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...
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.”
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.”