Making time for leisure lowers stress

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With the holidays approaching, I can feel the stress revving up, especially this year as we try to juggle virtual Thanksgiving dinners and the logistics of exchanging presents without exchanging COVID-19. But this year I’ve had a breakthrough of how to handle stress: Making sure I have time to do the things I enjoy.

Now that it gets dark before 5 p.m., it’s easy to get home from work, curl up on the couch and hibernate in front of the TV playing the same Hulu show I’ve watched over and over again. Sometimes it feels like I don’t have the energy to do anything else, but I’ve found that if I push myself to engage in activities I enjoy, I actually wind up with more energy and less stress in the end.

I absolutely love to read. But with all the upheaval and uncertainty driven by the pandemic, I haven’t been reading nearly as much as I want to. The same goes for my fiction writing – I am currently at work on a novel and collection of short stories but have struggled to find the time to engage in this enjoyable and meaningful activity for me. The draw of the couch is most often stronger than the draw of my writing desk, but I’ve noticed that if I do motivate myself to sit down and write, even for just a half an hour, I feel better later.

Multiple studies have shown the positive effects of leisure time. I like the one published by Professor Matthew Zawadzki, a health psychologist with the University of California, Merced in the Annals of Behavior Medicine in 2015.

“When people engage in leisure activity, they have lower stress levels, better mood, a lower heart rate and more psychological engagement — that means less boredom, which can help avoid unhealthy behaviors,” Zawadzki said. “But it’s important to immerse themselves in the activity and protect their leisure time from external stressors.”

The study shows that the stress-reducing benefits of leisure add up over time, too. So, carving out time from our busy lives to enjoy ourselves, even for just a little while, is more beneficial when done regularly.

I’ve noticed that if I make time to read in the evenings, even if it means going to bed a little later, I still wake up the next morning feeling fresher and more ready for my workday than if I just went straight to sleep. It helps me break out of the wake up, work, come home, sleep cycle that’s so easy to fall into this time of the year.

Tracking my leisure activity has helped me recognize this pattern. It doesn’t have to be a fancy log or official record – I have a sticky note stuck to my desk where I keep track of when I’ve actually managed to make some time for myself. Tracking it in this way reminds me of the importance of having me-time every day.

I’m happy to report that, in the past week, I’ve found a little time to read every day. Right now, I’m enjoying “Wonderland” by Zoje Stage, a family thriller set deep in the Adirondacks. It’s creepy (in a good way) but reading before bed has helped me fall asleep easier, sleep better and wake up the next day more ready for life.

Whether it’s reading, going for a walk, playing with a pet, watching movies or whatever else you like to do, remember that engaging in the things you love can bring more joy than you might realize.

 

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