Mental Sabbaticals – Good Whatever Your Religion

Sometimes a mental sabbatical is just what you need. Actually, this should be an essential part of your daily, weekly, and monthly routine. We all need to disconnect and recharge; our brains are incapable of functioning at a high level without that rest. Consider this chapter in combination with the chapter on neurofitness and once again the holistic mind-body connection cannot be ignored, and must be cultivated.

Keep the words flowing by buying me a coffee.

A person can learn a lot about himself, the world and his place in it by stopping for a moment to contemplate the nature of…

well, nature. Observe the natural world for just a moment and it’s clear that things flow and move rhythmically, in cycles and undulations, coming and going, never quite the same from day to day.

Crucially, for every upswing, there’s a corresponding downswing. Spring follows winter, animals sleep and then wake, things grow up out of the soil and then die back down into it again. In other words, even nature itself rests, relaxes, and takes time in every cycle to do “nothing.” We’ve already covered some of the reasons why it’s so important to consciously build sleep, recuperation and stillness into our daily routines. It’s better for your brain! Going deeper, though, the virtue of rest is often measured in terms of how productive it makes you: take “power naps” so you can be extra efficient when you wake up. Sleep eight hours so you can go even harder at the gym the next day. Go on a retreat somewhere in the mountains so you’re ultra-energized to give your best at your boring office job when you get back.

But even though it’s true that rest allows for greater action, it’s also something to be enjoyed for its own sake, not because of what we can get out of it. Sometimes, it’s enough to unplug, to let go of goal-driven activity, to just “be” as we are and let the world come to us for a moment. This is the essence of deep relaxation—letting the mind and body go, without grasping on to any ideas of how that should look, and embracing stillness, softness, and quietness.

Practicing calm and relaxation can be as hard as developing your focus or determination—or even harder for those Type-A personalities. In the same way that music has to be composed of both notes and the essential pauses and quiet between them, a life well lived is one of both activity and passivity in balance—otherwise it becomes the lived equivalent of a whole lot of chaotic noise! Coincidentally, this nothingness has a host of benefits and boons for the brain that wishes to be boosted.

To start with, calm is the opposite of stress, which is one of the biggest detriments to the brain’s health. If you want a clear and concrete illustration of this phenomenon, you don’t have to look any further than any combat veteran or trauma victim suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and how their lives are negatively affected.

They literally lack the ability to function in daily life because they are so tense, and they are likely to snap at any given moment in response to their anxiety and fear.

A plethora of research has found that stress impacts the brain’s health and mental capacity in hugely negative ways. This is in large part due to the body’s physiological response to stress. But first, it will be helpful to define the difference between the two main types of stress: chronic and acute stress.

Chronic stress is when you are under ongoing stress for a relatively long period of time—something as small as being under a constant heavy load at work or dealing with a relationship that is frequently combative.

These are small sources of stress that seem insignificant until you look at the cumulative effects and realize you are always on edge, testy, and tense with knots in your shoulders. When we are experiencing chronic stress (the amount of which is highly variable and relative to the person’s tolerance), our body is in a state of physiological arousal. This is known as the fight-or-flight response, and it’s our body’s main defense mechanism when it senses a stressor.

This state was useful millennia ago when the terms “fight” and “flight” were taken literally—if the body sensed a stressor or a reason to fear, it would put itself on the highest levels of alertness and be prepared for a fight to the death, if necessary, or running away as quickly as possible. In either case, the body’s hormones, heart rate, and blood pressure are highly elevated. The main stress hormone, cortisol, is released in spades and has been implicated in causing the alertness.

So if you are under chronic stress, you are permanently in this fight-or-flight mode and have spades of cortisol flowing through your system. Your body will very rarely reach the relaxation phase, which is known as a state of homeostasis. And unfortunately, cortisol impedes your mental abilities in lieu of risk analysis and critical thinking.

In other words, chronic stress makes you alert and physiologically aroused all the time. This is exhausting both physically and mentally and has the effect of shrinking your brain. Studies have shown that chronic stress has caused as big as a 14 percent decrease in hippocampal volume (the area of your brain responsible for memory encoding and storage), which is startling.

A study (Pasquali, 2006) showed that memory in rats was negatively affected when the rats were exposed to cats, which presumably caused stress. The rats that were exposed to cats far more routinely were unable to locate certain entrances and exits.

The difficult part is you may not realize you are under chronic stress, because it has become normalized for you. It’s just like when your shoulders tense up—you probably don’t realize it until someone points it out, and you can see the contrast between being relaxed and being tense.

The cumulative effects of being constantly on edge, paranoid, unable to focus, and feeling despair and overwhelm will catch up to you. Imagine being pumped up on adrenaline for days, weeks, or months. Not only will it impair your memory and brain processing, but it will leave you unable to function in general. Excess and consistent release of cortisol can cause a loss of neurons in the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus, as well as decreasing the neurotransmitter serotonin, which is what creates the feeling of happiness. This is what people with PTSD suffer, but to a much higher degree.

Acute stress, on the other hand, is not something that will slide by unnoticed.

Acute stress is the sudden jolt of adrenaline you experience when someone cuts you off in traffic and you nearly crash, or when you get into a heated argument. Acute stress is momentary, temporary, and you can feel it and notice it. This is when adrenaline is coursing through your veins, leaving your palms sweaty and hands shaking. Your body is trying to give you the alertness and strength you need for anything. Intense bouts of acute stress can even cause headaches, muscle tension, upset stomachs, or vomiting.

If this state persists for a longer period of time, it just may cross the threshold into chronic stress.

But the labels are unimportant. What’s important is what happens to your brain’s abilities when you are under any type of stress. Remember that neural changes are made with simple repetition over time.

What happens when stress becomes the primary course of action? Brain scans of stressed individuals showed less activity in the prefrontal cortex and more in the limbic system. Prolonged stress leads to structural changes—the groove is being worn in such a way that you are creating a stressed brain unable to process in any other way.

The brain literally rewires to be more efficient in conducting information through the circuits that are most frequently activated. When stress is common, these pathways can become so strong that they become your brain’s fast route to its lower, reactive control centers. Your primitive brain dominates more frequently, and you lose touch with your conscious, logical, and calm brain.

So, in dealing with stress, we can return to the importance of releasing it regularly, i.e.

of relaxation. There are plenty of stereotypes about what relaxation should look like, but there are no rules, as this chapter will go to show. There’s no need to go to a spa or force yourself to have a picture-perfect hot bath if you actually hate them. If an activity leaves you feeling relaxed and peaceful afterwards, there’s no reason why you can’t incorporate it into your daily routine.

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Peter Hollins is a bestselling author, human psychology researcher, and a dedicated student of the human condition.

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