Idle Hands Are Anxiety’s Playthings?
Sedentary behavior is associated with increased anxiety, according to a new study published this month in BMC Public Health. Researchers found that low-energy activities that involve sitting down, such as watching TV, using the computer, riding the bus and playing video games increased the risk of anxiety.
The longer participants spent sitting, the more anxious they felt, regardless of achieving sufficient physical activity throughout the day.
“Anecdotally — we are seeing an increase in anxiety symptoms in our modern society, which seems to parallel the increase in sedentary behavior,” Megan Teychenne, lead researcher and lecturer at Deakin University’s Centre for Physical Activity and Nutrition Research (C-PAN), said in a release.
This news wasn’t a surprise to me. When I have nothing to do, my anxiety flourishes. Idle time is nourishment for worry.
I knew my anxiety was a burden when I started graduate school. I had just moved to New York City and the culture shock had knocked all my screws loose. I had so much trouble adjusting to urban life that there was nothing exciting about the Big Apple for me. It was just clamor that sent my nerves reeling. Each day I walked through the city I felt like a cat on an electrified plate.
The hardest times were idle times. Watching TV was an insurmountable task. I can’t remember any TV show or movie that I watched that first year. I was sitting there looking at the screen, but I wasn’t processing. My head was somewhere else, worrying about anything it could worry about.
The Internet made it easy to feed that worry. “I wonder if the neighborhood around my school is safe…” is something that can be solved with a quick Google search, but you might not like what you find. What about those search engines that let you see how many sex offenders live nearby? I learned a lot of things online that I wish I never had.
“Uncertainty is a fact of life, so try to accept that you will always have to live with and tolerate some uncertainty,” writes Graham C.L. Davey, Ph.D. “Unexpected things happen, and accepting this in the longer term will make your life easier and reduce your anxieties.”
Of course, it takes a long time to accept that and put away your crystal ball. It took a long time to learn that worry wasn’t helping me in any way. At first, my therapist and I scheduled a time when I could worry. For one hour in the afternoon I was free to worry as much as I wanted, wherever I wanted. I thought I was working toward that goal, but it was so hard to stop worrying 23 hours a day that I didn’t even utilize the one-hour window. I kept busy. That was my salvation. And I did it without really knowing what I was trying to accomplish.
- Remember what you’re passionate about. I was so wrapped up in my anxiety that I had stopped doing the things that used to comfort me and make me happy. Listening to music, writing, painting, hanging out with my friends — of course I had far fewer friends as the new girl in NYC — all of this had gone out of the window. Find those fulfilling activities that are life-affirming and energy-giving.
- Get on your feet. Whether you take a walk or do some dishes, activity is not only a much-needed distraction from worry, it reduces stress.
- Work on patience. Being impatient can drive anxiety. Slow down. We all know we need to be more patient and hope to achieve that some day in the future. Why not now? Try delaying gratification for a moment. You may find that waiting isn’t the hardest part.
- Self-soothe with affirmations. I often like to remind myself that “Feelings aren’t facts.” No matter what’s driving my anxiety, it’s just a feeling. It’s not reality. Find the affirmation that rings true for you and whip it out when you find yourself buying a ticket for the worry-roller coaster.
I recently learned about another technique used for breaking bad habits that I haven’t tried yet on my anxiety. According to Psych Crunch, it helps to break a bad habit if you imagine your mind is a city bus and you’re the driver. The passengers on the bus are your habits. Those passengers want your attention because they want you to drive that bus where they want to go. But you can choose to stay on your route and ignore them. This visualization apparently helped participants in the UK to break chocolate-eating habits.
How could this work for anxiety? Well, the bus is still your brain and you’re still the driver, but your passengers are anxious thoughts, “what if?” fears. One is planning your next work project. Another is the urge to check your email for the hundredth time. Another is the urge to Google “strange red mark on shoulder.” Another is the urge to check your account balance. Whatever the anxious thought is, it doesn’t drive the bus. Only you can drive the bus.
Idle young man photo available from Shutterstock
Newman, S. (2018). Idle Hands Are Anxiety’s Playthings?. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 18, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/idle-hands-are-anxietys-playthings/