Join the anxiety club, friend. When your writing deadlines are creeping up behind you like goblins and all your hairs start standing up, or even better, falling out, it’s probably a good time to engage in a calming activity.
In my final year at the University of New Hampshire, I conducted a study entitled “The Benefits of Meditation-like Activities”, supervised under Dr. Rebecca Warner. This exploratory study evaluated the degree to which 14 meditation-like activities could produce similar, if not stronger, improvements in positive affect or mood compared to traditional meditation.
If you’re anything like me, the only thing that happens in your head when you try to meditate is a toy monkey crashing brass cymbals together. This is why I set out to explore other alternatives. The sample for this study included 190 undergraduate students from the University of New Hampshire. Participants were asked to fill out a survey that included questions about the frequency of 14 meditation-like activities, that is, things people might do to relax. These included yoga, journaling, talking with a friend, showering, and other common activities. Positive affect was measured using a standardized self- report scale. In no particular order, here are a few of the activities we found to be effective:
Showering’s common frequency for the specific purpose of relaxation and its correlation with higher positive affect makes logical sense. Showering could not only involve the sensory experience of warm water and quiet, but inner reflection. This sensory experience is likely to induce physical relaxation while simultaneously allowing time for reflection on recent events, problems that need solving, upsetting conversations, as well as pleasant ones, tasks that need completing, etc. Many individuals may use this time as a way to organize their thoughts about upcoming tasks and events, process their emotions, or perhaps to go into a meditative state of calm where one allows the mind to be attentively blank.
Listening to music
Frequently listening to music in order to relax was associated with higher positive affect, higher satisfaction with life, and decreased perceived stress. Like showering, the mechanism through which this functions could be related to an attentively blank mind. It could also be hypothesized that our social nature plays a role. Humans’ emotions are often influenced by those of their peers. In listening to a happy song, we may be able to improve our mood. Conversely, it’s entirely possible that listening to a sad song may help us process and let go of negative emotions that we might otherwise repress.
A common result of working excessively is social isolation. When prolonged, this state of isolation can be detrimental to our health. The good news is that the fix can be fairly simple: phone a friend. In the current study, frequency of talking was strongly correlated with higher positive affect and reduced stress, especially for women.
The usefulness of the placebo effect
Where the aforementioned survey items were concerned, among other items such as journaling, yoga, and watching TV, belief in the effectiveness of the activity for the purpose of relaxation was strongly correlated with higher positive affect and lower perceived stress. Interestingly, when regressions were run to examine the effectiveness of the same activities where the participants’ belief in their effectiveness was low, correlations with positive health benefits were no longer present. In other words, no matter what anyone else suggests, if you believe a particular activity is going to help you de-stress, there’s a good chance that it will.
What helps you relax when you’re feeling stressed?