She’s a nurse in Grand Rapids by day. At night, Betty Houtman pulls her needles and ball of yarn from a basket and sits down to knit. She often does so with others in a group she founded, called Knitwell.
Houtman's hands move with a fast and even rhythm, but it’s not just the yarn that’s knitted together. With each stitch, new connections are made in her brain, reducing anxiety, lowering blood pressure, and bringing a sense of well- being.
“My medical background is in health care, mostly pediatrics,” Houtman says. “I’m a registered nurse and I’ve primarily worked in neuro- developmental pediatrics, which is children with brain injuries, spinal cord injuries, stroke, and other types of neurological diversity. And I’ve also worked with adults.”
While working with her patients, Houtman became fascinated with the concept of neuro-plasticity and the ability of the brain to rewire itself. She says the brain can create new pathways when we are exposed to novel experiences or learn a new task. Repetition of those new tasks can strengthen those new pathways - repetition like the act of knitting.
Houtman learned to knit and crochet from her grandmother. She strengthened her skills in 4H and has been knitting and crocheting ever since. Working as a nurse, she thought about how to combine her two passions and eventually created Knitwell to teach others how to knit in private or group lessons, or simply to gather together and knit in a group.
Houtman says there are several reasons why knitting makes you feel better.
“Many of us use repetitive movement like pacing or rocking or tapping to calm ourselves when we are stressed or traumatized, and there are many stories about people who've replaced an anxiety crutch with knitting or crochet. Another way it helps is that, with anxiety, people feel exposed when they are in a public place. The act of knitting and holding the hands together in front of the body creates this sensation of a bubble of personal space and comfort around you.”
Houtman says she used these techniques when she became a patient herself recently. She would knit while waiting in the examination room, or, when she didn’t have her knitting needles with her, she visualizing her hands creating a neat row of stitches in her mind while awaiting a medical procedure.
Houtman also says knitting has the added benefit of releasing serotonin in the brain, which improves mood and brings a sense of calmness. It can also reduce blood levels of the "stress hormone" cortisol.
To contact Houtman about private lessons or to join a knitting/crocheting group, visit her website.
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