You may have heard the expression, “The devil makes work for idle hands,” which means when we have more time on our hands, it’s not uncommon to find the problems start creeping up. Historically, that phrase refers to criminal activity, but for many of us right now, it may feel like we’re turning this extra time and energy inward, punishing ourselves with unproductive rumination, anxiety, and depression.
It almost sounds counterintuitive — shouldn’t we be more relaxed when we have less going on? For some personality types, research shows that less external stimulation causes boredom, a state that’s linked to higher rates of substance abuse, pathological gambling, and negative mental health. The affected personality types tend to have lower attention spans and greater sensation-seeking behaviours.
When your brain gets less of our usual healthy distractions from the outside world — like work and socializing — it starts to find new corners to explore internally. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, even though it can feel uncomfortable. Those negative thoughts and feelings were likely there the entire time, but things were too noisy for you to hear them. Now, without a clear schedule, they’re popping up and asking to be investigated.
Try Not to Activate “The Struggle Switch”
Although healthy coping strategies can help lessen short-term discomfort, we don’t want to make a habit of avoiding these feelings. Avoidance can end up causing other problems for our mental health and self-judgment for our own worry. Do you ever find yourself thinking, “I really shouldn’t worry so much,” or “Why am I worried when other people have way bigger problems?” These are feelings of guilt and shame that come from struggling against our anxiety. What was previously one difficult feeling just became two or three.
Instead of trying to win this war against our emotions, Dr. Russ Harris says we should completely let down our guard and accept the feelings as they are. He suggests turning “the struggle switch” off and limiting our responses to the core emotion, not the others created when the switch is on. A therapist trained in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) can be a good resource for this process.
Get Familiar With Cognitive Distortions
Before we spend time with our worrying thoughts and try to find out what they’re teaching us, it’s important to make sure they’re not distorted. The theory, based on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), is that a negative point-of-view will result in automatic thoughts that obscure the truth of a situation. For example, “Everything is going to get worse,” represents the cognitive distortion of “fortune telling.” In reality, you don’t know what will happen. You only know what’s happening now and you can only control what you do in this moment.
Other common cognitive distortions include “black and white thinking,” disqualifying positives, and catastrophizing. Review a list of cognitive distortions to see if there are any that you gravitate toward. We all are subject to cognitive distortions at some point — if not multiple times a day. Cognitive distortions are perfectly normal, and the better you become at recognizing them, the better we can stop our brains from playing tricks on us.
Increase Mindfulness and Self-Care Activities
As the famous quotation by Lao Tzu goes, “If you are depressed you are living in the past. If you are anxious you are living in the future. If you are at peace you are living in the present.” This quote helps illustrate why mindfulness is so important. In fact, the same study linking boredom to negative mental health found that the reverse was true for people with high levels of mindful awareness.
Mindfulness is a practice that allows us to stay present in the immediate environment — and we say “practice” because it’s something that takes time to master. There are many mindfulness training programs available including via meditation apps, movement classes, and easy breathing exercises. Essentially you want to bring your attention to what is happening right now, within you and around you.
If you’re worrying that your thoughts are spiralling out of control, stop and list things you’re able to immediately notice for each of your senses. What do you see? What do you smell? What do you hear? What do you taste? What do you feel? By developing more tools to ground you in the present moment, you can help manage excessive feelings of anxiety.
Lastly, a healthy dose of self-care can do wonders for difficult feelings. A study about the duration of feelings found that sadness is usually the one that sticks around the longest. Is it possible that you need to nurture yourself more and attend to that sadness? On your own, or with a therapist, you can come up with a list of self-care activities to give your mind, heart, and body a much-needed boost. You can tell yourself, “Okay, it’s been enough worrying for one day. I’m going to take care of myself and give myself the permission to take a break.”
While it may be true that that devil makes for idle hands, keeping yourself busy and grounded can be an effective antidote to worrying ruminations, anxiety, and depression you may be feeling with a surplus of extra time on your hands.