Activities to help me 'get out of my head'
August 11, 2016 5:15 PM   Subscribe

I'm an anxious beanplater in desperate need of a positive distraction. I want to come up with a long list of activities I can refer to that will help me 'get out of my head' - in other words, the activities are so (manageably, safely) intense or consuming or absorbing that I don't have the time or mental space to waste on unimportant worries and anxieties that would otherwise eat me alive. Effectively helping me to "get out of" my head and stop obsessive thoughts.

I'm fairly fit and most of what I've come up with, thus far, has been athletic in nature. Examples of such activities: training for a marathon or century bike ride, or an intense mountain hike. Reading a page turner. Something artistic that keeps me on my toes? Listening to hours of Tuvan or Buddhist Throat Singing. [Silent] Soto Zen meditation. Volunteering of some kind.

I don't know what else. But I'd love to put together a long list that I can refer to over the next several months and years. The idea is to have a nice long list of options for new projects or activities, that I can turn to whenever I feel anxious and need to stop overthinking.

The activities don't have to be epic, they just need to be effective at keeping my mind so busy there's no time for the drama I create in my head.*

The more specific, the better! Personal experiences/anecdotes are welcome!

*Yes I see a therapist and am on medication. I am just looking for ways to distract myself from obsessive thoughts. Because it works well for me. Many thank yous in advance!
posted by nightrecordings to Health & Fitness (51 answers total) 95 users marked this as a favorite
Really hard jigsaw puzzles (even better when listening to podcasts) are my godsend for this. I also love lap swimming--I was initially scared by the thought of exercising without headphones and just being *ALONE WITH MY THOUGHTS* but it's very meditative (at least for me, as I have to really concentrate on my breathing and coordination and I find that there's no room for rumination).
posted by lovableiago at 5:19 PM on August 11, 2016 [6 favorites]

Rock climbing (in a gym, for me) - it's probably one of the only activities I do during which I absolutely can't think about anything else but focusing on my route strategy.
posted by majesty_snowbird at 5:23 PM on August 11, 2016 [2 favorites]

Bouldering / rock climbing.
Yoga that's challenging. (You can kinda think about other things, but it will affect your balance, etc.)
posted by salvia at 5:25 PM on August 11, 2016 [1 favorite]

Not sure how this is going to go over with anyone here, but I avidly and regularly play Candy Crush (the "Soda" one, if it matters) when I'm experiencing obsessive thoughts. I like it because it only give you five rounds so you don't end up burning too much time in one go but you have to actually concentrate to move up a level. It's a helpful reset for my brain when I need a break from thinking.

Another strategy-- clean something. Like... one drawer in your kitchen. That's nice because at the end of that I've accomplished something but it doesn't take too much mental energy and yet requires enough thought to distract from the everyday broken record mental nag sessions that my anxiety likes to produce.

Go to the library and pick random books up and read their inner jacket flaps. You'll leave with books to read, which will create further opportunities to get out of your head.

Best of luck!
posted by Temeraria at 5:40 PM on August 11, 2016 [5 favorites]

Sudoku, learn to play classical guitar, learn to juggle, play mini games at
posted by pixlboi at 5:44 PM on August 11, 2016 [4 favorites]

Any combat sport will pretty much have that effect while sparring. Muay thai is my personal preference, but I imagine it's pretty similar for boxing, MMA, jujitsu, etc. I also found when I tried juggling that it was kind of a physical meditation/mental reset.

Language learning? I find concentrating on Pimsleur while taking a short walk to be something where I have to pay attention or I will forget the new stuff (plus, you get some degree of utility out of it!)
posted by tautological at 5:46 PM on August 11, 2016 [2 favorites]

The game Mini Metro is engaging and aesthetically pleasing.
posted by delight at 5:50 PM on August 11, 2016 [2 favorites]

Transcribing the Metafilter podcast!

(Transcript is open on the newest episode!)
posted by duffell at 5:52 PM on August 11, 2016 [6 favorites]

Playing an instrument can be incredibly absorbing. Specifically (for me) working on learning a new song; if not interrupted by other things, I can zone out and lose hours as I work on building the mental map/muscle memory of a new piece; it gets addictive as parts slowly fall into place. "Wow, I got it! Now on to the next part..." and once you build a repertoire it's also nice to just sit and play songs you know. Your brain is paying too much attention to what your hands are doing to think about other stuff.

