Hobbies and Anxiety

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1. What is a hobby?

Different people seem to consider different things as hobbies.

Currently www.dictionary.com defines a "hobby" as "an activity or interest pursued for pleasure or relaxation and not as a main occupation"

Such a wide definition might include activities such as taking a nap, phoning your girlfriend, or even watching TV.

For me a hobby is none of those. A hobby is more something which is an activity undertaken for pleasure in which you can lose yourself in creativity. Above all, a hobby doesn't cause stress!

Typical hobbies might be: gardening, cooking, reading, art, handcraft, photography, yoga, horse-riding, roller blading. There are many many more. To lose yourself in a hobby is to become mindful of the activity.

2. How can a hobby help you overcome anxiety?

little girl paddling in seaGiving your mind to something pleasurable rather than how you feel

People with distressing anxiety issues tend to spent a great deal of time thinking about how they feel. Patients would often say to me things like, "I knew it was going to be a bad day the moment I woke up." 

It transpired that they had taught their brains that, the instant they became conscious, it would remind them to ask themselves how they felt! 

Nobody asks themselves how they feel unless the answer is going to be negative!

Happy people and those engrossed in something just don't ask that!

Therefore, nobody needs to ask themselves how they feel because, by definition, the answer will be negative and negative thoughts simply create more anxiety! One of the aims in overcoming anxiety is to keep the thoughts focused on positive things as much as possible.

A hobby is beneficial in overcoming anxiety because it enables you to think about something other than how you feel and can enable you to lose yourself in a pleasurable activity. The more time spent in doing something that feels good, the more beneficial.

But very often a symptom of anxiety is being unable to concentrate. This makes pursuing a hobby difficult.

3. Anxious people can't concentrate on hobbies

This is yet another thing that patients would come up with when I asked them about their hobbies.

While it's true that anxiety can get in the way of concentration, it can be overcome step by step.

People with problems tend to expect themselves to be able to do things properly, as they did when well. Of course, they find they can't. So they abandon the attempt.

The problem isn't the inability to concentrate, but the high expectations of being able to do whatever it is as well as when you were well.

I used to advise patients to start small. For example, if the hobby were knitting I would just suggest that they had a project available and just picked it up briefly now and then and simply knitted maybe a single row at a time.

If the hobby were cooking, they might ask a family member to prepare and weigh the ingredients for them so all they had to do was put them together.

If they enjoyed jigsaws, they could have one set out somewhere so they might just add one or two pieces from time to time.

This approach works by slowly reminding the mind of the pleasure aspect of the hobby without expectations. This means that the person is gradually lured into doing more and more. Naturally, the more time spent engrossed in the hobby, the less time is spent thinking about symptoms. This, in turn, reduces them.

If you have a serious anxiety disorder at present, such as PTSD you may find you are unable to concentrate on anything, even watching TV, for any length of time. That doesn't matter. Even if you only do something you usually enjoy for just a couple of minutes, that's a start. Accept what you can do, however little, rather than stressing about what you can't.

4. Boredom can trigger anxiety

Diagram showing how we label what we consider good and bad arousalHow we tend to label high and low arousal as good or bad depending on whether we like it or not

Although anxiety is characterised by raised negative arousal, boredom is a negative emotion. It starts out when we are bored and are telling ourselves we don't like what we're feeling, that we're fed up.

If we don't then find something that catches our interest we begin to resist this negative emotion and wish it wasn't there. Eventually, as we focus on this more and more the arousal level increases until what was low negative arousal is now undesirable high negative arousal i.e. anxiety or frustration.

When writing about how my own acute anxiety state came about, I mentioned that in the months immediately preceding it I had become increasingly restless - bored. 

There was nothing worth watching on TV and I lacked sufficient time (or so I thought) to get engrossed in any of my favourite pastimes. Had I not had this ongoing rumbling negative arousal in the background, my final acute anxiety state might not have blossomed as it did.

The aim of life, according to ACT, is to focus on the positives rather than the negatives in each moment as far as possible. When you have hobbies or interests which you choose to do, this is much easier. I am assuming here that these interests are things you actually want to do for their own sake. If you are doing them because you feel you should or because someone else wants you to, they don't count as hobbies.

