Recent hospitalization and death statistics related to COVID-19 reveal that the pandemic’s medical threat has dramatically declined. Covid in the U.S.: Latest Maps, Case and Death Counts – The New York Times (nytimes.com) That said, other studies show that the pandemic, together with other factors, has had a devastating impact on America’s mental health. Rates of anxiety and depression have risen among all age groups and the number of people seeking counseling is sky-rocketing. Americans’ Reported Mental Health at New Low; More Seek Help (gallup.com)
Experts believe that the cause of this problem is complex and actually pre-dates COVID-19. Such things as the internet and 24/7 on-line and cable news as well as the omni presence of smart phones and social media have over-loaded our ability to process so much distressing information. Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation? – The Atlantic In other words, it’s not just the alarming content of things like mass shootings or war but the non-stop bombardment of the reports which have created a mental health crisis.
Another crucial element exacerbating the problem is America’s poor level of self-care and trivialized attitude toward leisure. Studies have shown that our nation’s traditional hard-work-no time-for play ethic has interfered with our society’s ability to cope with stress. Not giving ourselves sufficient time to recharge has caught many Americans with dead emotional batteries.
Despite various attempts to educate the public about the importance of self care, disdain for recreation persists. Evidence of this view is seen in Cadillac’s 2014 Super Bowl commercial. Cadillac’s viral ad glorifies America’s crazy work ethic — but my French in-laws don’t buy it | The World from PRX In it, a smarmy guy strolls around his pool extoling America’s superior work ethic over European’s who take so many vacations.
His message is that only by working hard can one afford to buy expensive cars. Ironically, studies have shown that people who push too much and recreate too little are less productive. The Case for Vacation: Why Science Says Breaks Are Good for Productivity – The Atlantic Indeed, self-care is not a luxury or waste of time. Leisure is not only important for personal happiness and resilient mental health, it also is necessary for top performance.
In addition to being false, the hard work myth creates a psychological problem. The persistence in traditional attitude has caused many to develop a psychological condition that I would call Leisure Deficiency.
Fortunately, leisure deficiency is treatable. Thus, today, I want to discuss 1) How this false belief arose, 2) How to tell if you suffer from leisure deficiency and 3) Why leisure is important and 4) What can be done to incorporate leisure into your regular routine.
1) Why We Are Uncomfortable with Leisure
Although the hard work ethic may have been necessary earlier in our nation’s history, technology has made that sacrifice unnecessary. Focusing only on the work to be done and not own individual needs impairs our ability to set limits and to address self-care needs. Our Protestant all work and no-play culture has programmed many Americans to mistrust leisure. The saying “The devil finds work for idle hands” is not just a slogan but a deeply held fear. https://revmichaelheath.com/bursting-the-hard-work-myth-the-importance-of-leisure/
It goes without saying that much of the fear and mistrust of leisure stems from Christianity’s sinful view of the human nature. Even though America is a largely secular society, for many self-care is selfish and guilt-ridden.
2) Why Leisure Is Important
It is important to understand that leisure or non-demand neural activity (NDNA) is necessary for brain health. In addition to unconscious rest (sleep), conscious rest (leisure) is also vital. The brain uses pauses in demand to repair the neuropathways which were damaged by stress. Without repair, our brain is simply less efficient and more prone to making mistakes.
3) How to Tell If You Are Leisure Deficient
You may have a leisure deficiency if :**
a) You feel overwhelmed by life.
b) You have trouble sleeping.
c) You have lost interest in or can’t find time for sex.
d) You can’t remember when you took time off or had a vacation or don’t have one planned.
e) You feel that there just isn’t enough time for leisure or that there is always something more important to do than to rest or to take a vacation.
4) How to Build Leisure into a Healthy Life Style
a) Recognize the importance of leisure. Ask yourself how you learned your attitudes about self-care and vacations. Challenge and reality-test the guilt you feel for not working. Talk to your doctor or therapist about the significance of relaxation.
b) Understand that leisure comes in many forms. Leisure many not be what you think. Making time for leisure doesn’t mean that you have go to Cancun every month. Longer vacations are fine but we also need intermediate-length and brief moments to call time out.
For example, taking a weekend to get-away from time to time is a good way to fight stress and to hit the reset button. Likewise, regularly getting together with friends or having massages can provide important stress breaks. Listening to music, taking daily walks, making time for prayer or meditation are also just a few simple ways in which you can build leisure into your daily, weekly, or monthly schedule.
(Once your realize the importance of leisure and make room for it in your schedule, it is important to keep and eye on your progress. In future blog posts I will provide tips to help you self-monitor your own stress levels.)
Perhaps the biggest obstacle to overcome in eliminating a leisure deficit is false guilt. Many feel at first that simply don’t have the time or that other things are more important. Nonsense ! Like they remind parents before take-off on a plane, in the case of the loss of cabin pressure, put your mask on first . You are of no use to anyone if you lose consciousness.
While it’s true that lowering stress through increased self-care and leisure activities won’t solve all psychological problems, it can make a big impact for many. Indeed, when compared with other self-improvement efforts, learning to relax more is not an unpleasant option.
Rev. Michael Heath, LMHC, Fellow AAPC 5/01/2023
** Note Bene — Leisure Deficiency is not an official psychological disorder. These symptoms simply illustrative. Please consult your doctor or therapist for a more complete assessment .