At-Home Activities to Engage Your Mind and Release Anxiety

A coloring book page that says "joie de vivre" with colorful markers in green, pink, and gold.

Sometimes the most productive thing you can do is relax. — Mark Black

The world has changed a lot over the course of this year, and on top of it, colder weather and the ongoing pandemic will keep most of us inside for the foreseeable future. However, there are many simple ways to cope with daily stress, without even leaving home.

About one in three American adults say they’ve experienced symptoms of anxiety or depression in the last week. That’s up from about one in 10 people who said they experienced those feelings over the course of a week last January, before a global health crisis led to many people spending much, much more time at home feeling stressed and anxious about the state of the world. 

Even for people who don’t experience those symptoms of anxiety or depression, everyone has times where even the normal stresses of everyday life feel like too much.

Luckily there are many ways to keep those feelings at bay, and many options that don't involve leaving home. 

Experts continue to say getting enough sleep, reaching out to others, practicing breathing techniques, and eating healthy are good ways to keep up good mental health during stressful times, but if you need something do distract you for an hour or two (or even an afternoon), consider these activities that keep your mind and hands busy. 

Engaging your mind during stressful times is helpful because it serves as a necessary distraction, and can give you a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment from getting something done.

“When we think about the body on stress, it’s really fuel for the fight-or-flight response,” says Debra Kissen, who co-chairs the Anxiety and Depression Association of America’s education committee. “It’s just that when our brain continues to feel that we’re in danger when we’re not, that stress starts to create all kinds of physical and emotional problems.”

That’s why having a toolbox of stress-relieving at-home activities is a good idea, she says. Here are a few ways to keep your mind and hands busy during this long winter.

Get zen with a coloring book

An easy way to regain a feeling of control is to focus your attention onto managing one small, clearly defined space. Enter: a coloring page. 

While it may sound a little simplistic, there’s actually serious science behind the calming effect a coloring book can have. 

“It is hard to screw up coloring, and, even if you do, there is no real consequence. As a result, adult coloring can be a wonderful lark, rather than an arduous test of our capacities,” says Cleveland psychologist Scott Bea.

Other researchers have found that coloring activates two specific areas of the cerebral hemispheres, making the task the perfect combination of logic and creativity to decrease stress. Other studies have shown that coloring pages improve productivity. 

With all that in mind, Ink+Volt created a coloring book perfect for providing a mental break. 

Each page features an inspiring phrase and intricate design, leaving the rest up to you. Fill the pages with colors and your own shading techniques (find a few ideas here to help you take your creativity up a notch!), take a deep breath, and allow the coloring page to take your complete focus for a while.

Work a puzzle

When librarians at the University of Delaware started brainstorming ways to reduce student stress during final exam week, they landed on the idea of puzzles. Not sure whether they’d even catch the attention of busy college students, they put them out. Much to their surprise, the librarians said they were a hit.

Now the puzzles are a regular attraction at the library. 

“It’s something that you have to concentrate on a little bit, but you can still be thinking about other things,” says Marie Seymour-Green, electronic resources librarian. “I think it gives a little relief. If you’re reading something intently or you’re trying to memorize something you’re working on for some sort of project, you kind of can still be mulling it over in the back of your mind while you’re working on a puzzle.” 

Puzzles, researchers have found, are great stress relievers for this reason. It’s hard to do much else when you’re doing a puzzle. It’s not an activity designed for multi-tasking, but it’s not so all-consuming you can’t let your brain wander.  

Matching up pieces also feels like a little bit of a win, especially when the world feels so complex. Puzzles are simple. Puzzles have solutions. 

“I usually play with the puzzles just because it is something relaxing,” one UD student said of the puzzles. “I guess it’s just easy to find a match and doing that feels satisfying.”

Write in your journal: process your day or be creative

The benefits to journaling are plenty. It can help reduce stress and anxiety, increase productivity, improve sleep, and so much more. Research has often found that keeping a journal and writing in it often is a great coping mechanism especially when life gets pretty hectic. 

Mental health experts from the University of Rochester Medical Center give these tips for journaling: 

  • Write every day. If you’re able to schedule your journaling, it’ll help you keep the habit up.
  • Make it easy. Keep a pen and notebook handy on your desk or bedside table, or find a journal that helps guide you through the process, like the Ink+Volt Gratitude Journal
  • Write when it feels right. Maybe morning feels like a better time to collect your thoughts. Do it then. Or maybe journaling feels better before sleep. Either way, make it work for you. 
  • Use your journal as you see fit. Use prompts or free write. Keep it private or share. There is no wrong way to journal. 

Your journal doesn't have to be a creative outlet or a place to store your most amazing ideas. You can get the benefits of journaling simply by recording basic facts about your day: the weather, your moods, your tasks. This simple act allows you to reflect and come into the present moment, which is extremely calming.

If you prefer to give your journal a clearer focus, or just want some ideas for what to start writing about, try out these lists of morning journaling prompts and gratitude-focused journaling prompts. Reflecting on gratitude daily is one of the only scientifically proven ways to feel happier, so it's worth a try!

Cook for relaxation

Cooking is a proven way to de-stress and you get a comforting meal out of the deal too. What's not to love about perfecting a new recipe?

A 2016 study of more than 650 people found that people who take on small creative tasks, like cooking or baking, are often happier in their daily lives.

“There is growing recognition in psychology research that creativity is associated with emotional functioning,” says Tamlin Conner, a psychologist with the University of Otago in New Zealand and lead author on the study. “However, most of this work focuses on how emotions benefit or hamper creativity, not whether creativity benefits or hampers emotional well-being.” 

Through the study, Conner and his colleagues were able to concur that the people they were studying did in fact have better emotional well-being when they regularly flexed their creative muscle. 

So why cooking? 

When you're in the kitchen, you have to focus on the task at hand. Not only are you thinking about what you're doing now and what you're doing next, but your body is in motion as well. Whether it be stirring or measuring, our brains and bodies stay focused on making a delicious meal, which allows our minds to disconnect from the other stressors of the day.

Find a recipe you’ve always wanted to try or an old favorite and focus on that for a few hours. When you're done, sit down and enjoy your meal without scrolling through your phone - take the time to savor what you have accomplished.

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