(If you've never played an instrument, don't let that discourage you - I would suggest ukulele; you can get a decent starter instrument for about $50. Check out Kala soprano ukes on Amazon) and there are endless lesson videos on YouTube, for both basic technique and specific songs. Check out the ukulele tag on Ask MeFi too.)
posted by usonian at 5:53 PM on August 11, 2016 [8 favorites]

This sounds like a job for video games!
posted by sexyrobot at 5:59 PM on August 11, 2016 [10 favorites]

Don't laugh, but paint by number kits are incredibly absorbing to a degree that helps with my anxiety when I am too anxious for actual creative pursuits (and then you have tacky "art" to hang in your garage.)
posted by kapers at 6:11 PM on August 11, 2016 [3 favorites]

I can confirm what other folks are saying about learning an instrument. This is a big part of why I play the bass. It is the closest I will ever come to meditation, because while I have no interest in being alone in my own head, I still sometimes get stuck in unwanted thought loops. I highly recommend picking up a musical instrument and taking a few lessons to get started.

Another option is knitting. Once you get the basics down you can choose trickier patterns and that will also force you to focus your attention.

And while I finding cooking to be stressful and not at all rewarding, my sweetie finds the same effect with elaborate recipes.

Good luck. I will be keeping an eye on this thread for ideas as well!
posted by Hopeful and Cynical at 6:22 PM on August 11, 2016 [5 favorites]

I took a drawing class at my local art museum and found it great for this. Concentrating on the art work sort of used a different muscle in my brain -- paint by numbers would also do this, but I think the benefit for me of the class was that we all had to turn off our phones and put them away.

Also, jigsaw and podcasts. A great combo for this.
posted by Countess Sandwich at 6:28 PM on August 11, 2016 [1 favorite]

I find reading aloud does exactly that (and it is one of the reasons I do this). Whether you are reading a newspaper to shut-ins, or recording magazines for people with visual disabilities, or reading aloud to schoolkids - there's almost no way to be thinking about other things if you are trying to do a good job reading aloud.
posted by BillMcMurdo at 6:33 PM on August 11, 2016

Crossword puzzles. Not just for the Olds anymore.
posted by sparklemotion at 6:37 PM on August 11, 2016

When I'm playing Pokemon Go I find it hard to concentrate on anything else. There's the physical aspect of it (having to be conscious of your surroundings so you don't trip and fall) and something new pops up often enough if you're in an area with lots of Pokestops and lures that you're almost always doing something in the app.
posted by MsMolly at 6:38 PM on August 11, 2016 [1 favorite]

Take a class in ornithology through your local Audbon or community college. If learning warblers or gulls doesn't keep your brain occupied then I don't know what to tell you! (If you are in the right kind of class you can have long disagreements about whether that bird's legs are orange or pink. It matters!)
posted by rtha at 6:44 PM on August 11, 2016 [2 favorites]

I make things for this. I build furniture, I sew clothing, things like that.
posted by mchorn at 6:47 PM on August 11, 2016 [3 favorites]

I was thinking crochet or knitting, especially tricker patterns where you really have to keep track of what you're doing, count your stitches, etc... (so long as you don't mind lots of counting - I find it soothing).

Complicated colouring books.

Um, sex?
posted by jrobin276 at 6:51 PM on August 11, 2016 [1 favorite]

+ 1 for video games and jigsaw puzzles - if you're into that sorta thing.

Whenever I'm really working on art I completely zone out. I put a dumb TV show or a fun podcast or music on in the background and get to work. You don't have to be good at art to do this, just get a sketchpad and some pencils and start drawing stuff around you. It really blocks out "thoughts" because you're trying to visually translate what you see and then get it down onto a page. Literally just start drawing stuff around you.

