Healthy Mind

Both Mindful and Mindless Activities Can Help You Cope With Stress, According to Mental Health Experts

Photo: Getty Images/Sarah Mason
Inhale, exhale. In honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, Well+Good tapped some of our favorite health and wellness leaders to create the Mental Well-Being Challenge, a 31-day action plan to help you trust yourself, cope with stress, thrive at work, and show up for your community.

When you’re overwhelmed and trying to get back into your body instead of letting your brain go haywire, it’s possible that you may turn to mindful activities to help. Among many others, these activities may include meditation, which can boost self-awareness, and journaling, which can serve as an outlet to help you sort through your emotions. But, just as there are helpful mindful activities you can do, there are also mindless activities—and mental-health experts say that practicing mindful and mindless activities can help you cope with stress just the same. (After all, there really isn’t one “right” way to deal with whatever has you down.)

To understand the difference, know that mindfulness “is the act of switching your focus to now, which keeps you engaged in the present by maintaining awareness of thoughts, feelings, and your surroundings,” says licensed clinical professional counselor Joanne Frederick, LCPC. If you’ve practiced meditation or journaling, you know that those fall squarely in the mindful-activities camp. Other mindful activities include single-tasking, where you “give 100 percent of your attention to do whatever you are doing at the moment without other distractions,” Frederick adds. “Doing so keeps you in the moment and out of chaotic future thinking,” thereby reducing stress.

On the other hand, being mindless (or unmindful, which is synonymous in this case), “is when we are not present or aware in the moment that we are experiencing,” says psychologist Selena Snow, PhD. Frederick adds that mindless activities are basically those you can do while you're on autopilot.

“A person can decide to engage in a distracting and relaxing activity to decrease stress but nonetheless do so in a mindful way.” —Selena Snow, psychologist

But, this isn't necessarily a bad thing; if you’re intentionally doing a mindless or unmindful activity, it still helps boost your stress-coping skills, Dr. Snow says. “A person can decide to engage in a distracting and relaxing activity to decrease stress but nonetheless do so in a mindful way,” says Dr. Snow. “This would involve being intentional and aware of what they are doing and therefore enjoying the experience of what they have decided to do rather than judging the experience.” (Isn’t self-awareness great?)

Examples of healthy mindful and mindless activities

In addition to practicing meditation or journaling, another mindful activity is completing a puzzle, which “requires focus, attention span, and noticing details,” Frederick says. Because completing a puzzle is essentially solving a problem, she recommends asking yourself a few choice questions as you work on the puzzle to orient your mind to the original issues and better equip you to resolve them in the future:

  • When I solve a piece of the puzzle, does that bring me joy or satisfaction?
  • What part of the solving process makes my frustration level peak?
  • What is my breathing like as I am playing versus before?

Regarding effective mindless activities that can help you cope with stress by way of putting less pressure on yourself, Frederick reiterates the importance of being intentional about them (so you're being mindful about your mindlessness). Some examples might include laughing, which can provide an instant boost in happiness; doing karaoke (if you enjoy that), which might reduce stress by way of building camaraderie and staying engaged in a fun activity; or even scrolling on a social platform like TikTok (with some healthy guardrails in place to ensure the activity stays mentally healthy rather than potentially disruptive).

These activities don’t readily hit on the mindful component of being in tune with your body, which is what makes them less mindful, but they can help you cope with stress by providing you with something to do beyond worrying about a given stressor.

So, even if you're doing something passively (or mindlessly), as long as you're doing so with a purpose, you’re less likely to feel that you’re wasting your time. And that reframe, in and of itself, might make you feel less stressed. Of course, how you decide to destress is completely up to you. But knowing that there are mental health benefits of mindful and mindless activities might help you feel less stressed about spending time on the latter.

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