When I first started university, I was very laid back. I had a plan for life, secondary school was easy, I was making friends and generally enjoying myself. I had no reason to be anything but chill. But as plans changed and adult life began to rear its head, I found that I was experiencing new kinds of stress that my body didn’t know how to manage. I started to feel very anxious very often – for me this manifested in skittishness, sensitivity and overthinking, and included a raised heart rate and restlessness more often than was comfortable. I had my first (official) panic attack while on holiday, just over a year after coming to St Andrews.
This led me to the realisation that I couldn’t just continue to put myself in stressful situations, panic about them and rely on recovering later. I made a lot of changes: I switched degrees to something I enjoyed rather than something I thought looked good; I got out of any unhealthy social encounters; and I invested some of my spare time in activities that I enjoyed but that also pushed my boundaries a little. I learned that I personally need multiple things going on in my life, so that if one thing I do isn’t going perfectly, I don’t place all of my self-worth on my ability to make that one thing better.
I do still get anxious, particularly if I’ve taken too much on (getting the balance between too much and not enough is probably the hardest part). One thing that I’ve found exacerbates anxious feelings when I have them is too much time in front of a screen. So much of what I do (writing for uni, emails, Facebook advertising) takes place via my laptop and phone, so trying to relax with those often leads me to stress about all the work I’m not doing at that current moment. And watching TV or playing games are legitimate hobbies of mine, but too much in one go or late at night definitely affects my mood and ability to sleep – ergo more time to worry about all the work I’m not doing.
This has led me to search for some hobbies that don’t involve loads of time on a computer that I can mix in with all my computer-based activities to take the pressure off my relationship with the web (and my eyes). I got a Kindle (no backlight) and got back into reading, and I enjoy baking but I’m trying to do so sparingly just now mainly because I’m in the house all the time and tend to overeat when there’s anything yummy around. Reading is great but I tend to pass out 15 minutes into a chapter, so I wanted another active pastime that would relax me without sending me to sleep. And this leads me to Flying Tiger’s DIY section.
If you’ve never been to Flying Tiger, it’s worth a visit. They have shops filled with a lot of reasonably useless but also very enticing bits and bobs, from novelty pens to yoga towels. I go in regularly, following their predetermined shopping path (they’ve arranged the displays in such a way that it’s impossible to not walk past everything they sell) while looking at each item in turn. I usually manage to rationalise myself out of buying almost everything, but there’s always something that I feel I suddenly ‘need’ as soon as I set my eyes on it (like this cute miniature snack box that I’m using for nuts, seeds, dried fruit and chocolate).
What I’ve recently realised since becoming interested in DIY crafts and upcycling as a potential non-screen, calming hobby is that Flying Tiger is actually great for materials for home projects too. They sell ribbon of all kinds, paints, cords and wires, glue sticks for glue guns, and even some pre-packed DIY projects for the beginner who’s anxious about delving into things that involve hot glue (me). So the last time I was in, I picked up one of these pre-packed projects (along with a toothbrush holder and matching soap dish, a bucket for my makeup, and a sieve – I’m telling you they have everything). It was a DIY floral bunting set.
The pack comes with ribbon and enough flags to make your own bedroom-friendly sized bunting, as well as a needle and a spool of thread – so literally all you need at home is scissors (or really strong hands?) to cut the thread once you’re done.
With a burst of energy one evening – and a little anxiety brewing – I decided to rip open the DIY pack and put together some lovely bunting for my flat. How relaxing, I thought, an evening quietly sewing with something to show for it at the end.
How wrong I was.
The first obstacle I was struck with was finding the end of the thread. It was wrapped around a cardboard tube, with the end looped through some other parts of the spool to stop it from unravelling. I was instantly two thirds more stressed than I had been before I started. After pulling at it unsuccessfully and cursing for ten minutes, I had to google how to get it out and luckily found the helpful suggestion of tweezers. The thread was free, which led me onto assembly.
The pack had no instructions, which I probably should have noticed in the shop but I was here now and there was a small picture of what it was supposed to look like on the cardboard sleeve so I put a brave face on and got stuck in. I laid out the ribbon and all of the flags to estimate how close they should be to each other, in order to fit them all on without leaving a lot of space at each end. It turned out that what this spacing looked like was worlds away from what it looked like in the small picture on the sleeve – I felt relieved that I’d had the forethought to check rather than just going with the image and ending up with three spare flags at the end. (I also felt worried about how many people had followed the image and encountered this problem.)
I knew that threading the needle was going to be stressful – I’d done it before and remembered that perseverance was necessary. The annoying thing was that I didn’t seem to get any better at it over the course of the project. I also had no idea how to tie off the ends of the thread, and I’d had enough of googling, so I just winged it with mild levels of stress each time I got to the end of a flag.
Despite this craft being a lot more infuriating than I had hoped, I did settle into it quite well and had my own homemade bunting to admire after only an hour. However, the experience was very different to what I had pictured in my head.
I think the weirdest thing for me was realising how uncomfortable I could be by myself without a laptop or phone to cling to. To be honest, I wasn’t getting annoyed at the task when I hit a bump in the road – I was getting annoyed at myself for not being good enough at it. Even once I’d stuck in on the wall, I found myself criticising the placement of stitches (which I know is ridiculous). Self-criticism often comes with any kind of anxiety, and for me it’s something I think I do a lot more than I realise.
So: do calming activities work for anxious people? I think DIY projects for people who get anxious are less of a calming activity and more of an exercise in self-kindness. Little pieces of stress (caused by unreasonable standards you’re holding yourself to) pop up, and you’re forced to deal with them head-on in order to continue your project. And that’s actually a really important thing to experience. I’ll keep making things, and hopefully I’ll learn to be a little more kind to myself in the process.