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Leisure Activity Preferences Could Be Key To Tackling Daily Stress

UW-Milwaukee Psychologist's Research Draws Link Between Stress Reduction, Self-Selected Leisure Activities

ongwriter-producer George Noriega plays the piano in his studio in Davie, Fla.
Brynn Anderson/AP Photo

As much as we try to avoid stress, we’ll never completely get rid of it, said Marcellus Merritt, an associate professor of health psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. It’s a part of life.

There are treatments such as cognitive behavior therapy (CBT), typically done in the office with a therapist or psychologist, that can help mitigate the effects of chronic stress. But Merritt has a different idea for quieting the impact of moment-to-moment stressors that without intervention could grow bigger and lead to chronic problems.

He said for more manageable stressors — for example feeling depressed about negative news — tapping into activities that we enjoy could be effective treatment.

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Merritt and his research team describe these exercises of reducing momentary stress as forms of “rehearsed relaxation.” This theory, which governs much of what Merritt and his research team are investigating, centers on the premise that whatever you do to help you relax, will help you manage your stress. That might be something you’re already doing, such as playing an instrument or painting.

“As you kind of rehearse this activity and do it over and over again, your stress levels, whether they be mental, physical or emotional, are going to drop,” he said.

Identify Your Leisure Activities

These activities can be anything from playing golf to burning incense.

“If we can train ourselves to do that activity before or right after a stressful event, it will boost cardiovascular recovery to stress and thus minimize risk for everything from heart disease to stroke,” he said.

Research on this is still in its early stages, Merritt said, but results so far are showing connections between leisure activity and stress responses. One such study asked young adults with 24-hour blood pressure monitors to keep detailed diaries for two days. One day, the students performed their self-selected leisure activities or SSLAs; the second day, they didn’t

“We found that simply doing these self-selected activities was associated with an average dip in blood pressure from that day to later that night, when the body needs to relax and revamp from a stressful day,” he said. Future research will look at why those activities helped lower blood pressure.

Merritt said SSLAs differ for every person. To identify your own relaxation methods, ask yourself what you do to escape from the stressors in your life.

“We don’t necessarily see moderation of self-selected leisure activities as a replacement for traditional treatments like CBT,” he said. “Instead, the former is currently more of a preventive approach for daily stress coping.”

Gauge Effectiveness

Merritt said he witnessed his father’s use of this kind of relaxation. He would set up his stereo system in the basement and listen to classic jazz for about an hour each night after getting home from work, where he worked as a factory supervisor. This was effective for Merritt’s father, to transport him on a mental vacation of sorts.

“In that regard, he was mentally absorbed and distracted in this activity to the point where he could then adjust physiologically and mentally and let his battery recharge through the rest of the evening and overnight and get a better night of sleep and feel refreshed in the morning,” Merritt said.

SSLAs work, Merritt posits, because they’re enjoyable, relatively easy to do and can be invigorating compared to foreign activities. But Merritt’s research goes beyond the activity itself. He says the reasons those activities work could be the key to understanding why leisure is good for emotional and physical health.

For example, Merritt said if golf is your leisure activity, do you like it because it distracts you from your thoughts? Do you like the challenge of scoring below par? Do you feel a rush when you hit the ball cleanly more than 300 yards?

“If we can manipulate that element so that one can maximize it during the activity, then the immediate health benefits are optimized,” he said.