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How to switch off: choose mindlessness over mindfulness for maximum stress relief

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Stylist Team
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Our obsession with mindfulness is only stressing us out. It’s time to reject cultural snobbery and embrace the mindless.

How do you switch off from the chaos of a busy mind? Do you bury your nose in Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments? Digest a spot of Renaissance art meandering the rooms of the National Gallery? Indulge in a weekly restorative yoga class, finding your zen on the mat? Or, do you secretly binge-watch RuPaul’s Drag Race in your comfies and listen to Gemma Collins’ podcast on your daily commute? Does GC beat all else in helping you switch off and zone out? 

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Practising mindfulness is a socially acceptable way to tune out and bring your awareness into the present. But the pursuit of mindlessness to achieve the same ends, however, remains a little more taboo. I once revealed to someone at a party that I relaxed by watching Ex On The Beach and they responded as if I’d declared a drug habit. 

Truth is, I find there’s no better way to calm a racing, multitasking brain than with something unchallenging, simple and diverting. Especially when you’re busy and entertainment needs to do the mindful heavy lifting for you. That’s exactly when documentaries on the political history of Cuba are too much for the brain to take and zonking out to Keeping Up With The Kardashians can distract and soothe. 

Does GC help you switch off?

GIVE YOUR MIND A BREAK

In a society fuelled by judgment, it’s easy to feel compelled to spend any mindful moments – the precious minutes (hours if you’re lucky) of being present and consciously aware – engaging in purposeful or well-thought-of pursuits. After all, traditional mindfulness has a serious undertone that suggests the need to hone and rehearse. The conscious wellness practices of breath work, meditation and somatic movement are undertaken earnestly. 

Further ways to quieten the mind are also sought in the calming realms of creative mindfulness – things like art and literature and theatre. In 2017, UCL Art Museum launched a mindfulness event series inviting visitors to experience a feeling of reverie being in a peaceful space and, more recently, Hobbycraft found that 54% of people used crafts such as crocheting to switch off. But all these routes suggest we must take action to truly disengage. Yet, for many, being able to live consciously in the moment means giving our mind a total break. 

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How do we achieve that? Via our sofas, certainly. Viewing figures for the recent leaders debate on Question Time showed that 4.6 million tuned in to watch, while the 2019 launch of I’m A Celebrity had 10.23 million by comparison. A recent survey from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport found that 49.5% of people said they had not attended a museum or gallery in the past 12 months – mostly because they didn’t have time or they weren’t interested. And last year’s bestselling book in the UK was the excellent and, crucially, easy-to-read Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine. Indeed, one of Stylist’s 10th anniversary guest editors, author and academic Roxane Gay has previously spoken about her love of The Real Housewives.

Roxane Gay is a self-confessed Real Housewives fan.

And she’s not the only one to feel the cerebral benefits of more populist culture. Stylist’s beauty director Shannon Peter says, “I’m the biggest Real Housewives of anywhere and everywhere fan and I often tell people that it’s my conscious form of self-care.” Fellow Stylist staffer Chloe Gray says, “I tend to curl up in bed with YouTube rather than The Crown or the ten o’clock news. Give me a Q&A or day-in-the-life vlog from an OTT influencer any night for mind-numbing escapism.” Kayleigh Dray, digital editor says, “When I’m super stressed or anxious, I play videogames like nobody’s business.”

RESET YOUR THOUGHTS

But can mindlessness really be as beneficial as mindfulness? Dr Meg Arroll, psychologist and author at 10 Harley Street, says, “I see clients every day in my clinic who have tried to practise numerous mindfulness methods to combat stress but this in itself becomes yet another thing to do. 

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Many people feel a sense of failure as they can’t practise it in the way that everyone else seems to rave about, leading to self- recrimination.” She continues, “When we’re mindless, say sitting on the sofa daydreaming, we’re essentially hitting the reset button on our brains, allowing for disparate thoughts and ideas to connect without the traffic jam of our daily worries and demands. This is why we so often solve a particularly tough problem when we’re mindlessly doing the dishes, taking a shower or staring out of a window. Mindlessness can enhance creativity and insight.” 

