Mindless activities when you’re stressed don’t help — but this does


The brain does need a break, but it’s not the “check out” kind.

When I’m all wound up and starting to take it out on my family, I know enough to take a step back and try a little self-care. I feel like all I need is 20 minutes of just not thinking about anything, and I’ll be able to face the day — so I disappear into my neverending Facebook feed, and hope that after enough aimless scrolling, I’ll feel more relaxed.

Then I’m seriously frustrated when I finally put my smartphone down, and I’m exactly as tense as I was when I started. Same, or worse, for then I decide that I need a good Netflix binge, or I get lost in the black hole that is Pinterest. I was starting to suspect that if this strategy was really a good one, it would, um, actually work. But my brain needs a break at least some of the time, right? What am I supposed to do?

It’s true, the brain does need a break. But often, the break it needs isn’t the mindless kind. What we really need is to be able to play, not check out. Brene Brown, bestselling author of a number of books on vulnerability and authenticity, noticed that when she’s feeling bad, she’s inclined to turn to what she calls numbing behaviors. Even though she doesn’t drink, there are still plenty of ways to numb emotions.

Numbing is a negative. It’s something you do when you feel rotten, and you don’t want to feel that feeling, so you try to turn it off, or at least tune it out. People use more than alcohol to avoid having to feel uncomfortable emotions — we can mask those just as well by overeating, binge-watching TV, getting sucked into a social media vortex, anything. It works really well — that is, until you stop numbing. Then, the feeling comes right back. This is how all sorts of addictions get built.

Play, on the other hand, is a positive. Play isn’t just something kids do — it’s any activity that we do at least as much for fun as for the sake of the end result. Play, says Brown, “can mean snorkeling, scrapbooking or solving crossword puzzles; it’s anything that makes us lose track of time and self-consciousness.”

Brene Brown’s idea of play is strikingly similar to another concept that psychologist and happiness researcher Mihály Csíkszentmihályi says is “the secret to happiness,” a concept called flow. When your mind is in a state of flow, you’re “completely involved in an activity for its own sake.” You’re not checked out, you’re totally engaged, but you’re enjoying yourself. Athletes talk about “getting in the zone,” when they’re so deep in the game that all of their effort and strain seems suddenly effortless. That’s flow.

I find myself in a state of flow when I’m gardening or making soup, or cutting paper snowflakes. My sister can spend hours sketching, and not notice the time pass. For another friend, it’s quilting. It’s simple — we’re all just having fun. Our minds are 100 percent engaged, but somehow, it’s not work. It relaxes us in a way that Instagram never could.

Turning my brain off always seems like it’ll help, but it never does. I’ve noticed that when I push myself towards some activity that I know I actually enjoy, it takes more effort at first, but I come away feeling like myself again, ready to face the day.

I’m not saying you should never plop your tired body down in front of a screen. Just remember that it doesn’t always deliver on its promise to make you feel better. Just because you’re all grown up doesn’t mean you don’t need to play too. What makes you happy? If you can fit some time for playing into your day, you might be surprised at how refreshing it really is.

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