Living with anxiety or depression? A hobby can help

March 9, 2021 in Complementary & Integrative Medicine, Wellness  •  By Michael Scott, ND, MSA

It’s been more than a year since the U.S. declared a public health emergency because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Over the course of the past year, people in the U.S. and around the world have had experiences the likes of which haven’t been seen since the 1918 influenza pandemic. From lockdowns and a mounting case and death count to the financial impact of the pandemic, people are living with exceptionally high levels of stress. In the U.S., that stress has been compounded by a contentious presidential election, the attack on the Capitol, and the ongoing impact of racism on communities of color.

All these stresses have had a significant impact on mental health and wellbeing. A survey conducted by the American Psychological Association in October 2020 found that 78% of the adults surveyed cited the pandemic as a significant source of stress. The survey also noted that 1 in 5 American adults feel their mental health is worse than during the same period the previous year, data that’s supported by findings in a report from the Kaiser Family Foundation. That report found that 4 in 10 adults reported experiencing symptoms of depression and anxiety during the pandemic compared to 1 in 10 during the first six months of 2019.

Of course, talking with a mental healthcare provider can be an important part of your strategy for managing the symptoms of anxiety and depression, but there are also self-care steps that can help, including making healthy eating choices, taking part in regular physical activity, getting an adequate amount of quality sleep, and staying in touch with friends and loved ones.

One type of self- care you may not have considered is taking part in a hobby. Studies have found that actively participating in one or more hobbies is associated with a decrease in depression symptoms and a 30% lower likelihood of experiencing depression. The hypothesis is that taking part in activities you enjoy increases the amount of dopamine and other chemicals in the brain related to pleasure.

In addition to promoting better mental health, the stress reduction associated with a hobby can also yield physical health benefits. Studies have found associations between enjoyable, non-work activities and lower blood pressure, waist circumference (a measure of your risk for high blood pressure and cholesterol, heart disease, and diabetes), and body mass index.

How hobbies help your mental health

In addition to increasing the release of dopamine and other brain chemicals, taking part in a hobby can help improve your mental health in several ways, including:

  • Giving structure to your day: If the pandemic has you feeling like you’re trapped in the Bill Murray movie Groundhog Day, a hobby can help you add structure to your day and break a repetitive routine.
  • Getting you invigorated: Rather than spending time passively binging videos or scrolling through the news, get mentally and/or physically active with a hobby that engages your mind and uses your creativity like journaling, yoga or tai chi, playing an instrument, or drawing.
  • Helping strengthen your connection to others: Even though we still need to practice physical distancing, a shared hobby can help you get and stay connected to others who share your interests. Look for live online classes, hobby-focused social media or virtual community groups, or invite a friend or family member to take up the same hobby and spend time doing the hobby together via video chat.


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