Dr Jonathan Pointer, chartered psychologist at therapysanctuary.com, explains that switching off, however you choose to do it, is hugely helpful. “It allows us to disconnect from the stresses and strains of our lives,” he says. “Escapism can even be used as a form of pain management, because when people become focused on something that takes them to another place in their mind (through TV, films, books etc), their experience of pain will often decrease.”

Some people zone out to RuPaul's drag race.

Likewise, Rebecca Lockwood, a neurolinguistic programming coach and trainer agrees: “Allowing ourselves permission to have guilty pleasures gives our minds the opportunity to explore other outlets without putting any pressure on ourselves to be anything or do anything. It’s a time we can relax – we all need this!”

Mindfulness is totally different from escapism, granted; one is the awareness that comes from purposefully paying attention and using it to better deal with the world; the other is being distracted and letting your mind travel to other places. But the key here is not seeing them as an either-or scenario. It’s simply about reframing mindfulness and approaching it more creatively, harnessing whatever tool you see fit to lose yourself in an activity or pastime. 

Because mental salvation can come in any form as long as you’re living in the moment. Horizons aren’t only expanded through ballet, sophrology and books written in 1705. Love Island lays bare the perils of no-strings dating and suggestions of what to do when you get mugged off just as bracingly as any Shakespeare play. And to totally ignore the merits of simpler pursuits or a harmless bout of daydreaming will only narrow your world view and render you unable to benefit from all the different ways to still the mind. There is relief in these things.

Nor should you be ashamed of the level of your particular brand of mindlessness. When I was at university studying English literature,I pretended I hadn’t queued up for the Harry Potter releases at various WHSmiths around the UK dressed as a wizard. I had a Clash poster on my wall and an iPod Nano (anyone remember those?) full of the Sugarbabes.

It wasn’t until I turned 30 that I stopped waiting until someone else brought up reality telly rather than barrel in with my opinions about who had been voted off. Why? Because as I formed my own sense of identity throughout my 20s, I looked to generalised cultural markers of intelligence in order to impress those around me, and those markers never seemed to include Homes Under The Hammer. Those markers were set by people who still believe that television does nothing other than rot the mind. But I believe now more than ever that it can also preserve it. 

There are countless examples of intellectuals with so-called guilty pleasures. Stephen Fry loves reading Georgette Heyer’s romantic bonkbusters. Philippa Perry, the psychotherapist and author, loves sharing funny cat videos on Twitter. To assume that the mindful can’t be complemented with the mindless is to fundamentally misunderstand the human condition. 

To quote Walt Whitman: “Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.” If your mind is soothed by Poldark as opposed to Polish arthouse, then knock yourself out. You don’t have to hide your Ariana Grande playlists or feel embarrassed about preferring romcoms to Romantic verse. It’ll give your brain the space to properly recharge for whatever life decides to throw at you next. And fingers crossed it’s not another series of Ex On The Beach, because I don’t know if I can cope with the tension. 

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REJECT SNOBBERY

So the next time you feel the need to hide your trashy Christmas novel or pretend you haven’t watched Frozen 2, consider leaning in. The more we talk about what we’re actually doing to cope with the wider world – to unplug and live in the moment – the less pressure we will feel to seek out traditionally mindful pursuits that mightn’t fit authentically into our lives.

Admitting your own most effective form of self-care is also incredibly freeing. Whenever I’ve expressed a penchant for Traffic Cops (sorry, it’s true) most people look relieved to be able to respond with their own mind medicine. 

Sure, some will judge, but if they don’t want you relaying what animal the GC was in a past life, they don’t deserve you when you’ve devoured Zadie Smith’s Feel Free and have an equally strong point to make. Mindfulness is not one size fits all. If we’re enjoying something, and we’re finding peace in the moment, we all need to learn to mind less about how we got there. 

Photography: Rex features, bbc.co.uk

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