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Mental Health Awareness Month Week 2: Be Bored to Stimulate your Cognitive Health

Have you felt the tug that you should be optimizing all your time in this quarantine? Do you feel that you need to seize this opportunity to be more productive? Social media posts can taunt us with feelings of under achieving when we see “If you don’t come out of quarantine with a new skill, tried more recipes or starting a new hobby you never lacked the time, you lacked the discipline.”

Ouch- that is a true sucker punch to your own gut. Now, for some, this time has opened up the opportunity to write that book, or start a new hobby, but a lot of us are just trying to get through the day without a melt-down with the kids and spouse while still being productive in our work.

Here is my advice, “Stop telling yourself to create a hobby or write that book. This pandemic doesn’t mean you have to have spare time.” Stop trying to be over productive. It is perfectly fine to just get by. Sit in the sun and watch the squirrels or listen to the breeze in the trees or wind chimes is plenty for your mind and soul right now. If you are feeling that constant “push-pull” where one minute your brain is telling you to go, go, go and create, create, create and then the next minute our brain and/or body tells us to relax, rest, take a nap and be lazy. It can be very confusing and a bit overwhelming. There has been new and extensive research lately that suggests that doing nothing or accepting the feelings of boredom is actually very beneficial for our cognitive health.

I will use myself as an example. I have always been a high achiever and productive always doing “something” to keep busy. I am a lover of learning, so I find myself constantly challenging my mind, body and soul with something new and stimulating. It wasn’t until I realized I had high anxiety and was relating work productivity to self-worth to understand why I was anxious and exhausted all the time.

When I realized I wasn’t winning any prizes for pushing myself to the limit, but instead making myself sick with pain and an autoimmune disorder, I knew I needed to make a change. Being stressed out all the time makes it really hard to show up in the world the way you want to show up. I knew I wanted to be able to inspire and encourage others to take control of their stress and anxiety, but I had to go through it all first. I had to also learn how to be still and do nothing.

Do you know who I reached out to for help? Not a famous psychotherapist. Not an educated researcher. I actually asked my teenage son how to be lazy and bored. It was brilliant! When I caught myself tackling too many things at once, I would knock on his door to see what he was doing and ask if he could help me be bored and lazy. At first, he thought I was crazy, but then he liked the idea of having knowledge of something I didn’t and has been willing to help. I have to say, it feels amazing to be lazy!

For so long I had subscribed to the “hustle culture” and always maximizing my time and productivity. This pandemic has shown me that I don’t have to do that anymore. I can work in 4-6 hour chunks and then be done for the day. Or I can work for an hour and a half and take a 15-minute break and walk around the neighborhood. I grew up in the era where we were looked down on if we took our breaks or used our vacation or sick days. Culturally we are taught that idle time is a character flaw. Now, I see the light and understand that idle time can actually boost your neurotransmitters in your brain and make you more creative and more productive in less time. The issue lies in the fact that our phones/mini-computers are always on us and always turned on and tuned-in to social media, news or information overload. Many of us can’t even wait in line at the grocery store without pulling out our phones to see what can stimulate our minds. We can’t sit at a traffic light without checking our texts or worse yet, take the dog for a walk and not even enjoy the company of your dog and nature because you are too busy looking at your phone while walking.

Here is the deal…we need to be bored every now and then. We need to shut down and do something mundane (without our phones or technology) to reboot our brains. Our prefrontal cortex is responsible for communication as well as starting and stopping behaviors, self-reflection and self-knowing awareness. It is stimulated to create vigorous wiring in the absence of other stimulation. The brain requires some level of boredom for the neurons in the prefrontal cortex to fire and create new connections. The prefrontal cortex plays an important role in emotional regulation. It helps us have the ability to self-soothe and bring ourselves back to a center point instead of always needing to be stimulated by something outside, like that cell phone. If we do not come into stillness or boredom regularly, our prefrontal cortex doesn’t know how to do its job.

Think about it this way; being bored allows us to learn how to be content without distraction. Once you practice this and know what it feels like it is so much easier to return to the feeling. The calm within becomes like a muscle you want to flex and grow especially when things get stressful.

When we are cognitively taxed all the time, we will have trouble regulating our own emotions. Do you find yourself quick to anger, less able to deal with any little frustration or stressor that pop into your world? Chances are good you are over stimulated. When we can allow ourselves to be idle and bored it can increase your ability to get creative and find a different way of having a meaningful experience. Resist the urge to fill every moment with something. Let your mind drift. Take that nap. Daydream in your backyard. Lie in the grass and look at the clouds. Sit and swing with your kids or grandkids.

Did that just give you a little nudge of “yeah, but that’s unproductive” and you feel guilty for being unproductive? Silvia Bellezza, professor of Marketing at Columbia University’s business school has studied this belief and has a theory. She believes that we have created this notion of being productive and busy as a status symbol. In the research she has done, she found that people who looked busy all the time were regarded as more wealthy than those that didn’t seem busy or productive all the time, especially in the United States. In Europe, this was the exact opposite. In Italy, if they see the person is not working, they immediately think that person is well-off and that’s why they aren’t working. Due to her research she has found that the workaholic lifestyle is seen very positively in the U.S where we think that hard work and putting in extra hours will boost us to the top of society.

Doreen Dodgen-Magee is an award winning author, speaker and psychologist. She has traveled the globe researching about how technology can affect our bodies, brains, relationships and the development of our sense of self. She is a speaker on this topic and also loves to create Boredom Parties to get people out of their techno addiction and back into creative mode. She truly believes that it is so worth it for people to take little mental health rest breaks whenever they can. She believes that taking a break and letting things be more gray is a good thing, especially if you have a very stressful work environment. Allowing your mind to wander and concentrating on your breath is a great way to learn how to soothe yourself.   

Some days, what really matters is honoring your need to unplug and be lazy. Choose to leave your phone in your house as you go out to work in your yard or take a walk. Choose to do whatever you feel like and if that means staying in your PJ’s and cuddling in bed, so be it.

 A good mantra to incorporate into your life: “You are doing enough. You’re doing more than enough. You’re doing great.”

Types of things you can do to bring more boredom to your life: Watch the squirrels Watch the clouds Color in a children’s or adult coloring book Take a leisurely walk around the block without your step counter Take a nap Listen to the wind in the trees or wind chimes Watch the birds Listen for the bird songs Sit by a lake, stream or ocean and listen Breath work exercises- inhale for a count of four, hold the breath for a count of two and exhale for a count of four. Do this 10 times to really feel the shift within your body. 

Here is more information on Doreen and her boredom parties.


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