A new flow: Find relaxation in the hobby chest, not the wine glass

Celeste Pinney, Nurse & Midwife Support Clinician
Hobbies and pasttimes are a powerful tool to counter problems related to substance use. Nurse & Midwife Support’s Celeste Pinney writes about finding healthy outlets as an alternative to drinking and drug use.
This issue deals with sensitive issues including problems related to substance use. This is a complex and sensitive area and may be triggering for some, difficult for others and result in strong emotions. If this topic raises issues for you, now may not be the right time for you to read it. Give us a call on Nurse & Midwife Support on 1800 667 877 if you would like to talk about what you are feeling.

man plays guitar on his couch

The Delta wave has left many of us feeling like we’re drowning in a soup of stress. Life as we know it, at least for now, has changed quite dramatically. Stress is now the norm for many and stress, as unavoidable as it sometimes is, can have far-reaching and deleterious impacts on our emotional, physical, and mental wellbeing, especially if sustained and not managed well.

There are many evidence-based strategies we can use to buffer the impacts of stress. Examples include: 

As health practitioners, most of us know this, but when we’re struggling it can be hard to ground ourselves and we might instead turn to harmful coping strategies. Right now many of us are working long shifts wearing PPE, with too many patients and not enough staff. When we leave work we’re still struggling with lockdown fatigue and the fear of contracting COVID. In these circumstances the task of caring for oneself and implementing self-care practises may feel like an insurmountable task. 

In times of heightened stress, it can be tempting to reach for the quick fix stress reliever. We might find one glass of wine turning into two, three, or more. As we build up our tolerance it can take more and more just to feel normal. It turns into an unhelpful cycle of alcohol use that ends up just exacerbating our distress. 

Here are some suggestions to avoid that cycle and find simple and easy ways to bring contentedness, joy, and ease into your lives in other ways.

Take control of your feelings

COVID-19 has reminded us that we don’t always have control over what happens in life. This can be frightening and confronting. It’s important to remind ourselves that while we can’t control what happens to us, we do have a say in how we respond to situations — it is, if you’ll forgive the pun, our response-ability. 

We can control our words and actions, how we hold ourselves, and how we decide to spend our free time. Managing the uncertainty in our lives is an important skill we can learn to develop. 

Research shows that we can make important contributions to our own happiness, even when facing adversity. In the paper Pursuing Happiness: The Architecture of Sustainable Change, psychologists Lyubomirsky, Sheldon and Schkade explored how happiness could be increased and sustained. They demonstrated that 50% of our happiness is determined by genetics, and another 10% is determined by circumstance. That leaves a 40% window for us to take intentional action towards improving our satisfaction in life. Building inner resources to cope with difficulties is a crucial life skill. The pandemic may just be a pertinent time to practice developing effective strategies.

Choose nourishing activities

It’s common for people who would like to make changes to their drinking or other substance use to report that they feel boredom and disengagement in addition to persistent anxiety. Introducing healthy hobbies and engaging activities is therefore an important tool to make change. 

Our largest cities are finally emerging from lockdown, but it will probably be a while before the full range of leisure activities are available to us. In the meantime, you’re probably looking for ways to pass the time — and some activities are better for your mental health than others.

Veg mindfully 

A Netflix or Instagram binge might sometimes feel irresistible, but research shows that overindulging in activities like watching TV or browsing on social media can damage our health. These kinds of activities can be very passive and often don’t help us learn new skills or hobbies. Whilst we get a quick hit of dopamine from these activities, it doesn’t really change our state of mind in a way our brains need to feel better in the long term. Many people end up feeling like they’ve wasted their time, and report feeling more anxious and depressed the more time they spend scrolling. 

If you reflect and feel you genuinely enjoy watching tv or the time you spend on TikTok, we’re not saying you should cut them out altogether — but try to be present and engage mindfully. For example, if you love TV mysteries, consider setting up a Crime Club with your friends and meeting monthly to discuss what you’ve watched. When you’re exhausted, that might sound like a lot of effort, but in the long run increasing your engagement will increase your energy. 

The neuropsychology of ‘flow’ 

Creative, engaging activities are more likely to put us in a state known as ‘flow’, which induces a feeling of being completely absorbed in the present moment. We can probably all relate to having this experience this at some stage in our lives, even if only briefly — and how wonderful it can feel. 

