Research on naps, meditation, nature walks and the habits of exceptional artists and athletes reveals how mental breaks increase productivity, replenish attention, solidify memories and encourage creativity.

Every now and then during the day or night— everyone begins to feel a little tired, yet we fail to understand the meaning or the impact. Even beginning the day feeling OK, getting through the ever growing list of activities that need to be attended and respond to, sometimes becomes an ever growing mountain. There is so much more to do—so much work to be done—but the brain is telling you to stop. It's full and overflowing. It is suffering congestion and needs some downtime.

When we take a break from the daily grind we gradually allow the mind to sort through a backlog of unprocessed data and to empty itself of accumulated concerns. It’s like taking that well-earned holiday!!

When you go on a break from the normal routines, it allows the base level of mental tension and busyness to totally evaporate, it allows for everything to kind of settle down.

Even if you are not committed to meditation, hypnosis or any other form of relaxation. A survey of Australian workers revealed that the average employee spends more than half their workdays receiving and managing information rather than using it to do their jobs; half of the surveyed workers also confessed that they were reaching a breaking point after which they would not be able to accommodate the deluge of data. This is the reason why we need to take regular breaks during our busy days and to also take regular short holidays and schedule in at least one, two week break at some point during the busy year.

To summarize, our brains are preoccupied with work and other responsibilities much of the time, for the most we are devoted perpetual busyness but this does not in fact translate to greater productivity and is not particularly healthy. Our brain requires substantial downtime to remain industrious and generate its most innovative ideas?

Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we can become dysfunctional.

It allows us to stop and reflect, to reassess and to work out where we want to go and then move forward with greater clarity of mind.

There have been many new studies investigating: the habits of office workers and the daily routines of extraordinary musicians and athletes; the benefits of holidays, meditation, hypnotherapy or mindfulness, the time spent in parks, gardens and other peaceful outdoor spaces; and how napping, unwinding while awake and perhaps the mere act of blinking can sharpen the mind, even when we are relaxing or daydreaming, the brain does not really slow down or stop working. Downtime replenishes the brain’s stores of attention and motivation, encourages productivity and creativity, and is essential to both achieving our highest levels of performance and simply form stable memories in everyday life. A wandering mind unblocks us in time so that we can learn from the past and plan for the future. Moments of respite may even be necessary to keep one’s moral compass in working order and maintain a sense of self.

All in a Day’s Work:

Our learning and memory depend on both sleep and waking rest and may partially explain why some of the most exceptional artists and athletes among us fall into a daily routine of intense practice punctuated by breaks and followed by a lengthy period of recuperation.

Most people can engage in deliberate practice—which means pushing oneself beyond current limits—for only an hour without rest; that extremely talented people in many different disciplines—music, sports, writing—rarely practice more than four hours each day on average; and that many experts prefer to begin training early in the morning when mental and physical energy is readily available. “Unless the daily levels of practice are restricted, such that subsequent rest and night time sleep allow the individuals to restore - individuals often encounter over-training injuries and, eventually, incapacitating ‘burnout.’”

Psychologists have established that holidays have real benefits. Holidays revitalize the body and mind by distancing people from job-related stress; by immersing people in new places, cuisines and social circles, which in turn may lead to original ideas and insights; and by giving people the opportunity to get a good night’s sleep and to let their minds drift from one experience to the next, rather than forcing their brains to concentrate on a single task for hours at a time. Jessica de Bloom, now at the University of Tampere in Finland, demonstrates that these benefits generally fade within two to four weeks. In one of de Bloom’s own studies 96 Dutch workers reported feeling more energetic, happier, less tense and more satisfied with their lives than usual during a winter sports vacation between seven and nine days long. Within one week of returning to work, however, all the feelings of renewal dissipated. A second experiment on four and five days of respite came to essentially the same conclusion. A short holiday is like a cool shower on an oppressively muggy summer day—a refreshing yet fleeting escape.

The answer is energy, people are encouraged to get seven to eight hours of sleep every night, to use all their holidays, take power naps and many small breaks during the day, practice meditation, hypnotherapy or mindfulness, and tackle the most challenging task first thing in the morning so they can give it their full attention. "Many things are in some ways very simple and on some level are things people already know, but they are moving at such extraordinary speed that they have convinced themselves they are not capable of stopping and taking time out.

Put Your Mind At Rest:

Many recent studies have corroborated the idea that our mental resources are continuously depleted throughout the day and that various kinds of rest and downtime can both replenish those reserves and increase peoples capabilities. Consider, for instance, how even an incredibly brief midday nap enlivens the mind.

A 10, 20 and 30 minutes power-nap can improve greatly our efficiencies and coping ability regaining full alertness, renewing one's powers of concentration, downtime can in fact bulk up the muscle of attention—something that scientists have observed repeatedly in studies on meditation, hypnotherapy and mindfulness. It challenges people to sit in a quiet space, close their eyes and turn their attention away from the outside world toward their own minds.

