Almost any activity could help take your mind off your troubles as long as you are mentally engaged, say PhD candidate Bonnie Hayden Cheng and Associate Professor Julie McCarthy (photo by Ken Jones)

Forget your troubles; why it's good to avoid problems

Step away from stress, researchers say

When it comes to managing the multiple responsibilities of a busy life you may want to try avoiding your problems, according to new research published in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology.

The paper, by PhD candidate Bonnie Hayden Cheng and Associate Professor Julie McCarthy from the University of Toronto Scarborough’ s Department of Management and the Rotman School of Management, suggests there are benefits to stepping back and actively taking your mind off your responsibilities.

Cheng and McCarthy sampled a group of university students faced with the challenge of managing work, family and school responsibilities. The research focused on two distinct avoidance strategies – one including actively taking one’s mind off their problems; the other hoping those problems will simply disappear.

They found those who actively took their mind off their problems were better able to manage those multiple responsibilities and experienced increased levels of satisfaction than those who simply hoped the problems would go away.

“Avoidance in terms of taking a mental break is so crucial to managing multiple responsibilities as long as it doesn’t cross over into wishful thinking,” says Cheng.

While notions of avoidance have traditionally been viewed as counterproductive, the process of taking your mind off your responsibilities does not necessarily imply not dealing with them, notes Cheng. On the other hand, she says that hoping your problems will simply disappear can make matters worse. In fact, this strategy has parallels with the type of distorted cognition associated with depression.

“Wishing for our problems to go away is counterproductive because there’s an element of learned helplessness, of having no control over our responsibilities,” says Cheng. 

McCarthy says the research shows the importance of cognitive disengagement – that is focusing the mind away from those challenging tasks and on to something completely unrelated.

“Our resources are finite and need to be replenished, so it’s important to not only physically recover, but mentally recover as well,” she says.

“It’s not enough to just go for a jog or a bike ride to relieve stress if you keep ruminating about everything you have to do at work or at home. In that case you are still not mentally disengaged.”

This type of work recovery research is becoming increasingly important as companies and organizations look for ways to help employees balance the stresses of work and life. It also resonates with students, many of whom are balancing part-time work, helping take care of their families and going to school.

“Anxiety levels are on the rise, there are more work-duo couples and everything points to a more stressful society. The need to conserve and replenish resources is taking on greater importance,” says McCarthy.

“Making the most of that time in your life when you can mentally disengage is so critical for family and personal well-being.”

Don Campbell is a writer with the University of Toronto Scarborough.

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