Justin Mavin took up baking during stay-at-home orders, and now he's hooked.
CNN  — 

Justin Mavin had never baked bread prior to the pandemic. A friend sent him a link in early March with instructions on how to create a sourdough starter, and his first attempt was a success. Now he’s hooked and bakes sourdough bread weekly.

“In Australia, we went into Covid lockdown mid-March, and I had more free time around the house,” said Mavin, a clinical oncology researcher who lives in Sydney, Australia. “I’d heard about sourdough baking and thought, What a great time to test out my baking abilities.”

Whether you’re quarantined at home or taking a break from protesting on the streets, you may have been baking, painting, quilting, knitting, coloring, sculpting or even making limoncello during these stressful times.

If so, you have the right idea. Science backs up people turning to artistic outlets to deal with anxiety, and anxiety levels are understandably high around the world.

Two-thirds of Americans said they felt nervous, depressed, lonely or hopeless on at least one of the past seven days, according to a May Covid Impact Survey by NORC (National Opinion Research Center), a non-partisan research institution at the University of Chicago.

Nearly 70% of adults in the United Kingdom were worried about the effects of the coronavirus in a May poll, according to the UK’s Office for National Statistics.

More than a third of participants in an Italian study have developed post-traumatic stress symptoms due to the pandemic, as cited by the United Nations.

Beating those blues by getting their hands dirty with paints, dirt and dough make sense, experts say.

“One of the best ways to deal with the depressing and demoralizing impact of the constant barrage of bad news is distraction. We are not burying our head in the sand when we engage in activities that take us away from an otherwise distressing situation,” said Tal Ben-Shahar, co-founder of the Happiness Studies Academy, in an email interview. T

Although many people these days are turning to binge-watching to assuage their anxiety, Shahar said the most effective way to relieve stress is to engage in creative activities.

Creating, he said, is when we’re most likely to experience flow — a state described by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, distinguished professor of psychology and management at Claremont Graduate University, where we experience focus, calm and lose track of time and place.

Controlling stress with hands-on activities

Stacey Wilkins of Illinois dusted off her flute in March.

An English teacher who is currently an instructor at TASIS, The American School in England, she was looking for an original way to say happy birthday to a student while in quarantine.

“It just came to me, why not play ‘happy birthday’ to my 12th grade student?” Wilkins explained in an email. “It was quite shocking to me how far my flute-playing skills had fallen. Yet, I felt a flood of great memories.”

After years of not playing, Wilkins found that practicing for 20 to 30 minutes daily has brightened her outlook.

Research has supported her music: Engaging in artistic activities or even observing them can enhance one’s moods and emotions, according to a 2011 study published in the American Journal of Public Health.

Imaginative activities can benefit all ages

In Tania Koolik’s home in Boca Raton, Florida, her three young adult sons have been creating nonstop.

One brought home a hundred pounds of clay to sculpt. The other two have been cooking. Outages of ingredients such as yeast has proved to be motivational and inspired them to experiment and find innovative culinary solutions.

To deal with the “monumental challenges and disruptions to our worlds and daily lives,” try artistic, sensory tasks to manage and reduce anxiety, said Koolik, a clinical psychologist.

Losing oneself in an activity is actually a way to take control, she said. Since you are the creator, you are in charge of the process and the outcome. In a world filled with uncertainty, even minimal amounts of being in the driver’s seat can be calming.

The process of creating allows individuals to work through their emotions, which leads to an increase in self-confidence, self-concept, purpose and resilience, Koolik said.

At least it did for her sons, who reported feeling productive and helpful after focusing on their projects.

“It is not about the final product, but rather about the artistic process,” Koolik explained.

Creativity is a way to lift your spirits

Just 45 minutes of participating in an imaginative activity lowers stress for people, regardless of their experience, according to a 2016 study in Art Therapy: Journal of the American Art Therapy Association.

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So if your stress levels are high and your intuition is leading you to try a new recipe or to start sketching, it’s a good idea to listen to those instincts. Find activities to do solo and with your family. They could be avenues for everyone to release tension.

You just may discover a hobby that brings you not just relief in the moment, but a new source of happiness and fulfillment you can turn to again and again, no matter what the world brings.

Masada Siegel is journalist and a crisis communications consultant. Check out her website Secret Scottsdale for fun activities to do with kids during coronavirus stay-at-home orders.