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Productive Fidgets: 8 Ways to Deal with Anxiety and Depression

Pool ball with number 8 over green background.As a person with active and severe mental illness, for six months I worked with a service animal. When I weaned off of his care, I transitioned to things that would keep my hands busy, things that would keep me from absentmindedly scratching myself or picking at my skin. I tried things like Play0Doh, modeling wax, and rubbing stones, but none could engage my brain enough to keep me on track. I eventually found the missing link: they were not productive.

Once I had isolated this critical thread, I was able to pack myself a small bag of “productive fidgets” that I could carry around in a manner that is *relatively* socially innocuous while mitigating the symptoms of my anxiety and depression.

  1. Knit or crochet
    Knitting has been my favorite, because of the simple, repetitive motion. Knitting is essentially tying identical knots over and over in a line, and then at the end of the line flipping over and doing the exact same thing in the opposite direction. Creating simple square or rectangular-shaped pieces (scarves, baby blankets) requires only minimal thought, but simultaneously fully engages both hands and the eyes, as well as allowing me to daydream of the person for whom I am creating the item. My favorite this past year was a set of two Harry Potter-themed blankets for a newborn set of twin baby girls.
  2. Write lists
    Get on your phone! There is perhaps no singular more “socially acceptable” fidget than playing with your phone. I visualize my refrigerator, and imagine what needs to be consumed. Then I list out two to four days worth of breakfasts, lunches, dinners, and snacks, using up those foods. Sometimes I take a brief sojourn over to Pinterest and type in “onions and limes” and see what pops up. I have made some dishes I’d never previously heard of by following this pattern.
  3. Sort/file
    Again this is a phone-based fidget. Get into your email and start deleting things from 2008 about Black Friday sales. Make new email folders and delete some of the existing ones that seemed like such a good idea at the time. Sort and organize the apps on your phone into new or more logical files.
  4. Focused exercises/stretching
    Hug yourself tight. Reach your hands across your back and pull. Point and flex your feet. Pull your knees up to your chest. Stretching improves flexibility and overall health. Do you want to do the splits? I *super* believe in you…just stretch a little more each day.
  5. Write letters to family/old friends/future self
    Don’t you have that one auntie who lives somewhere in the Pacific Northwest? When was the last time you talked to her? I bet she would love to hear that funny thing that happened at work last week…and she might even be interested in whatever that Mexican food recipe was that you found to use up your onions and limes. And again, this is a fidget that you can do on your phone.
  6. Record memories
    I swear I cannot spend more than ten minutes with my little nephews without one of them saying something unbelievably adorable. If I wrote all those things down, I’d be well on my way to a coffee table book. That text plus some pictures of flowers, maybe.
  7. Learn something/read something
    There are so many things to read on the Internet, not to mention the ability to download ebooks to your phone (or iPad or Kindle, etc). Some of my favorite non-Internet-based things to read are old journals from when I was a little kid. It is so amusing to see what I considered important enough to record!
  8. Create something artistic
    This is your vastly open-ended option. What do YOU create that you are proud of? Are you good at sketching? Computer animation? Photography? Poetry? What about something like napkin-folding or origami? What is your art? How do YOU make this world a better place?

The medications we have to treat symptoms of mental illness are wonderful, and I wouldn’t be able to live the functional, contributing life that I do without them. That being said, sometimes before popping a PRN medication, I find that taking steps to make myself a responsible and contributing member of society has many of the same positive effects on my brain and my behavior. Plus I get the benefit of the outcomes of whatever project(s) I’ve chosen to attack! Getting stuff done rocks.

Productive Fidgets: 8 Ways to Deal with Anxiety and Depression

Liz Briggs

Liz Briggs: Writer and thinker…stark-raving Borderline in the throes of ECT, striving each day to accomplish ONE THING that makes me feel like a responsible and contributing member of society.

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APA Reference
Briggs, L. (2018). Productive Fidgets: 8 Ways to Deal with Anxiety and Depression. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 30, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 15 Dec 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.