How being busy hurts, helps, and holds different roles in mental health
These days, I feel myself going a million miles a minute. I had the funny-sad realization today, as I lay fully reclined on the dentist chair, goofy sunglasses shading my vision of a centerfold of a tropical island tacked to a stale white ceiling, that this was the most relaxed I’d felt all day. Never mind that someone was about to wedge my mouth open with plastic and drill a hole into my tooth. Between work, errands, emails, and meetings, it was here in the dentist chair that I just sat, open and unproductive, and felt myself breathe.
Busyness is an epidemic in American culture, a natural byproduct of a capitalist society that values productivity (do do do!) and is fueled by consumerism (more more more!). Keeping constantly busy can be detrimental to one’s physical and mental health. Yet busyness holds a paradoxical role in psychotherapy.
In the field of mental health, making oneself “busy” is commonly prescribed as a way to cope and feel better. Busyness is used to distance and distract from anxiety. It is an effective way to counteract inertia and jump out of depressive sinkholes. To go out and do something - anything! - is recommended for people in a rut. Filling idle time with healthy activity is key on the road to recovery from addictions. Still thinking about that old breakup? Get yourself together and get out there! Got a problem? Do something about it! In a culture of do do do, getting down to busyness is generally seen as a step toward success and mental health.
But being over-busy can also increase anxiety, lead to burn out, and serve to distract from deeper digging. Busyness impedes healthy reflection and foundational restructuring of one’s life. So, when is it time to do more, and when to do less?
It depends on where you’re at and what you are trying to accomplish. Are you just trying to hold it together, or trying to break things down to rebuild? Busyness serves to fill space, so the question boils down to how much space is optimal.
Are you obsessing over things you can’t control? Stewing in negative thoughts? Having a hard time getting up in the morning? Maybe it would be healthy for you to get up and do something, get some fresh air, a fresh perspective, have an experience. Exercise, outdoors, creative projects, connecting with people, and having fun are good ways to reboot and gain perspective.
On the other hand, if you are in a place in your life where you feel called to examine or reorient the way you are living, being busy can distract and keep you skating across the surface. Simplifying and slowing down can be a great way to tune into oneself. If you are ready to make a fundamental change in your life, you will need the space to listen, to receive, and to resolve.
Un-busying is essential to feeling what is beneath all the rushing and doing. This can be painful. There might be a swirl of anxiety under your peppy facade, or frightening tugs of depression in the absence of constant stimulation. You may feel lost or aimless without so many plans.
Having the space to feel can also be deeply pleasurable. Intimate time with your own experience. Space to notice the ribbons of sunlight through the leaves; Space to taste the fresh berries of summer or draw in the warm aroma of hot chocolate; space to enjoy and ponder the experience of living life through your unique body and environment. Life is rich, and slowing down can enrich one’s experience of it. Slowing down also gives space for insight to bubble up. It can be transformational. It can also be a way to touch in with an activated state (of stress, anxiety, despair) and directly guide oneself back to a sense of safety through breath and attention. Feeling our feelings builds resilience and self trust.
To busy or to be?
Busyness and spaciousness both aid one’s wellbeing when used appropriately. Ask yourself, or those closest to you, how the ways you busy yourself hinder or support the way you want to show up in your life. Working with a mental health professional can help you clarify and carry out choices that benefit your overall being. These will be different for everyone, and with the right support you will be able to set structures around your time and space that will allow you to flourish. As for me, the answer is clear. Schedule more dentist appointments.
Sasha Wright, LCSW
I provide psychotherapy in the Bay Area. My holistic orientation embraces the body, mind, and spirit as intertwined aspects of being. My work focuses on seeking resilience and weaving sustainably vibrant lives, and is infused by my own practices in dance, mindfulness, creative arts, earth based spirituality, and spending time in nature. I write to share ideas, inspire embodiment, and support wellbeing. Enjoy!