I gleefully rang in 2021, happy to leave 2020 and its troubles behind. However, the promise of the new year did not bring the end of the pandemic or its pressures. As I write this, I am perched on the precipice of another uncertain school year for my children. The surge in work that the pandemic brought has not ebbed either. For doctors, the pandemic has brought unique pressure to an already intense job. People continue to report feelings of anxiety, depression, and insomnia in greater numbers at my clinic. Delayed care because of the pandemic has created a web of new problems to manage as well. I knew that turning the calendar to 2021 was not going to eliminate the challenges I was facing. Yet, as the days turned dark and cold last winter, I realized I needed to do things differently if I was going to continue to thrive, support my children and husband, and be there for the patients that rely on me. I signed up for a knitting class, seeking a change and trying to carve out some balance between work and life.
There are several established benefits to knitting. The repetitive motion and tactile input to the brain has a proven calming effect; one can liken it to the fidget spinners used to increase alertness and lessen anxiety amongst people with ADHD. Knitting requires concentration. One must count stitches and follow a pattern. The creative focus can provide a needed mental break from work resulting in improved efficiency when one returns to work tasks. Knitting and crocheting have long been used in occupational therapy and can improve function and dexterity after a hand injury. It also has proven therapeutic value for people with osteoarthritis in their hands. I hadn’t considered any of this when I arrived at my first class.
Once my hands got past the clumsy feeling of the unfamiliar motion, I discovered that knitting felt relaxing. I heard similar sentiments expressed by some of the other beginner knitters in my group, none of whom were doctors, but all were feeling stressed by the pandemic. A simple knit stitch is easy to learn, and within a matter of minutes of instruction, one can begin knitting squares and rectangles. I found that with very little practice, I was able to knit stripes and other patterns too. Having something tangible to show for one’s effort is satisfying. In a profession such as family medicine, where there is no visible “product” at the end of a hard day of work, being able to hold something up to show for the effort you put in can be a novel (and exciting) experience.
Busy physicians might think it would be impossible to find time to knit. However, knitting is an extremely portable pastime, which means you can bring your project with you almost everywhere (i.e., the bus stop, children’s music lessons, and sports practices, essentially any time you find yourself waiting). Integrating knitting into the workday might seem unlikely at first. I realized that there were many points in my workday where I was mired in inefficient, time-draining activities I had no control over. Presently, I knit when I am on hold trying to obtain prior authorization or get a peer-to-peer review completed. I have also taken to setting my knitting needles next to my computer. At the end of my office hours, as I pound out the day’s clinical notes, I take a 5-minute break every so often to knit one or two rows on my current project. This mental pause improves my productivity and quickens the pace at which I finish up my charting.
Physician burnout has gained significant national recognition over the past decade. The coming of age of the electronic medical record has created an environment where it is possible to work 24 hours a day, and it can sometimes feel as if patients and employers expect this of us. Medical organizations tout mindfulness and yoga as potential antidotes to burnout and a way to practice wellness. Ultimately it is our responsibility to care for ourselves as we assist our patients. Meditation might be a solution for some but not all of us. Knitting has helped me to manage some of the stress. Self-care, wellness, or the antidote to burnout might be meditation, or it might be knitting, but you also might find something else. And when you do, share it with the rest of us.
Samantha Plasner is a family physician.
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