PUT YOUR HEAD IN THE CLOUDS
You know to give your body a break after a tough workout – research shows your brain needs rest and recovery, too. Here’s the secret to productive mental downtime, and why it will make you happier and healthier.
Time off is what your brain thrives on. It spends hours every day working and managing the constant streams of information and conversation that come at you from all directions.
But if your brain doesn’t get a chance to chill and restore itself, your mood, performance and health suffer. Think of this recovery as mental downtime – periods when you’re not actively focusing on and engaged in the outside world. You simply let your mind wander or daydream, and it becomes re-energised in the process.
But just as we’re falling short on sleep, we’re also getting less mental downtime than ever. In a survey by the Bureau of Labor Statistics in the US, 83 per cent of respondents said they spent no time during the day relaxing or thinking.
“People treat themselves like machines,” says Dr Matthew Edlund, the author of The Power of Rest: Why Sleep Alone is Not Enough. “They consistently over-schedule, overwork and overdo.”
This is especially true for active women, who tend to go just as hard in the rest of their lives as they do in their workouts because they’re motivated and driven, says Danielle Shelov, a psychologist in New York City. “They think the best way to succeed is by doing as many productive things as possible.”
That kind of attitude can rebound on you, though. Consider the zombie-like feeling you have after a marathon meeting at work, a crazy-busy day running errands and doing chores, or a weekend filled with too many social gatherings and obligations. You can barely think straight, you end up accomplishing less than you had planned, and you become forgetful and make mistakes.
A full-throttle lifestyle can chisel away at productivity, creativity and happiness, says Stew Friedman, the director of the Wharton Work/Life Integration Project at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of Leading the
Life You Want. “The mind needs rest,” he says. “Research shows that after you take a mental time-out, you are better at creative thinking and coming up with solutions and new ideas, and you feel more content.”
Your brain is actually designed to have regular rest periods. Overall, it has two main modes of processing. One is action-oriented and lets you concentrate on tasks, solve problems and process incoming data – this is what you use when you’re working, watching TV, scrolling through Instagram, or otherwise managing and making sense of information. The second is called the default mode network (DMN), and it switches on whenever your mind takes a break to wander inwards.
If you’ve ever read a few pages of a book and then realised you haven’t absorbed anything because you were thinking about something totally unrelated – like the best place to go for tacos or what to wear tomorrow – that was your DMN taking over.
The DMN can switch on and off in the blink of an eye, research shows. But you can also be in it for hours – during, say, a quiet walk in the woods.
Either way, spending time in your DMN every day is critical: “It creates rejuvenation in the brain, when you can chew on or consolidate information and make meaning out of what’s going on in your life,” says Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, an associate Let your brain wander freely several times throughout the day, and you’ll feel calmer and more content.