Harnessing hobbies

Leisure activities can be used in counselling as therapy to
improve well-being. They can even transform lives writes Dean Juniper.

We seldom think of leisure as being therapeutic. But
hobbies, activities and interests can be effectively used as part of a strategy
to improve people’s emotional well- being, and this is the aim of leisure

There are three basic leisure counselling techniques:
distraction, compensation and confrontation. Which will be most useful for a
particular person will depend on their individual circumstances and

Distraction is the use of a hobby, activity or interest to
redirect and hold attention away from unwelcome or painful thoughts or similar
sensations. Compensation is the deliberate, imaginative rehearsal of pleasure
from a hobby, activity or interest, either anticipated or recollected from the
past, in an effort to compensate for unavoidable current stress. Finally,
confrontation is the tactical choice of a hobby, activity or interest to oppose
key features of the problem, and thereby make it impossible for both to coexist

If a hobby, activity or interest is carefully chosen,
assigned a special value, timetabled to suit circumstances, cued in familiar
surroundings and always begun positively, then it can act as a very powerful
distracting device.

Anyone who has naturally developed such a leisure technique
from childhood has a priceless possession. But most are not so fortunate and
must shape distraction by discovery or experiment.

Systematic and reliable distraction is no simply organised
feat; it needs timing, planning, negotiation and a strong element of
self-suggestion to make it function effectively. An obvious example would be
the way someone in a highly stressful work situation might make a point of
listening to specially chosen pieces of music through headphones on the journey
home as a way of winding down or taking their mind off their anxieties.

The next method, compensation, can simply be described as an
attempt to balance and ease the impact of current pain by pleasurable
experiences, both remembered and, perhaps most importantly, anticipated. The
last factor, anticipation, is particularly vital in states of depression. In
fact, provided there is sufficient regular anticipation of pleasure-supplying
events in life, depression of real depth can be avoided.

Compensation is a common and popular technique, practised
most by those who have never heard of leisure counselling. It lends itself
admirably, though, to intensive systematisation, and can be built up into a
protective lifestyle if a person can find an activity in which they can take
real pleasure, and which is available to them on a regular basis. The scale or
status of the interest is not important; what is important is the intensity.

When we choose a hobby, activity or interest to work with in
a confrontational way we are, in effect, picking a fight with our problem on a
battlefield where the balance of advantage lies marginally in our favour.

Every battlefield varies, of course. Consider the following
very different, but essentially confrontational, strategies.

A middle-aged man whose self-esteem has been seriously
lowered by humiliating experiences at work is, paradoxically, a successful, local
politician with a string of prestigious, civic responsibilities. These are all
significant and decisive boosters to his work-diminished morale.

A young woman with a serious drinking problem, resistant to
conventional reduction regimes, begins swimming on a daily basis. Her drinking
is subsequently reduced because she has less time to drink, fewer drinking
contacts, increased physical fitness, more regular sleeping pattern, a sharper
appetite, and so on.

A man with poor resistance to impulses, whose weakness has
led him into many outbursts of aggression, has reached a state of desperation.
He pursues his interest in playing chess and as his chess playing increases,
this interest begins to sensitise him generally to acts and their consequences.
He starts to examine his motivations, and to think in terms of options, making
these chess-derived skills transferable to emotional settings.

These are very different examples of confrontation in action
but they have common features. First, they pick specific targets; the problem
is identified, and attacked with a highly appropriate leisure weapon.

Second, there is distinct effort involved; the personality
is virtually on a war footing.

Third, flexibility, in terms of shifting leisure resources
and emphasis is very important. Problems can change their size and impact, and
confrontational methods have to vary to cope with such changes.

Leisure counselling is a universal psychotherapy available
to all, independent of any psychological school or ideology, needing no
guidance or supervision, and, most significantly, unobtrusive and easily
blended into socially acceptable activities. Almost everybody has had some
interest at some time that can be resurrected with the right support. Helping
and encouraging vulnerable or distressed people to develop existing or new
interests or hobbies can boost their resilience to adversity as well as
increase their overall quality of life.

Dean Juniper is director of the Centre for Stress
Research at the University of Reading. Contact 01189 756059.

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