Playing with Lego can stop you from being a mental time traveller

Bec Ordish runs a charity in Nepal and to handle her stress she puts together Lego sets, either with some of the 150 children she cares for or just by herself.

For Ordish, Lego was incredibly calming. “It gave me a sense of being able to control something, clear my mind, refill my emotional bucket.”

The Lego Titanic set Bec Ordish put together.

There’s an old saying that “many hands make light work.” However, it seems that working with your hands can also relieve stress and reduce feelings of anxiety. This is especially true when your activities involve a repetitive action, contributing to a sense of mindfulness. And these activities are proven to boost wellbeing and health, and lower stress.

“Since our time in isolation, many people have found their way back to basics and making use of their hands…whether this be planting a vegetable garden, baking from scratch, being creative with art and craft activities like, knitting, jewellery making or clay,” Brisbane clinical psychotherapist Natajsa Wagner says.

“Doing mindful activities with our hands requires a rhythm and repetition that requires both our physical and cognitive skills, especially if we are creating something.”

Wagner says repetitive activities, like drumming, colouring, and sewing, provide important sensory input. “They can calm our lower brain system and help regulate our emotions and decrease stress,” she says.

Ordish did this when life became very hectic, splitting her time between running a charity in Nepal that provides education and training initiatives primarily for girls and women, looking after her parents in Bathurst, and juggling family commitments in Adelaide and Sydney.

The 47-year-old chose Lego as her go-to mindfulness stress buster. This was something she could do alone, or alongside the 150 children she cared for with her charity.

Recently, she finished building the Sydney Opera House. Before that, it was the Titanic using a whopping 9,040 Lego pieces.

“Lego allows me to use my hands and feel connected to the pieces and get out of my head,” says Ordish.

According to Dr Jo Lukins, a psychology consultant, using our hands can create mindfulness by keeping us “grounded in the moment,” which then quietens the chatter in our minds.

“By doing, we busy ourselves and burn up some of the physiological energy that comes about from worry… Being busy with our hands momentarily takes us away from the stressor,” she says.

Content writer, Kate Reynolds, who suffers from anxiety, started weaving wall hangings during the lockdowns.

“I find it really hard to relax and do nothing and lockdown really amplified that feeling,” says Reynolds, 32. “I think the anxiety is part of why I find it hard to relax… I always like to feel like I’m doing something.

“While I’m weaving, I love the meditation-like quality that comes from repeating the same movement… Once I’ve finished, I feel a real sense of joy and accomplishment.”

“As humans, physically we can only ever be in the moment. Mentally we’re time travellers, so we can take ourselves back to something that happened earlier today or 10 years ago.”

Reynolds says that while weaving hasn’t solved all her stresses, during the pandemic it proved a great mindfulness tool. With the pandemic easing, she says, “I will still bring the yarn out some evenings and weave because it’s relaxing and enjoyable.”

When Georgie Spencer, 36, from Melbourne, suffered from post-natal depression after her first child, she turned to knitting for solace after a friend suggested she find an activity that was repetitive.

“It helped immediately,” says Spencer. “There are only two main stitches in knitting, so I find the repetitive motion to be very relaxing and helps me practice mindfulness.

“I found knitting definitely gave me something to focus on…which helped me to manage when there were negative thoughts that I was struggling with.”

One study showed not only does knitting lower blood pressure, but also induces a relaxation response that causes the heart rate to lower on average by 11 beats per minute.

Now with her second child, Spencer continues to make time to knit regularly. “I use knitting as a way to slow everything down, just for a little while,” she says.

For Ala Paredes, 39, from Sydney, embroidery helped relieve stress during lockdown with a newborn.

“Due to lockdown, my social media usage skyrocketed. I felt such a disconnect from the outside world. I loved embroidery because it was the antidote to my digital life. It was tactile, sensory, something that made my hands and mind focus,” says Paredes.

“When I embroider my thoughts are free to come and go while the needle and thread tether me to the present.”

For those looking to adopt a similar mindful practice, Wagner says to experiment to see what works best for you and make it something you enjoy. It shouldn’t add to your stress. Dr Lukins agrees, saying to do it regularly to feel the benefit.

“As humans, physically we can only ever be in the moment. Mentally we’re time travellers, so we can take ourselves back to something that happened earlier today or 10 years ago. We can take ourselves forward in our minds,” Dr Lukins says. “So, the reason that using your hands helps to keep you grounded is that your hands are only ever in the present in that moment.”

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