Why you need to switch off

When was the last time you took a proper break? As a so­ci­ety, we seem to have lost the art of rest – and yet it’s es­sen­tial to both our phys­i­cal and men­tal well­be­ing. Sharon Par­sons ex­plains why...

Friday - - Health -

Han­nah was hav­ing a bad day. She was try­ing to fin­ish an ur­gent re­port for her boss that had to be on his desk first thing the next morn­ing, sort out an on­go­ing is­sue with her land­lord, tidy up be­fore visi­tors de­scended for din­ner, and ar­range her son’s birth­day party. She felt lethar­gic, she had a headache... and noth­ing at all was get­ting done.

“Then I re­mem­bered some­thing my grand­mother once told me – if noth­ing’s work­ing, do noth­ing,” Han­nah, a le­gal sec­re­tary from Dubai Ma­rina, says. “It went some­what against the grain, but I forced my­self to do just that. I lay on my bed midafter­noon lis­ten­ing to re­lax­ing spa-like mu­sic on the iPod, and just let ev­ery­thing go. It was ex­tra­or­di­nary; an hour later, I zipped through the re­port, made a few de­ci­sive calls, pre­pared for my guests – and even had time for a re­lax­ing shower be­fore they ar­rived. Hav­ing a proper rest proved far more pro­duc­tive than sim­ply plough­ing on.”

Many of us will iden­tify with this sce­nario, and even recog­nise, per­haps, that tak­ing a rest to make things bet­ter is ba­sic com­mon sense; it’s na­ture’s way of get­ting life back in synch. But th­ese days, it seems, rest­ing is eas­ier said than done.

“Al­low­ing our­selves the lux­ury of paus­ing in the midst of a fran­tic day is an in­cred­i­bly ben­e­fi­cial and pro­duc­tive thing to do,” says clin­i­cal psy­chol­o­gist Dr Sal­iha Afridi of The Light­House Ara­bia, “but un­for­tu­nately, it’s some­thing we rarely al­low our­selves to do.”

Go-go gad­gets

Like nu­mer­ous ex­perts, Dr Afridi places much of the blame on tech­nol­ogy. “We live in a world that never stops,” she ex­plains. “Be­fore the ad­vent of mo­bile phones, for in­stance, driv­ing home from work al­lowed a men­tal shift to ‘down­time’. Now, we’re likely to be

dis­cussing a project on our hands­free while we ne­go­ti­ate the traf­fic, be­fore spend­ing an evening on the sofa deal­ing with the day’s over­spill of emails. We’re so con­di­tioned to fill­ing up ev­ery mo­ment, we feel guilty if we al­low our­selves to switch off.”

Pro­fes­sor Cary Cooper of the or­gan­i­sa­tional psy­chol­ogy and health We’re forced by pres­sure or con­science to get back on the tread­mill far sooner than our bod­ies re­ally want to.

“That in it­self is an irony,” says Prof Cooper. “Very of­ten it’s the re­fusal to rest in the first place that causes us to be­come ill. It’s a warn­ing sign that burnout is im­mi­nent – we’re hu­man be­ings not ma­chines and our ge­netic makeup hasn’t evolved to man­age this 24/7 pres­sure.”

In­deed. In pri­mal times, when our an­ces­tors ex­pe­ri­enced dan­ger, the pro­tec­tive hor­mone cor­ti­sol was im­me­di­ately re­leased, caus­ing blood flow to di­vert to es­sen­tial mus­cle groups and help the body re­act fast – the fight-or-flee re­sponse.

The prob­lem, nowa­days, is that we’re un­likely to be fight­ing in­vaders or es­cap­ing from wild an­i­mals. Rather than a quick burst of en­ergy fol­lowed by the body’s nat­u­ral re­lax­ation re­sponse – which al­lows hor­mone lev­els to re­turn to nor­mal – we’re on con­stant alert, which means higher and more pro­longed lev­els of cor­ti­sol are cours­ing through our blood­stream. The knock-on ef­fect con­cerns both our phys­i­cal and men­tal well­be­ing (see the ‘Rea­sons to rest’ box).

So what can we do about it? ‘‘We live our lives by di­ary ap­point­ments and to-do lists... so treat rest­ing in the same way,” says Prof Cooper. “Sched­ule an ac­tiv­ity or a so­cial date that will force you to take a break and – cru­cially – to stick to it.”

Don’t un­der­es­ti­mate the role of med­i­ta­tion, ei­ther. Re­search shows the con­clu­sive link be­tween mind and body when it’s prac­tised ef­fec­tively. In fact a new study* has found the phys­i­o­log­i­cal Of­ten it’s our re­fusal to rest in the first place that makes us ill – we’re hu­mans not ma­chines depart­ment at Lancaster Univer­sity in the UK agrees, but takes it fur­ther. “We’re also driven by achieve­ment – how hard we work, how much money we make, our sta­tus in so­ci­ety... so an in­abil­ity to rest has a lot to do with fear and the need to prove our­selves,” he says. “We worry that we might risk our job, or sim­ply lose face if we don’t show our­selves as end­lessly ca­pa­ble and oc­cu­pied. Tak­ing time out is per­ceived as weak or in­dul­gent.”

No rest for the wicked

It’s true. At work, we tend to go right through the day with barely a break – in­deed, ac­cord­ing to re­cent re­search, we clock up an ad­di­tional 16 work­ing days a year by eat­ing lunch at our desk – while our spare time is swal­lowed up with must-do chores and ac­tiv­i­ties.

Even day­time naps are viewed as ei­ther im­prac­ti­cal, lazy or a guilty in­dul­gence (it’s be­come much rarer in Mediter­ranean coun­tries to take the tra­di­tional siesta for in­stance).

And as for con­va­lesc­ing – once a nec­es­sary part of re­cov­ery from ill­ness – that is now an un­heard-of ex­er­cise. state of deep rest in­duced by med­i­ta­tion, yoga and deep breath­ing im­me­di­ately changes the genes con­nected to our im­mune sys­tem, me­tab­o­lism and in­sulin pro­duc­tion.

Some­times, though, it’s just as im­por­tant sim­ply to stop what you’re do­ing and let your mind take a gen­tle jour­ney, be­lieves Dr Afridi. “A few min­utes of re­flec­tive thought al­lows you to get un­der all the clut­ter,” she says. “Live in the mo­ment by notic­ing what’s around you and feel­ing life rather than just do­ing it – that’s what it’s all about, af­ter all. And put a stop on guilt. Re­mem­ber that the value of rest is it makes you so much bet­ter as a re­sult.”


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