That said, it’s possible to have too much of a good thing. While pleasant distractions provide valuable mental and physiological breaks from stressful conditions, “my hesitation with recommending distraction,” Dr. Zoccola said, “is that while it can get people out of the moment, if it goes on too long, that might prevent folks from addressing an issue, or might create a new one.” Teenagers can run an easy check for themselves by asking, “Are my distractions getting in the way of what I need to do?”
Creating Space for the Mind to Wander
As a third option, young people sometimes use openings in their schedule for pursuits that are engaging, but only to a degree. Researchers use the term “soft fascination” in connection with activities that require attention but don’t entirely occupy the mind, such as spending time in nature or taking a long shower. More absorbing endeavors, such as playing a video game or solving a puzzle, recruit what’s known as “hard fascination.”
Compared to hard fascination, soft fascination uses less mental bandwidth and leaves more room for the mind to wander and reflect. Avik Basu, an environmental psychologist at the University of Michigan who researches soft fascination, explains that activities that “don’t swamp the mind” are more likely to be restorative because “a softly fascinating environment allows for reflection — and that’s when the problem-solving part of our brains can really get to work.”
In other words, soft fascination relieves stress by helping us close those mental browser tabs; unhurried reflection lets us sift through mental clutter, quiet internal noise and come up with fresh, useful solutions. According to Dr. Basu, “the ‘aha’ moments you have in your shower — that’s the problem-solving mechanism of the mind working. The answer just bubbles up!”
Unfortunately, for many young people, the pandemic has swept away previously routine occasions for soft fascination. Indeed, many of us have come to appreciate how much mental housekeeping we used to do as we made our daily commute or walked along a familiar route to work or school. Teenagers might now have to go out of their way to seek low-key activities when their minds feel cluttered. And they may need adults’ encouragement to do so, because simply going for a stroll or looking out a window can seem boring compared to the allure of online catching up or consuming distractions.
When it comes to self-restoration, we all have options — with connection, distraction and reflection being chief among them. Caring for our mental and emotional health matters now even more than usual, so it’s essential for people of all ages to take the breaks that best address the needs of the moment.