Do you ever feel guilty about taking time for yourself? Perhaps you have a demanding job with a lot of responsibilities. Perhaps you’re a full-time parent with kids who always need a lot of attention, or perhaps you’re a student and anxious about spending as much time as you can on learning. We live in a society that praises productivity and an intense focus on work, but we also live in a society where rates of mental illness are rising, and there’s a lot of research that connects the two. Free time isn’t merely an indulgence. It’s something you need to stay healthy, and you should be making the most of it.
We all know that physical activity is good for our physical health, but did you know that it also helps your mental health? Numerous studies have shown that higher rates of physical activity correlate with lower rates of depression and anxiety. It even helps to deal with short-term stress. Getting active takes your mind off your worries and speeds up your metabolism so that the stress hormone cortisol is flushed out of your system more quickly. Hard exercise also produces endorphins, which make you feel warm and fuzzy, but even gentle activity such as walking will lift your mood, and dancing is just as good for you as sport.
When you’re working all the time, it’s easy to ignore your creative side, but exercising your imagination is associated with an increased feeling of fulfilment and general wellbeing. If you’ve been struggling with dark urges, getting them out through writing, painting or playing music can help to restore a healthy mental balance. It can also make it easier for you to get a fresh perspective on your problems. If you just need a little more happiness in your life, crafting is a wonderful way to brighten up your home and explore your creative potential at the same time.
Explore new things
One of the most common frustrations that people express when they seek counseling for mental health problems is that feeling that they’re stuck in a rut. If you’re doing the same thing every day at work, your free time should be an opportunity to explore and discover new interests. You might end up deciding that it’s time for a career change, or you might find that having something interesting to do when you’re not at work means that you stop feeling bothered by repetitiveness there. Developing new interests can also be a great way of meeting new people and expanding your social circles.
Spend time with friends
Socializing more is a really good way to give your mental health a boost. We’re naturally gregarious animals, and nothing really beats that warm, contented feeling that comes from spending time with good friends. If you don’t feel that you’re close enough to anyone to tell them all your problems, or you don’t want to burden them, that’s okay – these days, you can get really good online therapy for depression – but a counselor can’t give you those happy moments that come from shared activities. If you don’t have many friends, remember that there are always others in the same situation, and seek out activities that help you to connect.
Go forest bathing
The Japanese have recognized for a long time that what they call shinrin-yoku, or ‘forest bathing’, is an important part of achieving a healthy mental balance. We evolved among trees and get a natural sense of comfort in that environment. If you live in an urban space, even keeping a few plants in your home can create a happier and more inspiring atmosphere. However, to really feel better, you should make the effort to visit green spaces, whether that means getting out into the countryside or simply walking to a local park. If you find it hard to walk far, then sitting by a river or having a picnic in a grassy field can work wonders.
Do nothing at all
Sometimes, asking “What should I do?” is the wrong question. Our education and employment systems are designed to make us feel that we should be active, or at least attentive, at all times, when in fact it’s really important to have downtime. Most Americans of working age don’t get enough sleep during the week, so it’s entirely reasonable to have a catch-up at the weekends. Long, hot baths are also a great way to relax and ease muscle strain. Resting your mind as well as your body gives it time to process recent experiences and deal with stress. You’ll find that the right amount of rest leaves you feeling mentally refreshed, happier and more creative.
Most importantly, your free time belongs to you, so do whatever you enjoy most. You’ll feel better for it.