8 Things to Do at Home Instead of Stress-Snacking

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Coloring might help you get into a "flow state," which can take your mind off stress and your urge to reach for those potato chips.
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What if you had a reset button you could hit when you were feeling stressed? Something to help you calm down, recenter and reduce the likelihood of reacting in a negative way, such as yelling or stress-eating?

You probably already have this "button." And if you don't, you can easily acquire one.

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No, it's not a magic pill or anything like that — it's something much simpler.

"People who generally engage in hobbies have less stress," says Sarah Pressman, PhD, professor of psychological science at the University of California, Irvine, who sees hobbies as a form of self-care.

Learn how a pleasurable activity can help manage and prevent stress and stress-eating, and discover which hobbies may be the best fit for you.

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How Hobbies Help Reduce Stress

They're a Distraction

"One reason that stress is harmful is because you are sitting there ruminating about something. Your mind is re-echoing the same arguments over again and again," Pressman says.

But if your mind is focused on quilting, gardening, playing chess or some other hobby, it can't also continue ruminating. In this way, hobbies can help stop the negative thought process, Pressman says.

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This is especially true if you reach a flow state during your hobby — meaning you lose track of time because you're so absorbed, says Joshua Smyth, PhD, distinguished professor of biobehavioral health and medicine at Penn State University.

They Can Boost Your Mood

In a February 2015 study published in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine, researchers followed 115 adults for three days. At random intervals, they had each person report what they were doing and how they felt at that time. The study authors found that when people were engaging in leisure activities, they had more positive and less negative mood as well as less stress.

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When we enjoy hobbies, "they make us happy, engaged and calm — and those emotions are potent anti-stress feelings," Pressman says. "When we are happy, our bodies have a different natural physiological reaction that's very different from the response to stress."

In fact, in a study co-authored by Pressman that was published May 2010 in Psychosomatic Medicine, having higher levels of enjoyable leisure activities was associated with lower levels of blood pressure and cortisol — two things that tend to rise when we're stressed.

Some Hobbies Replace the Stress Reaction

You are likely aware of the stress-busting benefits of physical activity. But you may not know why workouts and recreational sports have this effect.

See, when we're stressed, the body thinks we should fight or flight — our heart rate increases and energy is sent to our muscles, Pressman says. But this stress reaction isn't helpful when we're sitting at home or in the office with nowhere for that energy to go.

"Active hobbies match the body with what it is meant to do under stress," Pressman says. Soccer, running, yoga, hiking — whatever the movement, it helps use up excess energy triggered by our brain perceiving a stressor.

Some Have a Social Component

"Our social relationships can be a great source of support in times of stress," Smyth says. Even simply doing things with others may help.

"Leisure activities that you do with someone else may, in some cases, have slightly better anti-stress effects than ones you do on your own," Pressman says.

However, this depends on the individual and that's not to say that solo hobbies don't also reduce stress.

Hobbies Can Take You Outdoors

Birding, gardening, woodworking and many other hobbies (like most sports) make you leave the house.

"Although the quality of the scientific evidence is mixed, generally, when we are exposed to nature — particularly beautiful and serene nature — it can help reduce stress," Smyth says.

To get the most benefit, he recommends a truly natural, non-built environment and being alone to soak it all up. Something close to the Japanese practice of Shinrin-yoku, or "forest bathing."

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Why Hobbies Might Reduce Stress-Eating

"About 95 percent of people eat differently when they are stressed than when they're not stressed," Smyth says. "Of those who change, probably two-thirds eat more."

For those people, hobbies may help, he says.

There's the overall reduction in stress but you're also distracting your brain away from thoughts like "I want some chips." Then, if you're doing something that keeps your hands busy — like cross-stitch or pottery, for example — you can't eat at the same time.

Lastly, there's the chance you may be outside. "I've read articles that talk about one of the best things to do when you want to stress-eat is to do something different or get out of the house," Pressman says. "If you have a hobby you can substitute for stress-eating, that will certainly be helpful."