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi began researching flow states in the 1970s and discovered that it wasn’t the absence of stress or challenge that generated life satisfaction, but absorbed focus on meaningful activity. He observed

“The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times . . . The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”

Steven Kotler, Executive Director of the Flow Research Collective suggests that when in a flow state, our brain waves transition from the faster-moving beta waves to the borderline between the slower alpha and theta waves. This neurobiological activity promotes creativity. Kotler also observes that when in flow, “dorsolateral prefrontal cortex—the part of the brain charged with self-monitoring and impulse control—goes quiet. The DLPFC is our inner critic, that voice of doubt and disparagement.” 

Positive psychology research backs up the suggestion that spending time on creative goals leads to improved experiences of mental health and is associated with feelings of joy, happiness, and optimism. Being creative can be a wellness solution. Alongside healthy eating, exercise, and sleep, including some form of creative activity in your life can be a potent mind body approach that you can add to your toolkit.

Activities for growth 

So if activities designed for zoning out can be harmful, what kind of activities are good for us? 

The authors of Increasing happiness in the general population: Empirically supported self-help suggest that some activities can help calm and soothe our nervous systems. Based on research, they identified three key criteria for beneficial activities: 

  • meaning 
  • engagement and enjoyment
  • ability to persevere. 

Activities that meet these criteria are more likely to create a lasting change in life satisfaction. 

So what are those activities? It’s different for everyone! Some ideas are: 

  • arts and crafts
    • pottery
    • playing a musical instrument
    • woodwork
    • sewing
  • gardening
  • cooking
  • writing
  • brainteasers
    • jigsaw puzzles
    • crosswords 
  • sports and other movement-based activities
    • dance
    • martial arts
    • yoga

They key is to be creative, and the job is enjoyment!  

Identify the barriers to creative enjoyment 

If you don’t usually partake in the kind of structured leisure time activities like those we’ve suggested, have a think about why. If none of them sound engaging to you, that’s fine — think about identifying something that does. 

If they do sound engaging, but you just never get around to doing them, why? Have a think about what stops you and what you could do to overcome that. For example:

  • If you want to try ceramics but lack the expertise, sign up for a class
  • If you enjoy painting but never do it because you can’t face the mess of setting up (and cleaning up after), consider investing in an iPad and Apple Pencil
  • If you’d like to write but never seem to find the ‘right’ time, give yourself some structure — set up a dedicated time a couple of times a week, or join a creative writing group online or in your local community. If you’re not sure where to find one, your local library can probably help. 
  • If you never go to dance class because you’d rather spend time with your family, think about having family dance night. 

If you’re not sure what sounds fun to you — try everything! Exploring what you find enjoyable is a worthy pursuit all on its own. Ask your friends and family to help you find a new hobby. The added benefit of this is that social connection has been shown solidly in the research to improve all facets of health, including reducing rates of depression and anxiety, strengthening our immune system, and even increasing our longevity.

Create change

Finding new ways to spend time might mean changing habits that no longer serve us. I’ve previously written about habit change and how to go about finding ways to create new and more positive habits. You can also check out our podcast episode on the importance of self-care

It may feel strange to replace alcohol with an alternative destress activity you haven’t previously explored, but the benefits to your mental and emotional health are worth it!

As you work on making change, it’s important not to denigrate yourself for the aspects of your life you’re not happy with. If you want to cut down on alcohol or drug use, that’s a beneficial goal, but it’s important to remember that struggling does not reflect on your worth, strength, or capability. Be kind to yourself and understand that you’ve been handling the stress, anxiety or even trauma you’ve been experiencing as well as you can, but it’s not working and it is time to try something new. 

Research to understand alcohol use in our workforce

Research shows that affected communities are drinking more alcohol to deal with the stress of the COVID-19 pandemic. It seems inevitable that would also apply to the busy medical professionals who are often struggling to keep up with the demand on the medical system. That’s why Dr Adam Searby believes that there is an urgent need to collect more data about nurses’ alcohol consumption and devise strategies to address any issues. 

Dr Searby has invited nurses and midwives to take part in his research study, the Booze-Less Drinking Game survey. The survey will provide an overview of alcohol consumption among Australian nurses. The survey is no longer recruiting participants, but keep an eye out for results! 

Seek support

If you’d like to chat to somebody about what you’re experiencing, we’re always here for you — free, confidential, 24/7 — call us on 1800 667 877, or email us

We know nurses and midwives can be concerned that Ahpra will be notified if they seek health for substance use, but we would only need to make a mandatory notification if a nurse or midwife was placing the public at substantial risk of harm by practising with an impairment. Not all impairments need to be reported. A nurse or midwife may have an impairment that causes a detrimental impact on their capacity to practise but, unless it poses a substantial risk of harm to patients, it does not trigger a mandatory notification.