Relax and unwind: five surprisingly relaxing hobbies

Not sure how to switch off at home? Put the phone down and give these soothing activities a go.

It goes without saying that the pandemic has been a stressful and disconcerting time for many of us.

But one upside is that it has opened our minds to find new ways of relaxing.

And sometimes – whether it’s watching slime videos on TikTok or enjoying the gentle sounds of woodcarving on YouTube – what soothes your soul might surprise you.

What makes an activity relaxing

Psychologist Dr Jo Mitchell, of The Mind Room, says there’s generally a common element in any activity that helps us unwind.

“With a lot of the activities that we find relaxing, we get into that kind of flow experience,” Dr Mitchell says.

“There’s enough of a challenge in them, but not so much that they’re overwhelming – and they capture our full attention.”

Relaxing hobbies are “gym for the brain”

Taking up a relaxing hobby is like “going to the gym for our brain”, according to Laneway Learning general manager Maria Yebra.

“We put so much effort into our physical bodies and now suddenly we’re discovering mental health – but more than that the drive for mental wellbeing,” Maria says.

“I think the next step we’re all going towards is: I want to flourish, I want to be happy, I want to be content in my life.

“I think that’s why we all want to explore different ways of getting us there.”

Why we need relaxing activities

Dr Mitchell says our autonomic nervous system has two main parts.

“One is the sympathetic nervous system, which essentially puts us into that fight/flight mode,” she says.

To relax, you want a hobby or activity that activates the other part – the parasympathetic nervous system.

“We’re looking for activities that signal you’re safe, you’re OK right now,” Dr Mitchell says.

Here are five activities that might do just that.

1. Watching calligraphy on YouTube

Ever found yourself mesmerised by a video of someone doing flowing calligraphy?

Dr Mitchell says this fits into a group of autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR) experiences.

“It is a response that seems to happen in maybe about 20 or 30 per cent of the population, where particular sounds or visuals create a kind of a head tingling sensation that is very relaxing,” she says.

“There’s a massive cult following of this stuff – things like people brushing their hair, or tapping their nails.”

2. Diamond art

Suitable for all age groups, diamond art has been described as a mix between paint-by-numbers and cross-stitch, and involves applying tiny resin “diamonds” to a colour-coded canvas.

Dr Mitchell says this kind of repetitive activity can be particularly relaxing because it focuses your attention.

3. Mindful doodling

In 2020, mindful doodling (taught via Zoom) was the most popular class at not-for-profit organisation Laneway Learning.

Maria says there is a lot of emphasis in society on making an end product.

However a hobby like doodling offers you the chance to try something simple, and just enjoy the act itself.

“It’s not always about finishing and having an end result or being perfect – it’s actually also just about the process,” she says.

4. Knitting or crochet

Maria’s favourite hobby is crochet – and she makes a point of doing it without any other distractions such as TV or music.

She says absolute focus “is what your brain finds really soothing and really relaxing”.

“I actually use it as a meditation, and I even have a crochet blanket.

“I make a row every day while I meditate, and I now have 300 to 400 rows.”

She says studies have shown that needlework, including crochet and knitting, can improve cognitive function.

5. Collage

Maria says collaging is great for those who aren’t too sure about their artistic abilities.

“You can just pick a magazine and start cutting and let your imagination run wild,” she says.

“I love collaging because of that reason; it’s a way of expressing my emotions and feelings without being an artist.”

Written by Larissa Ham