Mindfulness training or hypnotherapy has become more popular than ever in the last decade as a strategy to relieve stress, anxiety and depression. Many researchers acknowledge that studies on the benefits of meditation, hypnotherapy or mindfulness often lack scientific grounding, however, at this point they have gathered enough evidence to conclude that meditation, hypnotherapy and mindfulness can indeed improve mental health, hone one’s ability to concentrate and strengthen memory. Studies comparing long-time expert meditators with novices or people who do not meditate often find that the former out-perform the latter on tests of mental awareness.

Rather profound changes to the brain's structure and behavior likely underlie many of these improvements. Numerous studies have shown that meditation, hypnotherapy and mindfulness strengthens connections within the mind’s network and can help people learn to more effectively function. Meditation, Hypnotherapy and Mindfulness also appears to increase the volume and density of the hippocampus, a seahorse-shaped area of the brain that is absolutely crucial for memory; it thickens regions of the frontal cortex that we rely on to rein in our emotions; and it lessens the typical wilting of brain areas responsible for sustaining attention as we get older. Just how quickly meditation, hypnotherapy or mindfulness can noticeably change the brain and mind is not yet clear, however, experiments suggest that a couple weeks of meditation or hypnotherapy treatments or a mere 10 to 20 minutes of mindfulness a day can sharpen the mind—if people stick with it.

Perceived stress increases likelihood of amnestic mild cognitive impairment in older people

Feeling stressed out increases the likelihood that elderly people will develop mild cognitive impairment—often a prelude to full-blown Alzheimer's disease. In a new study, scientists at Albert Einstein College of Medicine and Montefiore Health System found that highly stressed participants were more than twice as likely to become impaired than those who were not. Because stress is treatable, the results suggest that detecting and treating stress in older people might help delay or even prevent the onset of Alzheimer's. The findings were published online today in Alzheimer Disease & Associated Disorders.

Each year, approximately 470,000 Americans are diagnosed with Alzheimer's dementia. Many of them first experience mild cognitive impairment—a pre-dementia condition that significantly increases the risk of developing Alzheimer's in the following months or years. This study looked at the connection between chronic stress and "amnestic mild cognitive impairment" (aMCI), the most common type of MCI, which is primarily characterized by memory loss.

Our study provides strong evidence that perceived stress increases the likelihood that an older person will develop a MCI, said Richard Lipton, M.D.

Senior author of the study, vice chair of neurology at Einstein and Montefiore, and professor in the Saul R. Korey Department of Neurology and the Edwin S. Lowe Chair of Neurology at Einstein. "Fortunately, perceived stress is a modifiable risk factor for cognitive impairment, making it a potential target for treatment."

"Perceived stress reflects the daily hassles we all experience, as well as the way we appraise and cope with these events," said study first author, Mindy Katz, M.P.H., senior associate in the Saul R. Korey Department of Neurology at Einstein. "Perceived stress can be altered by mindfulness-based stress reduction, cognitive-behavioural therapies and stress-reducing drugs. These interventions may postpone or even prevent an individual's cognitive decline."

The researchers studied data collected from 507 people enrolled in the Einstein Aging Study (EAS), a community-based cohort of older adults. Since 1993, the EAS has systematically recruited adults 70 and over who live in Bronx County, NY. Participants undergo annual assessments that include clinical evaluations, a neuropsychological battery of tests, psychosocial measures, medical history, assessments of daily-living activities and reports (by participants and those close to them) of memory and other cognitive complaints.

Starting in 2005, the EAS began assessing stress using the Perceived Stress Scale (PSS). This widely used 14-item measure of psychological stress was designed to be sensitive to chronic stress (due to ongoing life circumstances, possible future events and other causes) perceived over the previous month. PSS scores range from 0 to 56, with higher scores indicating greater perceived stress.

The diagnosis of aMCI was based on standardized clinical criteria including the results of recall tests and reports of forgetfulness from the participants or from others. All 507 enrolees were free of aMCI or dementia at their initial PSS assessment and subsequently underwent at least one annual follow-up evaluation. They were followed for an average of 3.6 years.

Seventy-one of the 507 participants were diagnosed with aMCI during the study. The greater the participants' stress level, the greater their risk for developing aMCI: for every 5 point increase in their PSS scores, their risk of developing aMCI increased by 30 percent. Similar results were obtained when participants were divided into five groups (quintiles) based on their PSS scores. Participants in the highest-stress quintile (high stress) were nearly 2.5 times more likely to develop aMCI than were people in the remaining four quintiles combined (low stress). When comparing the two groups, participants in the high-stress group were more likely to be female and have less education and higher levels of depression.

To confirm that stress was independently increasing risk for aMCI in this study, the researchers assessed whether depression—which increases the risk for stress as well as for cognitive impairment and Alzheimer's disease—might have influenced the results. They found that depression did not significantly affect the relationship observed between stress and the onset of aMCI. Similarly, stress's impact on cognitive status was unaffected if participants possessed at least one e4 allele of the APOE gene, which increases their risk for developing late-onset Alzheimer's.


Source: Albert Einstein College of Medicine