It seems mundane, but a programme of activity can be one of the best things for mental health.
Of course unguided time is important too, but the existence of an agenda seems to harness positive elements in our nature. In particular:
The mind and body gather focused energy when given a specific thing to do
The mind also blocks out extraneous stimuli when focused on an activity
The existence of a scheduled ‘next thing’ reduces free floating anxiety at quiet times
The presence of items in the diary can improve confidence
Physical exercise within or between activities improves general health and hormonal balance
When there is only one agenda item to fulfil at a time, the mind gathers its resources towards that end. In contrast, when there is no agenda, the mind can become liable to unfocused speculation. Anxious people may experience this as free floating anxiety, with a tendency towards dread. A single-focus activity tends to shut down this associative response, and provide a degree of protection.
BLOCKING OUT EXTRANEOUS STIMULI
When focused on a particular chain of activity, the mind helps itself by cutting out of perception a number of sensory inputs not directly related to the activity at hand. In plain English, when we focus on one activity, our mind helps us by screening out distractions. In the same way, focused action can screen out bad habits: when you are running, you are not drinking alcohol; when you are talking with friends, you are not fretting alone… etc.
A SCHEDULED ‘NEXT THING’ REDUCES ANXIETY
At quiet times, anxious feelings can go into overdrive. Just the simple fact of a ‘next thing to do’, can provide solace. Half an hour, in a disorganised day, can be a problem for someone in mental distress. But the half an hour before a scheduled counselling session, or a coffee with a friend, has a different character. There is something about to happen, and this can strengthen a sense of security right now.
It can be a great thing for someone to be able to say that they have things in the diary. It can protect them against others stealing their time for their own ends. It also gives them an extra topic of conversation. Socially, it can help those with low confidence to hold their own, because it offers a simple sense of identity, based on activity.
When you have an agenda, it usually requires travel between activities. This means that, naturally, exercise will occur. Just getting in and out of transport, or in and out of the house, constitutes a form of exercise, and prevents the body stying too still for too long. Like a car, the body benefits from being given a run-around! The physical move from place to place also increases the sense of intent in our organism as a whole – for millions of years, our bodies have been programmed to move and travel, and simply walking somewhere can increase focus and integration.
For my mental health, have I made sure that I have a programme of activity?
When I look at my diary, are there a few things in it which focus my energy and attention? Do I have things to look forward to? Do I actively shape my week, so that I feel relatively confident that I have a few meaningful things to do and talk about?
I don’t have to be so busy that it’s stressful… but do I have enough activity to push me a little out of my comfort zone, to get out of the house, to keep my body active, and to move me about? My mind and body like to move around a bit… am I feeding myself that positive stimulus?
Maybe my diary, well used, can help to shape me away from anxiety, and towards healthy activity.