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Doing things just for fun could be the key to reducing stress says Natasha Devon MBE

Writer and mental health activist Natasha Devon talks frankly about stress, its purpose and how unlocking our constant need to turn a hobby into a side hustle could be the key to reducing stress. Can you remember what it’s like to do something just for fun?

The cultural messages we receive about stress are paradoxical and confusing. On the one hand, we’re told it’s ‘the number one killer’. A potential contributor to serious physical and mental illnesses and therefore to be avoided all costs. On the other, overworking is celebrated. It’s the one ‘flaw’ everyone is happy to admit to having. It’s implied, therefore, that the ability to ignore stress is an indicator of psychological strength.

The purpose of stress

The truth, as always, is far more nuanced. Stress is, in its simplest form, your brain’s way of giving your body a kick up the bum. Its evolutionary purpose is to prevent humans from ‘conserving energy’ by lying around like walruses constantly. We’re an inherently lazy species and a shot of the stress hormone cortisol induces an unpleasant sensation which spurs us to action.

The problem with stress

The problem is, life is more consistently stressful in modern times than it was for our tribal ancestors. Whilst we’re no longer being chased by predators, the world is louder, more frantic, crowded and fast-paced. Furthermore, our brains can’t distinguish between imagined and real causes of stress. The act of worrying amplifies stress, leaving many of us in a vicious circle - stressed about stress.

What we can do about stress relief

Consistent, long term injections of cortisol into the system have a devastating impact physically, psychologically and emotionally. It can interfere with memory, the immune system and contribute to depression.

The key is, then, to keep levels of stress manageable. Mental Health First Aid England, a leading provider of training in this area, recommend taking an hour every day to ‘empty the stress bucket’. This involves the creation of endorphins, which I always think of as nature’s etch-a-sketch, coming in and restoring our chemical balance by wiping our cortisol slate clean.

Broadly speaking, there are three great ways to produce endorphins: physical activity, relaxation and creativity. Activities such as going for a walk or run, playing team sports, writing in a journal, baking or cooking, taking a bath, listening to music, playing an instrument, knitting or handicraft, meditation and spending time with pets (who are magic) are all great stress bucket releases.

The key is in the purpose

Crucially, however, they must be done for their own sake. We can take pride in becoming more competent at a hobby, but must not be undertaking the activity principally for financial or other extrinsic reward in order to gain therapeutic value.

And therein lies the rub - because our social values have robbed many of us of the joy of doing things ‘just because’. In the words of Adrienne Herbert, presenter of the ‘power hour’ podcast: ‘everything has to be a side-hustle, these days’.

Perhaps, then, we need to let go of our socially prescribed motivations and discover the ones which will make us truly healthy and happy.

About Natasha Devon MBE

Natasha Devon MBE is a writer & activist. She tours schools and colleges throughout the UK, delivering talks as well as conducting research on mental health, body image, gender and social equality. She campaigns both on and offline to make the world a fairer place. Her current projects are the Mental Health Media Charter and Where’s Your Head At? which aims to change the law to protect the mental health of British workers. Her new book, A Beginner’s Guide to Being Mental: An A-Z, is out now.


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