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A Dozen Mindful Distractions

Sure-fire strategies to improve mood, pass time and de-stress

L Oberlin
Books make the best escapes.
Source: L Oberlin

Staying covered in masks and gloves even as the weather turns warm, while minimally venturing out and staying distant, gets old. Health headlines still aren’t great. Economic ones put people on edge if they aren’t teetering there already.

This frustrates college graduates. High schoolers live with the disappointment of milestones marked virtually. A generation, far more at ease online, mourns the loss of band trips, prom pictures, and stages not walked across.

Like no other time, we need to celebrate what is good and what we can control. Here are a dozen distractions to calm anxious nerves and challenge restless minds:

1. Teach yourself a new skill. If you’re helping home-bound children, you may see benefits as you’ve learned new subject matter. Acquire a foreign language through library access. Check out LinkedIn and YouTube tutorials for common Adobe or Microsoft programs. Students and grads can add skills to a resume, perhaps even earning money with a side hustle in a tight or sidelined job market.1 MasterClass hosts well-known experts to teach their video lessons on writing, business, cooking, science, the arts, even sports. Road Scholar does similar with online learning (see below).2

2. Color. While not curative, coloring relaxes the fear center (amygdala) of the brain. This alone generates mindfulness, calm, focus, better emotion and thought processing, and may help us sleep.3 It allows us to revisit experiences coloring as a child as we invite our kids to join; only now, we can teach this as a coping strategy to become more thoughtful, aware, and centered.

3. Meditate with mandalas. Take coloring to a deeper level of Sanskrit and Tibetan origin. Drawing within a circular pattern has long been an ancient Eastern aid to meditation. Trace a circle with a plastic lid. Place a dot in the center. The ring serves as a boundary between the outer world, full of chaos4 (in COVID times, uncertainty) and the sanctity within the mandala. When you draw from the inner point to the outer edge, you subtly contain whatever emotions come forth.

4. Journal. Document what you’re going through. We know from James Pennebaker’s Opening Up by Writing It Down and various studies that journaling about a personally stressful or traumatic event facilitates growth, cognitive processing, and understanding. However, if there’s a lot of negative rumination, physical symptoms could increase.5

5. Go outside. Researchers at Cornell University found that 10-50 minutes spent in natural spaces was effective to improve mood, focus, and physiological markers such as blood pressure and heart rate.6

6. Figure out a puzzle. Jigsaw puzzling taps multiple cognitive abilities and is a protective, though not causal, factor for preventing cognitive aging. Puzzling engages multiple cognitive, visuospatial abilities with better long-term effects than short-term.7

Source: Catherine Yeulet/Monkey Business Images
Road Scholar, expert at foreign/domestic travel, offers virtual travel and lectures.tual
Source: Catherine Yeulet/Monkey Business Images

7. Travel abroad in place. Virtual tours of art and history museums, cities, landscapes, and other entities help us to envision actual travel, but there’s relaxing value with mere virtual escape as well. Road Scholar2 adds expert lectures to their online learning (see below).

8. Be creative. Think broadly. You likely have an interest or skill—gardening, cooking, baking, writing, drawing, or painting—that you can incorporate into your daily or weekly schedule.

9. Make learning fun. Games like chess and checkers help kids and adults with strategy. Bananagrams and Scrabble make spelling fun. Clue increases deductive reasoning. Monopoly provides a mini-intro to investing and managing money. The Game of Life has shows successes and pitfalls. Math Dice reinforce the old-fashioned, calculate quickly method.

10. Choose screen time wisely. Job- and school-related activities, as well as other learning time spent in front of a screen, add to your life. Too many hours comparing yourself to others on social media, virtual gaming, or surfing the Internet’s scary headlines detract from it and has been associated with a higher risk of death, independent of physical activity.8

Studies show that losing yourself in a character's world for even six minutes reduces stress levels.
Source: Pexels/Pixabay

11. Get moving. While exercise doesn’t cure one’s stress, it does increase neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine, acetylcholine, and norepinephrine.9 It has been associated with better focus, learning, and memory. Much more research needs to be accomplished, but we do know that moderate and safe exercise benefits our cardiovascular health and boosts our mood as well.

12. Turn pages. Read. Finish just one more chapter. Researchers at the University of Sussex found that in merely six minutes reading a novel, you can lower heart rate and muscle tension.10 Books build vocabulary. Getting behind a character and embracing new problem-solving ideas enhances empathy for others.11

Copyright @ 2020 by Loriann Oberlin. All rights reserved.

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5. Journaling About Stressful Events: Effects of Cognitive Processing and Emotional Expression, Annals of Behavioral Medicine, February 2002.







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