Maintaining Mental Health in a Pandemic

Wednesday, 23 December 2020 12:10 Written by

THE POWER OF PANDEMIC PASTIMES

At the beginning of pandemic lockdown, baking flour and jigsaw puzzles flew off the shelves. Folks dusted off their bikes and rollerblades. They signed up for virtual dance classes and online foreign language lessons. Clamoring for fun hobbies wasn’t just a way to fill the time, in many ways it was self-preservation kicking in.

In times of stress, hobbies can provide an important outlet for us to take care of ourselves. Hobbies provide a mental escape from troubles along with much-needed stimulation to the unstimulated. And, when so many of our usual options for entertainment hobbies and engagement are shrinking -- live music, the arts, dining out, having friends over -- it is important to continue adding delight, structure, and purpose to our days.

In addition, engaging in a hobby naturally helps us to set time schedules, and it shifts our attention to something that feels meaningful and fun. When done over time, hobbies truly enrich our sense of personal identity.

For some of us, these new hobbies were all well and good for the first 15, 30, or 45 days of our new normal. But as the pandemic wore on, our enthusiasm for our newfound hobbies has waned. Maybe we started sleeping a little later. Stepped away from Zooming with family and friends. Left puzzles half done and instead binged hours of TV with bags full of Flaming Hot Cheetos instead.

It’s understandable that some of our initial “can-do” enthusiasm diminished over time and it’s ok to take breaks. We need them. It’s important to cut ourselves some slack, to be gentle with ourselves, and recognize that we are in the middle of a global pandemic. Some things just aren’t going to be, or feel, “normal.”

As guardians of our own mental health during the pandemic, we also have to pay attention to when we see ourselves losing interest, feeling lethargic over long periods of time and dramatically reducing our ‘feel good’ activities. Now -- as 2020 draws to a close, yet this pandemic rages on -- is a great time to recalibrate. Perhaps commit to a new hobby: perfecting a smokey eye and a dramatic lighting set-up for Zoom calls; crafting our own greeting cards; virtual fencing; setting the alarm to watch the sunrise.

A great question asked by one of our clients was, “Are there hobbies we should avoid?”

Yes. For starters, we’d say, anything that feels rigid -- too much like a “should” than a “want to.” It’s important to stay active and engaged, but if we start to feel bad or guilty if we aren’t that excited about knitting anymore or gratitude journaling - don’t do it.

A word about screens. By all means, yes, enjoy those occasional Netflix and video game binges, but remember that screen time is best in moderation. Mindlessly scrolling on social media or in front of even great TV isn’t ideal for our mental health.

Nutrition and fitness, in particular, can be slippery slopes. Of course, we want to eat healthy food and move our bodies so we don’t become too sedentary. But, we also don’t want ‘health’ hobbies to become yet another stressor. If we don’t run 30 miles a week, or drink our 80 oz. of water each day, it’s ok. In fact, as therapists, some of whom work with individuals who struggle with disordered eating, we were troubled by the narrative out there that quarantine was the ideal time to get fit, lose weight, become their “best selves,” etc.

We want you to find pastimes that make you feel mentally and physically good, but not put undue pressure on yourselves, particularly during a really stressful time when we may also be feeling isolated and worried.

Here are some of the hobbies WE picked up during quarantine!

Susan Silver

A lot of hiking, tennis, and reading! I find I’m exercising more to compensate for my decreased movement going from place to place for errands and appointments. It’s important to focus on activities that make me feel good. With all the sacrifices required of us in this pandemic, hobbies should feel energizing or engrossing, not something to cross off a list.

Sophia Burke

I picked up drawing and watercolors again. I don’t particularly have talent, but I do love the process! I find it to be so meditative and time just flies when I’m engaged. Also, right before lockdown, I bought myself a little drone. I have really enjoyed flying it around and making short films. And, flying it was a great distraction because I had to be SO focused on not crashing it into a tree!

Allison Lobel

My daughters shared their love of craft with me--inspired me to try cross-stitching, great for that particular type of relaxation that comes from repetition. Fitness has always been important to me, so I quickly sought out ways to do that from home; In my case, virtual group-workout classes. I found I was connecting to others even if only through a screen. We have to remember that movement is great not just for our physical health, but our mental health and cognition, too. Which is not to say you have to ride your bike for 50 miles. Even just a walk around the block or jumping rope for a few minutes can release those endorphins.

With a COVID-19 vaccine released, and hopefully good news in the near future, we may not have to rely as heavily on our hobbies as we have the past several months. But, maintaining a bank of pastimes is a nice way to remember to slow down and mix things up from time to time -- to keep ourselves learning, relaxing, and experiencing new things.