Anyone can tell you that stress is aggravating at best, and a killer at worst. Whereas even the calmest of people can find themselves overwhelmed by stress, for those of us with anxiety or depression, stress exacerbates our conditions to the point of causing real harm. While tips for avoiding stress are a dime a dozen, when you’re in the midst of it, yogic breathing and meditation isn’t always helpful.
Sometimes, all you really need is a good distraction.
I’ve found distracting my stress away to be both highly effective and far easier than I ever would have imagined. When the weight of your stressors is crushing you, and you feel like you’re at the edge of a panic attack, the idea of simply redirecting your thoughts is almost laughable. But, believe it or not, it actually works. Here are three ways you can distract yourself stress free.
Discover a new hobby
Throwing yourself-head first into a hobby gives your mind a break from anxiety and tension because you’re concentrating on a completely unrelated activity. Not only are you recharging your batteries by doing something you enjoy, you’re engaged in a sense of flow – a near-meditative state where you lose track of time and feel removed from work, responsibilities and the other stressors of life.
Hobbies are great for people who can’t stand downtime, as they provide a break with a purpose. You won’t feel like you’re just “sitting around”. You’ll be using your respite to do something productive. Plus, there’s an added bonus: taking a mental breather can give you a fresh perspective on events or tasks that may have caused your stress in the first place.
Science backs up the benefits of hobbies. A study in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine followed a group of adults as they went about their daily activities. Participants in the study wore heart monitors and regularly reported both their activities and how they were feeling. Researchers found that those who partook in leisure activities were 34 percent less stressed during the activities. They reported feeling happier, and their heart rates were lower, with the calming effect lasting for several hours afterwards.
With thousands of activities available to offer stress relief, you needn’t feel consigned to only one hobby. The more hobbies you have, the more you have to choose from when you’re feeling stressed.
Organise your home
Clutter can be a physical manifestation of stress, since your environment represents your overall mood and the state of your mental health. Conversely, becoming cognizant of your environment can either positively or negatively affect your mood and mental health, depending on whether or not you choose to modify your surroundings.
A study from the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin reported that women who described their homes as “cluttered” or full of “unfinished projects” were more depressed, fatigued and had higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol than those who characterised their homes as “restful” and “restorative.” Furthermore, research published in the Journal of Neuroscience found clutter to be so distracting that it affects your ability to focus. The study revealed that looking at too many things at once overloads your visual cortex. This interferes with your brain’s ability to process information. That’s why clearing your house of clutter is so freeing!
How to do it
Start your decluttering project small by choosing a drawer or a cabinet that you access frequently. Empty the drawer or cabinet of its contents and spread everything around. Determine how you want to use this space going forward, and start making decisions about each item you have in front of you. Ask yourself the following questions:
- Do I use this?
- Is this something I need for future reference?
- Is this something I absolutely love?
- Do I have space for it?
If you answer yes to any of those questions, either place the item back in the drawer/cabinet, or move it to a more suitable location. Remember the old adage, “a place for everything, and everything in its place.” If the answer to all of those questions is no, it’s time to get rid of the item. Please, donate or recycle when at all possible.
Another good starter project is to gather your photos and either scan and upload them to cloud-based storage, or place them in a carefully curated album. Avoid storing photos on CDs or flash drives as they have a short lifespan.
Once you have one or two small organisation projects under your belt (and you’ve ensured they don’t add to your stress) you can start thinking big. Draw up a plan for your home. What needs organising and when will you have an opportunity to get to it? Unless you have a large chunk of time available — or you just really enjoy organising — you’ll need to break each room into bite-sized projects. Instead of organising the whole kitchen, tackle a few cabinets at a time. This is one of the surest ways to be successful in your organising endeavour.
Dial up some entertainment
Television and movies can have an incredibly positive effect on our moods. A study published in Health Communication found that the more television women watched, the lower their cortisol levels were.
What’s more, the type of shows we tune into can even help us regulate our thoughts and behaviour. A 2012 study revealed that re-watching favourite shows can help restore self-control. Familiar shows follow a predictable pattern that the brain interprets as safety and security. They also create a sense of social connection. We feel we actually know the characters, and that connection triggers the reward center of our brains. And if that favourite show is a comedy, it’s even better. Research has found that comedies activate the insular cortex and amygdala regions of the brain, helping to balance our moods.
Though distraction is a fantastic way to ease stress, it may not work in every situation. It’s important to know both your body and what best helps you relax. If you feel stress is taking over your life, it may be time to talk to a doctor or therapist. There’s no good substitute for professional help.