Too Busy? Not Busy Enough?
A recent consultation with a patient got us thinking about activities and depression. The patient was saying that she was not looking forward to the long 4th of July weekend because she had to plan some activities to keep busy, because this is not a holiday that has a lot of actions to take, other than picnicking and relaxing. She was looking for some volunteer work that she could do, thinking that it would help her mood stability. She commented that in the week past, she was called for an opening for some elective surgery and preparations for this kept her busy. She spent some time on house cleaning because she knew it would make her feel better to come home for recovery if the house was clean. This, and some required paperwork, kept her time occupied and boosted her mood.
The idea that busyness keeps depression at bay got us thinking about a time when we were working in psychological emergency services and saw a dramatic drop in patient numbers after an earthquake, when we had expected that there might be more demand for emergency services.
What we found was that a lot of people, including bipolar and depressed patients, kind of rallied to help out with disaster response and that, apparently, reduced their own need for psychiatric intervention. The patient agreed, and commented that, at the time of the earthquake, she had been working two jobs already and started volunteering with COVID response. She felt healthy and motivated during the whole seven month period and even met some weight loss goals as well.
It may be worth pointing out that busyness does not “cure” depression or mood swings. Mental illness is a chronic condition that requires management over the entire life span; you can’t just “snap out of it”. However, giving careful attention to the daily and weekly schedule of activities is an important part of this management, and underemployment can sometimes be as unhealthy as overwork.
In this regard, we can recommend the book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi available through Amazon here. This helpful book talks about the idea that life being too slow can be just as stressful as being overworked.
One alternative is to consider taking on some “pleasurable” activities such as gardening or any kind of volunteer work that makes you feel like you’re making an important contribution to some necessary goal or vision. Another piece of the puzzle may be adding in some form of exercise: an aerobics class, hiking or biking, or just walking around the neighborhood. Spending time with family members, especially children, reading interesting books, artwork or any of numerous other activities may be helpful ways to keep the mind occupied and the mood swings at bay. What has your experience been?