But more importantly, she adds, is that "in general people who engage in more hobbies are less stressed, happier and more satisfied with life. And if you feel better and less stressed, it may prevent stress-eating in the first place."

How to Find the Best Hobby for You

There's no "one-size-fits-all" hobby that's best for everyone, Smyth says. The biggest thing when trying to use hobbies to replace stress-eating is to choose activities that make you feel good either while doing them or afterward (or both), he adds. That's why your friend may love painting, while you prefer chainsaw woodcarving.

It also may go without saying, but although baking or candy-making may bring you joy, if your goal is to reduce stress-eating, these hobbies may not be best for that purpose. Though you can certainly partake in them when you're not tempted to eat out of stress or boredom.

Lastly, Pressman and Smyth say that picking up an old hobby or learning a new one both may have benefits. With old hobbies, "you know how to do it, and it's often easier to enter flow states," Smyth says. With new ones, there's a greater chance of frustration as you start it, but learning can also be very highly engrossing and keep your mind off of your stress, Pressman says.

8 Low-Cost Hobbies to Try

1. Solve Puzzles

When things in your life feel like they're falling apart, putting together a puzzle can be a soothing activity. Choose a scene you love and it can also become part of your home decor once you've finished.

How to Get Started

  • Cinque Terre 1,000 Piece Jigsaw Puzzle from Buffalo Games ($10.97 on Amazon)
  • Rainy Night Walk Wooden Puzzle from Ingooood ($22.99 on Amazon)
  • No Stress, No Mess Puzzle Saver from aGreatLife ($13.99 on Amazon)

2. Knit, Crochet or Embroider

These may require a good amount of patience as you get the hang of them, but you'll be rewarded with a lifelong hobby that can also serve as an outlet for your creativity (not to mention a source of handmade gifts for countless holidays to come).

How to Get Started

  • Embroidery Starter Kit from Kissbuty, Cactus Plants ($9.99 for 2-pack on Amazon)
  • Cozy Basket Crochet Kit for Beginners ($27.99 on Etsy)
  • Quick to Knit Scarf Knitting Kit for Beginners from Harrisville Designs ($21.95 on Amazon)

3. Color

Whether or not you're a color-within-the-lines kind of person, there's something meditative about watching a blank picture slowly spring to life in all different hues.

How to Get Started

  • Colored Pencils by Crayola ($10.99 for 50-count on Amazon)
  • Relaxation Coloring Book for Adults ($6.98 on Amazon)
  • World of Flowers: A Coloring Book and Floral Adventure ($9.73 on Amazon)

4. Take Up Running

Maybe you've never thought of going for a run as your "thing," but hear us out: Running has the power to clear your head, lower your stress, help you lose weight and so much more. Plus, it's about the easiest hobby to pick up — just strap on your shoes and go.

How to Get Started

Here's everything you need to know to begin a running routine.

5. Learn Sign Language

Train your brain in a new way and learn how to communicate with those who are deaf or hearing-impaired when you pick up sign language.

How to Get Started

6. Try Calligraphy

If you're a lover of font or language and looking for a hobby that requires skill and discipline, calligraphy could be perfect for you. There's something calming about the swooping letters, and it may just come in handy for handmade invitations or decorations.

How to Get Started

  • Calligraphy Starter Kit from Printable Wisdom ($33 on Etsy)
  • The Ultimate Guide to Modern Calligraphy & Hand Lettering for Beginners ($6.99 on Amazon)

7. Meditate

The research-backed benefits of meditation include reducing stress and anxiety, increasing the body's immune response and improving sleep quality. With a lineup like that, why not give it a try?

How to Get Started

Try an app that offers guided meditations for beginners:

  • Headspace ($12.99 monthly or $95 annually)
  • Calm (Free for the limited version; $70 annually for the premium version)
  • Balance (Free for the basic version; $12 a month or $50 a year for the premium version)

8. Learn New Dance Moves

Getting your groove on is a great way to release tension and is a sneaky form of exercise to boot. Learn new ways to move that you can show off the next time you find yourself on a dance floor.

How to Get Started

Check out these popular YouTube channels:

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