Also it's an easy thing to take with you. Lots of artistic people carry a little tiny sketch notebook and pen or you can even draw okay on your phone though it's usually less controllable. It really makes you completely focus on the lines and districts from everything else - at least for me. I'm often able to block out my chronic illness when I'm working on art - or at least push through it.
posted by Crystalinne at 6:56 PM on August 11, 2016

When I used to teach painting and drawing at a local not-for-profit art centre the classes were full of people like you. I had scientists, uni students, parents, dentists, librarians and psychologists happily painting and drawing away. I remember one woman, who worked in some kind of medical field and had a family, telling me it was the only few hours of the week where she could think about nothing. She was very upfront about the fact that she knew her work was technically kind of lousy but that it didn't matter in the slightest. I loved teaching there too - no grading, just feedback and people working because they enjoyed it in some way. So I say sign up for a class, either drawing/painting from observation or something more expressive depending on your personality. If you can find a ceramics class I'd also highly recommend it. Most people find hand building more immediately gratifying but there's not much that can compete with the wheel (once you get the hang of it) for guiding you to a zen state.
posted by Cuke at 7:30 PM on August 11, 2016 [6 favorites]

Tetris is a great distraction for me. I find it very soothing, too.
posted by blackzinfandel at 8:13 PM on August 11, 2016

Exercise, my choice is fencing which is both physically and mentally involving.

Also, plot driven novels... often youth lit is really good for sucking you in.
posted by chapps at 8:36 PM on August 11, 2016

Adult beginner Irish dancing classes did this for me. Actually aerobics classes with complicated choreography work, too. I'm too busy trying not to randomly flail around to think about anything else.

I also like lap swimming. I los track of how many laps I've swum if I don't constantly repeat the number in my head, so I tend just to focus on the number. It's pretty meditative: like a koan or something.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 8:40 PM on August 11, 2016

Genealogical research has been great for me for exactly this. There are so many more great resources out there beyond, which is a great starting point. I also enjoy Pokemon Go to get outside and hunt, and volunteering at food banks and homeless shelters.
posted by soakimbo at 8:49 PM on August 11, 2016 [1 favorite]

Learn poetry by heart, repeat what you know to yourself, if you can talk try different performances of it.
posted by clew at 8:54 PM on August 11, 2016

many of these are terrific. at some point, after all the distraction and energy leaks, you'll come back to the question, "what now?"

observe the out-breath. it's really all we can count on.
posted by j_curiouser at 10:04 PM on August 11, 2016 [1 favorite]

Ballroom dancing is not only a great full-body exercise, it's a partnership. You must pay attention, you must learn, you must commit to the dance. There's nothing better for getting out of your head because not only are you learning a dance, you are learning how to work with a partner to perfect the pattern. And after a short time, you begin to feel the exhilaration. And it never ends. That's dance. Go enjoy.
posted by MovableBookLady at 11:14 PM on August 11, 2016 [1 favorite]

I use the quick reaction/twitch/reflex games for this. Like Super Hexagon or Rolling Sky. Really, anything where I don't have time to think; just to react.
posted by Weeping_angel at 12:22 AM on August 12, 2016

I get into a zone when playing with Lego. A similar feeling when I was removing excess plastic from a 3D printed candleholder. Colouring has definitely nabbed the zeitgeist here to the point of eyerolling, but it does really work for some people.

Tetris. Washing dishes. Texting a friend randomly.
posted by freethefeet at 12:46 AM on August 12, 2016

Learning from the Audible versions of those "Great Courses" lectures has been like getting access to the very best professors, one on CBT by James Satterfield was so good I ended up getting the DVD too.

Group classes in a gym where you get carried along by the energy of the group and aren't in your head struggling for self-motivation.

Language learning, for me Spanish, open a whole world up to me, in the past this included travel to Spain and then as I gained more confidence going to language schools in Peru and Argentina where I met some lovely people. Now I have a Skype lesson which can be as good as therapy, just a pure conversation practice class not a grammar lesson. I also have made friends in faraway places like Quito, Ecuador who want to practice their English in exchange for giving me the opportunity to practice Spanish. This is a hobby that can be done for free or very low cost and you can enjoy it as a hobby even if you have no plans to visit a Spanish-speaking country at all (or the country of whatever language you choose to study).
posted by AuroraSky at 12:52 AM on August 12, 2016 [5 favorites]

posted by like_neon at 1:56 AM on August 12, 2016

Cleaning house. Wash windows. Wax a floor. I go for a walk along the creek near my house and pick up trash.
posted by fixedgear at 2:16 AM on August 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

Plane spotting is amazing fun, develops your photography skills, and is a great way for a detailed mind to get into the nerdiest of details. You need not camp out at your airport's perimeter fence with a massive camera (though many airports are happy to have you!) but you may get the best photos that way.

