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Why keeping busy as a coping mechanism is not a substitute for support.

Every sodding week, you wake up exhausted. You know why but you ignore it. It’s probably still dark outside. You put on a podcast that you don’t even enjoy listening to anymore. Divert, distract, deflect. You call your mum while walking to your next engagement. It’s only a quick one, sorry. You frantically summarise your latest shenanigans and she reminds you to look after yourself.

You designate the trip up the learning hub escalators as the time to check your messages. It’s never long enough. You end up just sending a snap with no text on it because a proper reply isn’t forthcoming. You try to rotate who you reply to properly. You run into people on level seven. You panic because you’re hyper-focused on your daunting to-do list and couldn’t possibly talk to them for a few minutes longer than your schedule would allow. So you isolate yourself. You can still see them, they can still see you. You wave to them from time to time. It’s a bit ridiculous really.

Thursday arrives. Your busiest day. You stumble into the contributors’ meeting and decide to write an article about keeping busy to keep yourself busy. You joke about it on your private story because it sounds funny, while knowing that it’s actually emblematic of a vicious cycle. The evening comes around and you’re fitting in time for socialising, meeting more new people. You know you struggle with that but you get through it. You’re then aghast because you realise everyone is heading into the city centre. Brain says yes body says no. You know the drill.

You suddenly become overwhelmed. You keep busy to avoid your intrusive thoughts but it’s actually terrible for your anxiety and so you have no choice but to leave, feeling a bit embarrassed.

You crash in your room. It’s not a pleasant environment because you haven’t had the time to make it one. You then remember why you keep busy all the time: because your brain doesn’t know how to switch off. It makes you paranoid, it compares you to others and pressures you into thinking you could always be doing more. And you think surely you should know that by now. You reassure yourself that it’s fine, next time you’ll just keep focused elsewhere.

"You crash in your room. It’s not a pleasant environment because you haven’t had the time to make it one. You then remember why you keep busy all the time: because your brain doesn’t know how to switch off."

It’s quite the dilemma. You recognise the pitfalls of remaining constantly busy, but feel you have to because otherwise, you won’t be functioning at all. You feel confused, partly because the debate over whether keeping busy can be a healthy coping mechanism is just as confused. It too often fails to recognise what a coping mechanism actually is, conflating short term management with a long term solution. Keeping busy for extended periods of time will almost always be fruitless and it will never be healthy.

Sometimes keeping busy can feel like the least-worst option, but it is never a substitute for seeking support. Even while you’re busy it’s important not to isolate yourself from the people who care about you and want to help you. For now, you could even frame keeping up with your friendships as fundamental to ensuring you don’t become too down to keep yourself busy in the future.

Being a busy person isn’t inherently bad, we all enjoy the sense of achievement after a particularly productive but exhausting day. You can still keep busy without needing to be. Unless you address the reasons underpinning your addiction to an often strenuous lifestyle, you will simply burn out.

It takes a lot of courage to recognise that you want to understand why you are the way you are. You might find that writing helps. You might speak honestly and openly to someone who really cares about you, or someone who you’ve never met before but is trained to help you.

It’s definitely easier said than done, but it is actually okay to say no to plans. Soon you’ll hopefully be able to foster that bit of nonchalance about your life. You never know, you might eventually be able to call your mum just because you feel like it. 


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