As many in recovery know, boredom is a relapse trigger. Alcohol and drugs can give life an exciting—or at least less-painful—aspect that can make living without substances seem painfully boring.
Just as we must learn to navigate other emotions, we must learn to navigate the emotion of boredom. Researchers explain that boredom arises when more exciting emotions fade. For example, when we begin a new job, we often feel a bundle of “high-arousal” emotions, like excitement, nervousness, motivation, and determination. If our job doesn’t remain challenging or interesting, eventually our excitement will fade, and we’ll feel bored. In this way, boredom can be a catalyst for change. Maybe it will help us decide to look for a new job, one that better fits our skills and interests.
The problem arises when we bore easily and jump from task to task in an effort to maintain the “high-arousal” emotions at all times. If we’re in a state of high arousal but have nothing meaningful on which to spend our energy, we get bored. In addition, the following mental and emotional states, listed in an article produced by the American Psychological Association, can make us even more prone to chronic boredom:
- Attention-deficit disorder (ADHD) – the inability to focus on a task leads to boredom.
- Depression – when you’re depressed, you lack the motivation and energy to engage in something that will feel meaningful; while boredom is not the same as depression, the two can create a vicious cycle, wherein boredom feeds the negative thoughts and emotions characteristic of depression.
- Sensation-seeking – people who always want to be in a state of high emotional arousal will be easily bored and continually look for the next thrill that will keep them emotionally “high.”
- High anxiety – people who are anxious often need to retreat from the world; unfortunately, retreat can lead to under-stimulation, which can lead to boredom.
- Alexithmia (the inability to identify and describe one’s emotions) – a lack of emotional awareness can make it difficult for someone to choose suitable activities that will relieve their boredom.
Bored yet? Consider using the following techniques to transform your boredom into either relaxation or meaningful activity.
As mentioned in my earlier post about meditation, chronic boredom can mask difficult emotions. If you find that you’re bored and agitated, consider whether you have some fear of inactivity. If you’re brave enough, focus inward. Try to relax and breathe into the moment. Go for a long walk. Many people have found that relaxing into boredom, without trying to create a distraction, leads them to creative pursuits like writing, painting, or learning an instrument.
If you’re in the middle of the daily grind and feeling restless, wishing you were anywhere but where you are, practice mindfulness. If you’re entering data into a spreadsheet, focus on the task. What do your fingers feel like as they move over the keyboard? What sounds do you hear? Don’t rush through the task thinking about what comes next.
Redefine the situation.
Winston Churchill said, “If you’re going through hell, keep going.” Good advice, but if you’re doing something you consider hellish, try redefining it. Instead of “I have to” or “I should,” change the wording to “I want to.” Then, get creative. For example, “I want to write this report because I’m excited to show the progress I’ve made.” Or, “I want to wait in line at the DMV because it gives me a chance to observe human nature.” Or, “I want to wait an additional two hours to board the plane because it will give me a chance to practice staying calm.”
Distract yourself, but carefully.
There’s a fine line between fishing and standing on the bank looking stupid, someone once said, and there’s a fine line, too, between healthy and unhealthy distraction. Many of us turn to media for distraction, playing games on our phones, browsing Reddit or Facebook, watching YouTube videos or endless movie trailers: the sheer bombardment of these outlets, each so full of information and stimulation, can be so distracting that it numbs our attention. Numbness adds to our feeling of boredom—and also keeps us from getting the true rest we need. It’s engaged attention, not numbness, that truly relieves our boredom.
Consider limiting media to a few minutes at a time or to one task at a time. Research shows that only about 2% of the population can legitimately multi-task; the rest of us who think we’re multi-tasking are actually just switching our focus rapidly from one thing to another. This rapid switching erodes our attention and makes it easy to miss out on the full experience one task can offer.
When boredom is a result of social anxiety, the best—even though hardest—thing to do is get involved. But good company and shared activity can be more healing than any amount of work you might do on your own. If the usual community-involvement routes of church, YMCA, or volunteering don’t excite you, get weird. I know of one person in recovery who tried—and ended up enjoying—a local contra-dancing group. Another recovering alcoholic started a poker group for others in recovery. Whether it’s playing D&D, shape-note singing, or volunteering to help retirees write their life stories, find something that fosters healthy social contact.