To deal with problems, avoid them (for a little while)

U. TORONTO (CAN) — The best way to manage stressful problems at work, school, and home may be to take your mind off them—temporarily.

Researchers sampled a group of university students faced with the challenge of managing work, family, and school responsibilities. The research focused on two distinct avoidance strategies—actively taking one’s mind off problems, or hoping those problems would simply disappear.


Those who actively took their mind off their problems were better able to manage those multiple responsibilities and experienced increased levels of satisfaction than those who simply hoped the problems would go away.

“Avoidance in terms of taking a mental break is so crucial to managing multiple responsibilities as long as it doesn’t cross over into wishful thinking,” says Bonnie Hayden Cheng, a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto Scarborough’s Department of Management.

While notions of avoidance have traditionally been viewed as counterproductive, the process of taking your mind off your responsibilities does not necessarily imply not dealing with them, notes Cheng.

On the other hand, she says that hoping your problems will simply disappear can make matters worse. In fact, this strategy has parallels with the type of distorted cognition associated with depression.

“Wishing for our problems to go away is counterproductive because there’s an element of learned helplessness, of having no control over our responsibilities,” says Cheng.

Published in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, the research shows the importance of cognitive disengagement—that is focusing the mind away from those challenging tasks and on to something completely unrelated.

“Our resources are finite and need to be replenished, so it’s important to not only physically recover, but mentally recover as well,” she says.

“It’s not enough to just go for a jog or a bike ride to relieve stress if you keep ruminating about everything you have to do at work or at home. In that case you are still not mentally disengaged.”

This type of work recovery research is becoming increasingly important as companies and organizations look for ways to help employees balance the stresses of work and life. It also resonates with students, many of whom are balancing part-time work, helping take care of their families along, and going to school.

“Anxiety levels are on the rise, there are more work-duo couples, and everything points to a more stressful society. The need to conserve and replenish resources is taking on greater importance,” says Julie McCarthy, associate professor of organizational behavior.

“Making the most of that time in your life when you can mentally disengage is so critical for family and personal well-being.”

Source: University of Toronto