer.
Sanding is another great de-stresser. You can sand until your knuckles bleed and your project will look astounding.
Takeaway: try intentionally destroying something in your creative process the next time you need to blow off some steam. It’s cheaper than throwing something at your husband’s head.
Anxiety Hack #3: Hone Your Problem Solving Skills
When we’re anxious or depressed, we tend to be hard on ourselves. Creative endeavors reverse these feelings by instilling confidence and boosting our self-esteem.
Take sewing instructions, for example. As you’re following the list of steps you experience a small victory every time your project looks correct at a certain stopping point. If you’re anything like me, your machine is going to jam and prevent forward progress.
Because you’re internally motivated to complete your project, you’ll be more likely to troubleshoot the issue. Then you’ll feel like a Rockstar when you finally solve the problem.
Takeaway: give yourself grace when you’re experiencing a failure. Approach each obstacle like you would a set of pattern instructions or building plans – go slowly and take it one step at a time. Reward small victories.
Anxiety Hack #4: Focus on the Things You Can Control
Much like our brain chemistry, it’s easy to feel out of control with respect to our government, tragic current events, global warming, natural disasters…the list goes on.
Rather than feel paralyzed by these factors, you can focus on endeavors within your control. Stephen Covey would call this our "circle of influence." DIY endeavors are a good example.
For example, a relative of mine recently had a miscarriage. Her way of handling the sadness was to clean and set up her Christmas decorations. Just a simple effort to transform her space was enough to distract her from what was going on.
This had a huge impact on her mood. Even though she was still grieving, there was a glimmer of something positive. She had taken control over a situation with a definitive negative outcome.
Takeaway: when you experience loss, don't think about what's done but what you can still do.
Anxiety Hack #5: Wine is Delicious but Flawed
When I feel sad or anxious I look for anything that will help me cope, including wine. Well, this obviously isn’t the healthiest choice because it can lead to dependency over time. Not to mention all those empty calories… total bummer!
What I’ve started doing recently is hacking my brain’s internal reward system. My OCD desire to complete a project (and total rush of gratification) is stronger than my craving for alcohol at the end of the day.
Whenever possible, I’ll redirect my focus from wine to whatever project I’m working on.
Pulling out nails, using a handsaw, holding an 8-foot sheet of plywood as I’m running it through my table saw – all of these activities require exertion and are much healthier than lying on the couch sipping wine.
Once a bottle of wine is gone and the buzz wears off, you’re going to feel crappy again. But with a project, you’re going to feel better because you’ll be (hopefully) left with a beautiful end product.
Takeaway: bolster your health and your pocket book by utilizing project productivity as a coping mechanism.
Anxiety Hack #6: Leverage Your Insomnia
Insomnia is the calling card of anxiety. Having a project to work on at 4am is a great way to work through some of the thoughts keeping you awake.
Also, when you burn calories working on a project during the day, you have an easier time falling asleep (and staying asleep) at night.
Takeaway: wide awake at 2am? Get out of bed and plan your next project. The mental workout will fatigue you, and you’ll feel ready to attack your plans the next day.
Anxiety Hack #7: Incorporate Balanced Aesthetics
How many times have you walked past a room in your house and cringed? Maybe it was dark and depressing, or maybe it was full of moving boxes.
This type of situation really, really stresses me out.
BUT, as someone who builds furniture and DIY home decor, I have the ability to design and streamline my space. I can organize my office papers with shelving inserts. I can add architectural details that make a bedroom look like a catalog spread. I can turn a dreary, dysfunctional office into a cheery, functional space.
Takeaway: leverage your DIY skills to design better systems, flow, and organization in your life.
Anxiety Hack#8: Embrace the Details
Anxiety makes me apathetic. I don’t care if the bed is made. I don’t care that my toothpaste is oozing onto the bathroom counter. When I’m really feeling bad, I don’t even care if I’ve showered that day.
But as a builder, that 1/8 of an inch matters. Skipping the sanding process matters. Not having things square matters. Following the wrong order of operations matters.
When I’m in maker mode, you can be damn sure I’m paying attention to those little details. One mistake can set me back an entire day. I can’t be entirely sure, but I think focusing on my steps and having a greater sense of awareness has curbed some of the apathy that comes with having an anxiety disorder.
Takeaway: apply the same intensity and focus for small details in your projects to self care.
Anxiety Hack #9: Go Ahead and Get Weird
There’s nothing like making a one-of-a-kind piece that costs a fraction of what you’d pay in the store. Just like that object, as a maker you start to grasp a better understanding of your own uniqueness.
