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Hobbies can improve your mental health

The coronavirus pandemic has taken a further toll on many peoples’ already fragile mental health.

The changing nature of the deadly virus coupled with a raft of restrictions imposed by authorities to contain it has left many individuals feeling lonely, anxious, and depressed.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has even issued guidance on how people can take care of their mental health during this difficult time.

Key advice includes trying to keep a regular pattern of eating, sleeping, hygiene and exercise.

But a less obvious recommendation is to make sure you’re still finding time to do the things you enjoy.

In fact, research shows that having a hobby is linked to lower levels of depression — and may even prevent depression for some as per The Independent.

Losing interest and joy in things you normally like doing is one symptom of deteriorating mental health.

Known as anhedonia, this is a common symptom of depression and is something patients say they would most like relief from — possibly because the drugs used to treat depression target other symptoms and don’t seem to alleviate it.

For some people, anhedonia is one of the first symptoms of depression, and can even be used to predict the severity of depression a person might experience.

So, finding time for your interests and pleasures — such as a hobby — could be one way of avoiding anhedonia and depression.

In fact social prescribing is a treatment method where doctors can ask patients with mild to moderate depression to take up a non-medical intervention (such as a hobby) to improve their mental health.

As antidepressants can be less effective in those with mild depression, this treatment strategy may still help patients with depression find relief from their symptoms.

So far, some studies have shown that social prescribing programmes that ask patients to take up hobbies such as gardening or art are beneficial for mental health and wellbeing.

Evidence also shows that even for those with clinical depression, certain psychological treatments improve symptoms of depression.

A wide range of activities and hobbies may play a role in social prescribing and behavioural activation, such as exercising, playing an instrument, drawing, reading or handicrafts.

Reward system

The reason that doctors suggest one take up hobbies is because it triggers the reward system in the brain.

When we engage in a hobby that we enjoy, chemical messengers in the brain (known as neurotransmitters) are released — such as dopamine, a chemical which helps us feel pleasure.

These feel-good chemicals can then make us want to do the hobby again, and feel more motivated to do so.

So even though we may not look forward to indulging in a hobby in the beginning, once we start it and feel the associated pleasure, this will kick-start our reward system and subsequently our motivation to do it again.

Alongside pleasure and motivation, hobbies can also bring other benefits.

Physical hobbies can, for instance, improve your fitness, and others can even improve your brain function.

Research suggests that some hobbies — like playing a musical instrument — can improve your memory, while artistic hobbies (such as reading or board games puzzles) are reported to prevent dementia later in life.

So if the pandemic has you feeling low, perhaps try to find time to indulge in hobbies that you may have enjoyed in the past — or try new ones.

You can also seek help or guidance from your GP or a therapist to find the best treatment for you.

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