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We all need to check out from time to time: to recharge, refresh, reset. That’s why we take vacations, read novels, meditate, and watch Netflix.

Sigmund Freud believed that it was part of the human condition to desire escape. “[Humans] cannot subsist on the scanty satisfaction they can extort from reality,” he wrote.

Escape, in and of itself, is neither good nor bad, though the concept has a lot of positive and negative connotations. For a summer superhero movie, “escapist” is a thumbs-up. For habitual smartphone use, it’s a problem.

With so many ways to check out these days, it’s worth taking some time to think about your escapist habits, because why you choose to escape, and how you do it, can have an impact on your mental health, shoring you up, or tearing you down.


Why We Check Out

It seems self-evident. We choose to escape to get away from something that bothers us, whether it’s the workaday grind, the fractious political climate, rebellious kids, or our own anxious minds. Daily life can be intense and demanding, and getting away can help us decompress and gain perspective. Just the prospect of a vacation can boost your happiness, according to a 2010 study. The idea of an escape, the study found, can often be more gratifying than the escape itself.

Daily life can also be, well, boring in its routine. It is from this monotony that we often desire an out. “We are less bored than our ancestors were, but we are more afraid of [boredom],” wrote Bertrand Russell in his 1930s tome, The Conquest of Happiness. Nearly a century later, our disdain for boredom has only grown more intense. While a little tedium can be a good thing, spurring us to invent, create, and make positive changes, chronic boredom has been linked to many unhealthy escape routes, including alcohol, drugs, and high-risk activities.

It’s not just the external world we want to disengage from. It can also be our own internal state of affairs. Chattering thoughts, negative feelings, and the need to keep up appearances can be exhausting. As our lives have evolved to center more on maintaining a certain image of the self, the desire to escape this burden has increased, posits Roy Baumeister, a social psychologist and author of Escaping the Self. “The rise of social media has upped the stakes and pressure even further,” Baumeister recently told me in an email. “More people will see you and evaluate you than ever before, and so one can worry ever more about details and fine points that could produce disaster.”

Clearly, we need ways to find relief from all these pressures. Being chronically overwhelmed and anxious can lead to burnout, exhaustion, and physical ailments. But there are healthy ways to escape, and not so healthy ones. Consider, for a moment, your go-to escapes, then ask yourself:

What Am I Avoiding?

A glass of Pinot Noir after a long day at work can be a pleasant way to unwind. And most doctors would not tell you that your strategy is unhealthy. But if you walk in the door and reach for the bottle because you can’t deal with your cranky partner, shrieking children, or messy home without it, you might want to hit pause and consider whether there’s a problem in your life that needs to be confronted, and not avoided.

Or, let’s take dating. What could be wrong with lining up dates on OkCupid? Potentially a lot, if you’re dating compulsively to avoid facing the fact that you have few close friends or confidantes. Or what if your habit is Tinder, and you’re using hookups as a quick fix way to deal with loneliness, apathy, or self-loathing?

Chronic avoidance can lead to long-term problems. “Constantly running from fears only exacerbates them,” says Jenny Taitz, a psychologist and clinical instructor at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. You don’t do the thing you need to do, and then your mind begins to believe that the thing you need to do is truly onerous. What’s more, studies find that people who consistently avoid dealing with strong emotions experience greater feelings of anxiety and emotional distress over time.

Is This The Best Strategy?

Back to that end-of-day glass of wine habit. Let’s assume you’re not drinking to avoid a long-term problem but to simply cope with short-term stress. If that vino helps you be a nicer, calmer dad, mom, wife, or lover, then that drink may make sense. But could there be a better strategy? Maybe you’d be better off calming yourself down before you walk in the door. Perhaps you could meditate on your subway commute, listen to a soothing podcast in the car, or take a leisurely walk from the bus or train station. Look at the list of escapist habits you made, and consider whether there might be healthier replacements. Ideally, an escape is a productive reset in which you are making a conscious choice, counsels Ms. Taitz.

Is The Habit Exacerbating Negative Feelings Or Thoughts?

Social media is a prime example. It’s easy to spend hours on Instagram and Facebook each day, which might give your mind a break from tedious work problems or help you to feel connected to friends. But how do you feel about yourself after perusing others’ posts? Do you feel invigorated? Or incensed? And what about your own posting habit? Crafting gorgeous photos of your enviable cruise or farm-to-table meal might be fun in the moment, but is it making you a slave to a self-image that needs constant tending? Mr. Baumeister argues that the more inflated your sense of self, the more burdensome that self becomes.

Is This How I Want to Show Up for My Life?

Spending the weekend binge-watching Netflix could be a fun way to pass the time. But if this is how you spend most weekends, you might want to question whether this behavior is in sync with how you want to live your life. If you’re in the entertainment business, maybe it’s exactly in line with your professional objectives. But if you’re using TV watching as a substitute for making and deepening friendships, or you’re avoiding activities that would bolster your self-esteem, perhaps some adjustments are in order.

Spending an hour a day on crossword puzzles can energize your brain and be a whole lot of fun. Spending five hours a day might be keeping you away from potentially more enriching activities. A useful way to think about all this: Is your escape refilling your tank, or draining it? Are your escapist habits in line with your values, or are they interfering with the creation of your ideal life?

In these waning days of August, when it feels so good to escape, observe your daily choices. And then question ever-so-kindly whether you are taking the easy way out, whether you could do better. It’s not always obvious when you’re sliding into harmful escapist behaviors. We engage in them so instinctively and automatically that it takes some time to recognize self-sabotaging tricks. But a little mindfulness can go a long way to changing some patterns that may be limiting your life.