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  • Writer's picturedocschleg

Idle and Isolated

Recently people have been telling me they feel anxious and depressed, and they often report they feel they just need a break. I think relaxing and collecting one's thoughts is a good habit, but when I dig into the lifestyles of these anxious and depressed people, I see a behavior pattern that can look like resting and relaxing, but actually seems to be making the anxiety and low mood worse.


Rather than resting, I see people being idle. This is one of the sneakiest high-risk behaviors for anxiety and depression. Stress is a common source of both anxiety and depression, so it would make sense for someone who is feeling anxious and low to "relax" more. What I have discovered, however, is that many people I talk to have little to relax from. Being able to relax requires effort or activity in the form of productivity, and many people I talk to lack sufficient activity to fill their days. Without sufficient activity, relaxation becomes idleness which can exacerbate or even cause anxiety and depression.

In some cases, the key to reducing anxiety and depression symptoms is more activity. I encourage people to be "productive" about eight hours a day. The 40-hour work week has been the standard for adult productivity for a long time, and probably for good reason. Interestingly, I often see a proportional reduction in symptoms relative to increase in productivity, up to a point. That point is around 8 hours a day, or 40 hours a week. I also encourage people I work with to have one or two days a week (i.e., the weekend) where they do limited work and devote most of the day to relaxation.


The Pandemic gave us so many gifts, including the ability to distinguish between solitude and isolation. Some amount of solitude is necessary for all people, but everyone has their limit. The differences between solitude and isolation are many but often have to do with intent and availability of social interaction. We are social beings. It is true that some people need less social interaction and can tolerate more solitude, but all people need a balance.

In my experience social interaction doesn't have to be deep conversations with a best friend or spouse to be benficial. Passive social interactions, like those you would have if you went to the grocery store (e.g., with clerks, other shoppers, other drivers) where you acknowledge another's existence (and they acknowledge yours) by not plowing into them with your cart help fill some of our need for social interaction. The next time you're feeling so anxious or so down that you just want to be alone, consider the possibility that you're low on social interaction and need to get out of the house.

Work and Interaction

Not all of what is written above is based on trial and error. We have known for a while that all people have some basic needs, including the need to work and socialize. I am using the terms "work" and "socialize" in a very broad sense. Idleness and isolation eventually cause anxiety and low mood in everyone because people need to work and socialize in order to be healthy, in much the same way we need sunlight and clean water. There are many great reasons to work and socialize, including helping us feel good and be healthy.

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