Why resting your brain is important

Yasmina Floyer 1 December 2021

A 24/7 touch and go culture can wreak havoc on stress levels—here's how to properly rest your brain 

Often when we think of taking some time out and having a little R&R, the image that comes to mind is that of being very still with the aim of moving as little as possible. Rest, we have come to learn, means sitting down, putting our feet up and unburdening ourselves.

This is all good and well, and as a working mother of two, I completely appreciate the physical exhaustion that comes from standing for literally hours followed by the cool wave of relief that radiates from the soles of my feet upwards when I finally sit down.

Like so many others, I am one of those people who find it difficult to take a break. Switching off requires closing down all the many tabs I have open in my mind, and what better way to do that than a day spent doing nothing?  

So why, then, having spent a rare day curled up on the sofa do I still find myself drained come the evening? I’ve done hardly any physical activity at all besides getting up for the bathroom and the kitchen, how can I be possibly be this tired? The answer, I realised, is down to the fact that I wasn’t getting enough cognitive rest.

Scrolling, texting and answering emails, engaging with people online, the news cycle and the endless carousel of worries churning away in the background, all of this can take place whilst a person is fully reclined on the sofa in pyjamas. All these things inhibit us from receiving adequate mental rest.

I caught up with CBT therapist Charlotte Luscombe who shared with me the importance of switching off mentally as well as physically. She explains, “We can be physically still and resting but that does not mean our bodies are in a relaxed state. Our minds can continue to race and when doing so can cause anxiety. This process activates the sympathetic nervous system creating physiological responses in the body such as heart racing and tension which will leave you feeling exhausted even if you are not doing anything.”

"We can be physically still and resting but that does not mean our bodies are in a relaxed state"

The connection between mind and body is something I have a deep respect for given that I live with an anxiety and panic disorder. The power that our minds have over our bodies is extraordinary. There are times when my mind perceives threat, albeit figuratively, and my body reacts.

Adrenaline and cortisol are released into my bloodstream, panic knocks firmly on my chest via my syncopated heartbeat. My hands go numb. I think maybe I am dying, but I’m not, I’m having a panic attack. The solution is to ground myself, get back into my body, reconnect with my senses. Breathe and be present. If I can calm my body down, my mind will follow.

Technology and social media have had many positive benefits particularly during extended periods of lockdown. They enabled us to connect, to see the faces of loved ones and for many of us, it allowed us to continue with our jobs. The downside to months spent homeworking with many now flexi-working is that the boundaries between our place of work and place of rest have blurred, making it increasingly difficult to switch off.

Meditating can improve your sense of wellbeing and overall anxiety

It’s important to encourage cognitive rest because as Charlotte tells me, “For rest and relaxation to be beneficial is to ensure our mind is taking some well needed rest too.” Writing for the Harvard Medical School, Srini Pillay, MD explains the importance of the “unfocus network” or the Default Mode Network (DMN) when looking at optimising brain function, “...for optimal brain training, we need both focus and unfocus. So, build unfocus times into your day. Ensure that you’re not in one continuous slog.”

 “Visualisation and imagery are powerful techniques which can also help engage cognitive rest,” Charlotte tells me, “If you find yourself drifting back to thoughts and worries refocus back onto the visualisation or imagery. YouTube has many guided imagery videos to listen to.”

Also known as Positive Constructive Daydreaming, a review of ground-breaking study conducted by Jerome L. Singer et al in 2013 found that “…Singer’s research produced evidence suggesting that daydreaming, imagination, and fantasy are essential elements of a healthy, satisfying mental life.” Simply put, zoning out and allowing our minds to wander is good for our mental health.

Ask the Scientists, reinforces the significance of being “not actively engaged in a task that requires a lot of attention” in order to engage the brain’s default mode network (DMN), which is, “…just a fancy way of saying that your brain’s energy is no longer being exerted on conscious tasks. Basically, your mind is allowed to wander or zone out. And that’s a good thing.”

Allowing your mind to wander is a lovely suggestion, yet it privileges the idea that one’s mind is free to wander. Navigating a pandemic and climate catastrophe alongside a grim news cycle affords very little space for carefree thoughts, and that isn’t including whatever personal hardships an individual may be faced with.

Challenge the thoughts that pop up,” says Charlotte, when discussing obtrusive thoughts, those worries that gate-crash our everyday stream of consciousness, hijacking all hopes of a peaceful daydream.

She goes on to suggest that rather than accepting these worries as fact, we question them. Charlotte encourages that we ask ourselves, “Is this something I can solve? Is it reasonable to deal with it right now? Is it urgent or can it be postponed until a better time? Often things that go through our minds are things we cannot deal with there and then or things that are outside of our control, so either postpone them to another time or let them go.”

"If you struggle to rest your mind, try a relaxing activity and focus your attention on what you are doing"

And what suggestions does she have for busy-minded individuals like myself who feel more drained than refreshed after extended periods of doing nothing? “Active rest,” Charlotte tells me, “activities that help you to engage your mind can help you to relax even if you are physically doing something, as this encourages cognitive rest. Activities such as yoga, walking, reading, colouring etc. If you struggle to rest your mind, try a relaxing activity and focus your attention on what you are doing.”

Whilst pursuing an activity may seem counterintuitive when it comes to pursuing rest, Charlotte explains that “engaging your mind in these activities can help it to disengage from worries, reducing physiological stress and tension. Even doing something active with your mind engaged will be more restful than sitting down but worrying for hours.”

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