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Is Staying Busy When I’m Going Through It a Crutch, or a Cure-all?

On the one hand, it keeps me from thinking of all the bad things. On the other, it’s a perfect way to avoid ever having to sit with my feelings

As much as mental health experts encourage us to make time to sit with our feelings, there are obviously times — like when experiencing a panic attack or losing our temper — that a distraction can help bring us out of that state. So what about other, bigger, instances? When we’re going through a breakup or experiencing another personal crisis, are we supposed to stay busy, or not?

Studies show that when presented with multiple ways of completing a simple task, most people will choose whichever option leaves them with the least idle time — and they report feeling happier as a result. And though prior to the 1950s, leisure was considered a sign of wealth and power, research indicates that we now often associate busyness with a higher social status. So it makes sense why we might derive self-esteem and self-worth from seeming busier than everyone else. But again, is staying busy a healthy life skill or just another way to avoid our feelings while acting superior to everyone else? 

Psychotherapist Dana Colthart admits it’s a delicate balance, but staying busy and distracted can be a good coping mechanism, especially when you’re experiencing overwhelming levels of distress. When this happens, Colthart recommends a technique known as “urge surfing,” wherein you learn to “tolerate the discomfort and wait for the emotions to pass.” Basically, when you’re grieving a significant loss, a packed calendar can double as your metaphorical surfboard. “Staying busy can assist in waiting for the urges to pass and make the distress easier to tolerate,” Colthart explains. 

Fellow therapist Christian Bumpous agrees that staying busy can also be therapeutic in cases of depression because the symptoms “often correlate with our nervous system going into conservation mode and literally shutting down.” Like exercise, staying busy can introduce movement and activity back into your schedule to get your nervous system going again. 

But like exercise, too, if staying busy is the only coping skill you have in your arsenal, it could easily turn into a problem. Case in point: There’s evidence that chronic busyness can lead to tunnel vision, a loss of IQ points and burnout, among other things. Similarly, if you identify more as anxious than depressed, staying busy can serve as more of a “Band-Aid and distraction” than a change in your state of mind. “Then, as soon as you stop being busy, anxiety usually returns,” Bumpous warns. 

In other words, you can’t stay busy forever. So instead of trying to outrun every emotion or wallowing in them, Bumpous recommends putting each coping mechanism on the opposite side of a spectrum. “Neither is likely a long-term solution to dealing with emotions effectively,” Bumpous says. 

As with all things, it’s balance that you’re striving for — understanding the moments you need to move like a shark because you feel as though you might die otherwise as well as when it’s time to stop swimming in all of those circles because what you really need is a moment to breathe again.