I use the FlightBoard and FlightRadar24 apps and lurk on the Flyertalk and forums. You can also visit air shows!
posted by mdonley at 3:03 AM on August 12, 2016

Hanjie is my go-to option for distraction. Pairs well with a podcast or TV show played in the background to soothe my anxiety through many sensory channels. I like how methodical it is, and the "big reveal" of the picture you decipher.

It's all about the process for me, so I don't super care if I make mistakes, which is a nice exercise in and of itself. Also, like sudoku, it's very portable so you can do it anywhere if you have a book or print off grids from the many sites online.

I tend to do Hanjie in bed to bridge late night anxiety, whilst my mother-in-law found it very useful as an activity to do in hospital during long periods of time she needed to fill when visiting a patient.
posted by thetarium at 3:27 AM on August 12, 2016 [2 favorites]

Yoga poses that you are in the process of learning--for me right now, that's balancing stuff and inversions. Something that you have to really focus on to be able to try, or do--like, can I balance on my forearms while my legs go over my head? Do I adjust myself this way or that way? Am I breathing?
posted by Hypatia at 7:20 AM on August 12, 2016

Puzzles. All kinds of puzzles. Logic problems and crosswords are my go to versions.
posted by tafetta, darling! at 7:26 AM on August 12, 2016

Similar question from not too long ago.
posted by craven_morhead at 8:10 AM on August 12, 2016

I personally took up acoustic guitar for this exact reason. My job is stressful in that 90% of my day is problem solving unsolvable questions for multiple people. Sometimes, if an elegant solution cannot be found, I will obsess about it for days. Sitting down with the guitar and learning new songs / chords / scales / theory, quiets my mind and makes me focus on the physical aspects of playing.
posted by Benway at 10:11 AM on August 12, 2016

I am regularly amazed at how photography and birdwatching clear my head of chatter.

Grab a camera or a pair of binoculars and go out looking for something. I take pictures of buildings (and also birds, if they come into my field of vision), and once I'm looking at a building, or a bird, suddenly that's all my brain seems to care about. I can be having the most intense, irritating political debate in my head, and suddenly I see a bird, find it with my binoculars, and everything else in my brain just goes away while I watch the bird.

I never expected such simple activities to produce this kind of focus, but it happens for me pretty much every time.
posted by kristi at 10:17 AM on August 12, 2016 [2 favorites]

I have a crazy anxious brain most of the time too. I do knit, and I love knitting, especially lace, but I find sashiko embroidery even more soothing than knitting.

The marks for the stitches are preprinted and so it's all just concentrating on getting your stitches an even length.

Right now I am rewatching Midsomer Murders (I find police procedurals relaxing) and working on these amazing jellyfish. There are also all manner of more traditional geometrics to choose from. This one was very engrossing!
posted by Squeak Attack at 10:55 AM on August 12, 2016 [6 favorites]

Depending on where you live, you could try taking an improv class - incredibly helpful training to be present and engaged. I'll also second knitting, the more complicated patterns are great for getting you out of your head.
posted by vacuumsealed at 11:19 AM on August 12, 2016

Best answer: Your results may vary, of course, but I have found that something like running does not stop me from thinking those thoughts, because I can run and think at the same time. The same is true for things like colouring, or sewing adult clothing, because I can think and colour and think and sew long seams at the same time.

In the long run, you will be happier if you learn to work with your intrusive thoughts and ruminations, so I hope you will consider some customized cognitive therapy as well as finding distractions.

There are several activities that require a brain switch. There was a popular book out at one time that was named "Drawing on the Right Side of Your Brain" which taught how to do this kind of a brain switch, from labeling and using symbols to actually observing. Another type of brain switch you may be familiar with is the switch you hit when changing languages. In order to turn on Spanish you have to turn off English and actually think in Spanish and visa versa. So ideally perhaps you are looking for activities that aren't just amusing pastimes you can think about while you do them, but activities that require a brain switch where the worry-ruminate part of your brain goes quiet and the different part of your brain lights up.

Creative and complex things will use up more brain than simple, rote activities or activities that you can delegate to your reptilian brain, like running. I think paint by number would be more effective than simple colouring because you have to keep picking the right colour and matching it to the same tiny spaces, rather than being able grab a random coloured pencil and applying it to a random geometric design. Learning or memorizing something is also more brain intensive, and likely to distract you successfully.