There is an old saying that:

The key to happiness is wanting what you have, not having what you want.

Therefore, the more of your time you are able to spend doing things which truly interest you, the easier that becomes.

5. What are your hobbies? Do you have any?

I frequently saw people in my everyday work who had no interests whatsoever and then wondered why they felt anxious or depressed.

An interest doesn't have to be expensive or complicated. Reading novels can be a hobby, for example, or gardening, cooking or walking in the countryside. Or you might enjoy doing jigsaws, drawing or just observing the different kinds of birds that come into your garden. You might even get a book from the library which could help you identify them if you didn't already know.

If your anxiety is quite severe, start small. Just get to enjoy doing a little bit of colouring, a row of knitting, walking the dog, removing a few weeds from the garden, putting a few answers in a puzzle book...  Start small and give it your full attention - you never know where it will lead.

When I was at the worst of my acute anxiety state I was unable to contemplate more than ironing a single T-shirt (I like ironing). At that time I would have freaked out if someone had told me that one day I'd sail a 32ft yacht across the Atlantic Ocean, or gallop a horse high up in the Victorian Alps in Australia. But I later did those things and many more and I loved every minute of it.

Traditional hobbies

The hobbies with which I was familiar in my own childhood are changing.

A study reported in "The Mail Online" in December 2013 indicates that many people now cite "watching TV" as a hobby. Returning to the definition of "hobby" with which we started this page, "watching TV" is more of a passive entertainment than a hobby which invites creativity of some sort.

Pie chart showing percentage of different hobbiesPie chart showing popularity of traditional hobbies

Modern hobbies

The internet has provided wonderful opportunities for people to get involved in hobbies they might once have never considered.

1. Sell things on Ebay

You don't have to make a business out of it. You can simply sell off things you no longer use or need. Most of the time, as long as you're not a business seller, you don't even pay a listing fee, just a small percentage of the price once you sell. 

If you've never tried it, take a look.

2. Trace your family tree

Trace your family tree now that so much help is available online. Or you might attempt to compile a family history.

As each generation passes away, first hand information which they hold is lost forever.

I constantly grateful that one New Year's Eve I sat down with my mother and asked her to tell me all the anecdotes and facts about the family which I would never have found anywhere else. I wrote it down.

Now that information is available to my children and grandchildren and it adds colour to their family past which would not otherwise have been there.

(In the UK British Telecom offer a free information site about tracing your family tree. I doubt whether this page is available in other countries although an internet search will come up with some I'm sure)

3. Write a novel

Write a novel - it's about the pleasure of doing it rather than the desire to become a best seller that matters. Years ago I wrote a blockbuster. It was never published.

When writing it I was amazed at how the characters I'd invented really came to life. I often found they did things I had never intended them to do as if they had minds of their own and weren't mere figments of my imagination. (I did have one romance novel published once upon a time - no longer in print)

4. Build a website around your hobby

For those who enjoy this type of activity there is much help available.

I really love website building but I have no real programming knowledge or skills. I can become engrossed in this activity so easily. I can recommend the system I use which enables you to become part of an online community whose members freely help one another. 

I currently have this website plus another where I am attempting to sell all the things which I make now that I have retired from my day job. I need to sell them to buy materials to make more.

For a few of you that neglected and once much-loved hobby could become a little home-based business.

Whatever your hobby, the main aim is enjoyment. You do it for the pleasure of doing it - nothing more, nothing less. 
Some hobbies do result in a small income but that can't be the main reason for doing them.

6. Your hobbies define who you are

Many years ago when I was training in psychotherapy, we were always being urged to be ourselves. One day I asked my mentor how I could find out who 'me' was. He told me that each moment I felt at one with whatever I was doing, be it washing up or riding my horse, that that was 'me'.

It was a simple lesson I have never forgotten. If you can do something and just be at one with the simple pleasure of doing it then you are aligned with self.

Everyday Feelgood Factors

pink flowers for mindful aromatherapy
soles of feet for mindful reflexology
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  1. Overcoming Anxiety
  2. Self Help
  3. Hobbies