Don't waste your time worrying about what everyone else is doing. Even if it means dancing around the room with a screwdriver or making jokes about being a stripper.
Takeaway: everyone brings a unique set of experiences to the table. You be you.
Anxiety Hack #10: Seek Independence and Empowerment
At its worst, anxiety can exhaust you to the point where you’re sleeping 16 hours a day. You feel dependent on others around you because you can’t attend to normal responsibilities as quickly and efficiently.
Honing your skills as a handywoman DIYer will enable you to save money on professional painters, appliance handymen, and the like. It’s a chance to regain self-sufficiency.
Personally, this has been a huge boost to my morale. I recently saved our family $120 by just rolling up my sleeves and investigating a nasty smell coming from the back of our fridge (answer: the drip pan was covered in mold! bleh.).
Takeaway: knowledge is power, especially when that knowledge applies to tools and equipment used on a daily basis.
Anxiety Hack #11: Be Kind to The Earth
Most people today have a throw-away mentality. If it’s broken, they throw it away.
Crafty people, on the other hand, know how to be resourceful. We reuse and repurpose everything, to the point of becoming pack rats. The less you have to spend on materials, the less waste sitting in a landfill somewhere. This makes you feel pretty good about your contribution to Mother Earth!
I recently scored several planks of FREE lumber from a lumber supplier looking to get rid of some old wet barn wood that had been sitting in a pile. The shelf I made from those materials would easily sell for $150 on Etsy.
Takeaway: if you’re worried about sinking a lot of money into a creative hobby, know that as you gain experience you will become resourceful about sourcing your materials. Plus, the more handy you become, the less likely something gets thrown away because it’s broken.
Anxiety Hack #12: Volunteer Your Talents Generously
Tangible creations are priceless.
If you’re a knitter, you can make baby clothes for a local hospital. You can sew blankets for a women’s shelter. You can make wood crafts for your kid’s Christmas bazaar and donate a portion of the profits.
If you have a Mom friend who needs something done around her house, you can donate your skills in exchange for wine (okay, I didn’t just pull that one out of thin air).
The possibilities are endless!
Takeaway: when you donate your DIY skills, you exponentially increase the number of people who benefit from your efforts and you feel awesome, too.
Anxiety Hack#13: Be Patient With Yourself
Failure is hard whether you have anxiety or not. But when you’re in the DIY-space, mistakes are common and expected. When mistakes pertain to something you care about, you’ll be quick to fix them and less likely to dwell on what you did wrong.
It’s pretty rare for a project to go off without a hitch. It’s why the show Renovation Realities (where non-contractor types DIY their home renovations) is so entertaining. If you don’t believe me, check it out some time. Be sure to grab popcorn.
Takeaway: DIY projects help you learn how to roll with the punches. The sooner you get used to not having all the answers right away, the better off you’ll be.
Benefit #14: Unproductive Jobs Can Still be Productive
Some days we want to really crush it. Other days, we are content doing something purely mindless to distract us from life. Candy Crush, anyone?
There are plenty of ways to lose yourself in the DIY space. Painting, for example, is one of those necessary evils in DIY home decor. Sometimes it feels tedious, but other times it’s a welcome escape from the pressures of making everyone else happy.
Takeaway: throw on some 90’s jams, grab a bag of Cheetos, and get jiggy with it. Regardless of what you’re doing, you’re getting a beautiful end product. And if you need ideas, check out some of my Top Shelf DIY crafts and project tutorials.
Anxiety Hack #15: Pursue the Things That Make You Feel Alive (except maybe elicit drugs...)
Anxiety makes me dread getting out of bed in the morning.
The exception to this is when I’ve been waiting for something to dry in my workshop overnight. I’ll be working in my underwear (garage doors closed) because I can't be bothered with the work of dressing.
Takeaway: figure out what makes you want to jump out of bed every morning, and then make space for this activity in your life. You could be making houses out of popsicle sticks for all we care!
DIY projects are the secret sauce of life. You don’t have to be hard core to reap the benefits.
Anxiety is an under-examined problem even though it’s a byproduct of our fast-paced, mass-produced, culture of consumption. I challenge you to take a step back from the assembly line and find a passion project to call your own.
DIY therapy has changed my life, and I strongly believe it has the power to change yours.
PS - I’d love to hear how others have dealt with their anxiety through their DIY endeavors. Does it help or stress you out even more? Please share in the comment box below!