When you are worried and anxious, do you think in words primarily, or in emotions primarily? If you think in words, other words would drown out the thoughts you don't want to work on right now, perhaps better than they would drown out your emotions. It is possible to think two different words at the same time, say "Fire" and "Baby", or to recite the Pledge of Allegiance while listening to the radio, but most people find it difficult to recite the Pledge of Allegiance backwards at the same time as they listen to the weather report. On the other hand, it is not so difficult to recite the Pledge of Allegiance backwards while continuing to feel anxious or scared.

If you are trying not to feel as much as you are trying not to think, your imagination can be useful for entraining with your emotion and leading you into a new emotion. Let's say your are scared, a general hopeless feeling of being helpless and in danger, due to reading up on global warming. Rather than start with scared and trying to jump immediately into Sudoku, you might find it works to start by thinking of something else that you are afraid of but not actually in danger from, such as - well, bears for example. Your distraction activity can be based on reassuring yourself that you are not actually in danger from bears. It will be convincing, because you are not.

Your brain can be surprisingly easy to fool. If you start your daily marathon training run while being afraid of humanity being wiped out by global warming, or afraid of losing your job, and you tell yourself that there is a grizzly bear behind you, but if you reach the 1 km marker before he gets you will be safe, once you pass the 1 km marker you will feel safer. You can use strategies like this to knowingly change your emotional state. Five imaginary grizzly bears and five real kilometers later, you will have dialed back the fear enough that you can think about your fear of job loss, without it being so intense that you can't tolerate thinking about it at all.

So if you think and worry in words, find something word intensive to get yourself out of the unwelcome thoughts. If you think in emotions find positive emotions to pull yourself out of the unwelcome thoughts.
posted by Jane the Brown at 11:38 AM on August 12, 2016 [18 favorites]

I do woodworking, and keep picking projects that are slightly beyond my skills.

It's a hands-on puzzle that requires innovation and focus.
posted by talldean at 7:31 PM on August 12, 2016

Surfing and sailing are made for this. Go to nature.
posted by clark at 12:07 AM on August 13, 2016

If Jane the Brown's bears answer in particular is helpful, here's a game where zombies chase after you as you run.

Acting, improv, spoken word, any other stage performance does this for me - getting the drama out of my head and onto the stage. I get to revel in being a drama queen and transmute my angst.

Also circus!
posted by divabat at 5:24 AM on August 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

I'm very much the same way and I've found that cooking is pretty much the only thing guaranteed to keep my mind from anxious thoughts. It engages just enough of it and requires enough mental bandwidth (planning, visualization, task management) to keep me diverted without "grinding my gears" as it wear. Plus it's fun and you get food at the end!
I'm aware that when you first start cooking for yourself it can be a bit stress-inducing, but once you get used it, I find it really works. I find it works for every stage of the process: meal planning, shopping, prep, and the actual preparation.
Find some simple recipes if you are not an experienced cook (Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything is a pretty decent start, or the more recent Food Lab book) and see if it works for you as well as it does for me.
posted by saltykmurks at 5:47 AM on August 15, 2016

Read aloud a favorite story. Pick a story that builds to a happy or reassuring ending. Get into the characters and imbue them with life through your voice. Let the brought-to-life story change your headspace.
posted by storybored at 9:09 PM on August 15, 2016

This can be an expensive option if you use a trainer but I've found barbell weightlifting to be one of the most unexpectedly meditative things I've ever done. When you're doing complex compound movements to get the bar off the ground, above your head, to squat down with it on your back, etc., and trying to perfect your form at the same time, you really can't think about anything else. And because many of the moves are explosive, they can be wonderfully cathartic and are great at yanking your awareness away from your thoughts and into your body.
posted by treepour at 8:51 AM on August 16, 2016 [1 favorite]

Over the years I've turned to surfing, mountain biking, and pickup basketball to get me out of my thoughts and fully present with what I'm doing. Playing guitar, too. And singing. Sing!
posted by Lyme Drop at 6:28 PM on August 17, 2016

For me, "Perplexus" puzzles are the perfect blend of tactility, exploration, and carefully-controlled movements. Zone right out.

Also, +1 to musical instruments and Lego.
posted by adamkempa at 5:03 AM on August 18, 2016

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