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Do we perform better by giving the brain some ‘down time’?

When faced with a hectic schedule and a huge to-do list it’s difficult to do anything but push on. Why, though, might this be the wrong approach? Might we perform better by giving the brain some ‘down time’ and, if so, why?

Looking at a huge to do list is enough to make anyone feel stressed. Time pressured obligations and tight deadlines can particularly lead to an increase in stress. With stress, our body’s natural ‘fight or flight’ response is activated, and chemicals such as cortisol and adrenaline are released into our bloodstream. This response has evolved over generations to enable our survival in the wild, where they cause physiological changes, such as an increased heart rate and blood pressure, which are helpful for us to either run from or defend ourselves against predators. But it can be unhelpful in today’s modern day and age. These chemicals can actually make it harder to concentrate in the way that we need to in order to satisfactorily complete certain tasks.

Cortisol can decrease the growth of neurons in a section of the brain needed for memory and learning, the hippocampus. And under stress it can be more difficult to access the prefrontal cortex, the area needed for higher executive functions such as making decisions and aspects of memory – in fact some evidence shows it can actually shrink with chronic stress. So these chemicals affect not only brain function, but brain structure too.

So taking a break to relax and decrease these chemicals is clearly helpful, helping the brain perform in a way that allows it to access the required areas to function optimally.

And the idea of multi-tasking to cross off several to-do list items at once can be tempting. But this is counter-intuitively unproductive. Our brain is not wired to work in this way, and is actually switching from task to task in a way that is inefficient – and can also increase the secretion of stress hormones. So doing multiple things at once can actually end up taking longer and causing more errors than doing one thing at a time.

On another note, taking breaks helps stop you getting bored, and losing your attention on the task at hand. Research suggests that having brief breaks will enable you to maintain focus on what it is that you are actually needing to achieve. This can also be achieved by switching between tasks that need a high level of attention and a low level of attention.

And that will help you cross it off the to-do list.

Digging a little deeper, what elements of performance tend to suffer most by pushing on rather than taking some cognitive recovery (e.g. memory, decision making, communication, empathy)?

With continued stress, we are generally less able to usefully access areas such as the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus of our brain. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for higher executive functioning. This means it is needed for tasks that are cognitively demanding, tasks that require planning, and activities such as using your working memory and problem solving.

The hippocampus is responsible for emotional regulation and memory, so pushing on can affect these areas too. It is common to find that in times of stress or continued pressure, you forget things more easily, or you may not have the emotional ‘bandwidth’ that you have in other situations.

So a wide and varied range of the elements of performance can conceivably be affected when you are continually pushing on through stressful times.

There is also evidence to suggest that day-dreaming actually has an important role in how we solve problems. During this time, when you are not actively focused on completing a task, research suggests that you are actually forming different and new connections between different parts of your brain, which can help come up with novel solutions for problems. This is thought to be why people can have moments in the shower or after a night’s rest, where the ‘light-bulb goes on’ and provides a solution for a problem that had seemed unsolvable. So if you continue to ‘push on’ during stress, it’s possible that the ability to generate novel solutions could also be reduced.

What form can this down time take? For example, I prefer to exercise and stay busy when I’m stressed or anxious rather than sitting and physically relaxing. Are there different ways to give the brain the break it needs?

Stress can be classed as ‘bad’ distress, or ‘good’ eustress. Exercise is a prime example of something that can act effectively to ‘relax’ the brain, so while it is still a stress in terms of being a physiological stress, it is a eustress. A burst of exercise may temporarily raise your cortisol, but is more likely to return to a normal level after the exercise is complete.

Exercise can help with the release of other chemicals that have a positive impact on your brain and mood, such as endorphins and brain-derived neurotrophic factors (BDNF). BDNF helps healthy brain tissue develop, encouraging neurons to develop. It can actually help protect against some of the negative impacts of stress on the brain. Exercise also encourages the release of Human Growth Hormone (HGH), which can boost brain and body cell development. Research shows that levels can peak up to 2 hours after an aerobic burst of activity. And endorphins can lead to an improved feeling of well-being, improved mood, and pain-relieving effects.

The brain is selective about what it will use for fuel – it prefers oxygenated glucose, and uses about 20% of the energy that the body produces. Therefore, a good diet is also a key aspect in helping the brain recover.

And there are other ways to give the brain the rest it needs. Sleep is also important, with studies showing it is involved in key aspects such as memory formation. Meditation is another popular mode of mental relaxation, with research showing that this can have numerous benefits such as inducing changes in brain areas involved in processes such as self-awareness.

Is there a link between physical and mental recovery or are they two separate things that require different consideration? For example, if I go and sit on a beach for a week, but am still thinking about work the whole time, am I getting the recovery I need?

There is a growing amount of evidence supporting the inter-linkage between the mental and the physical. For instance, some physical conditions, such as chronic pain, now have mental treatments such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) as part of their treatment. There is also really interesting research showing that people do better after significant health events such as heart attacks if they are optimistic. And there are studies showing that stress can have a direct impact on wound healing – be it physiological or psychological stress.

Rumination is where there is a continuous and repetitive thought pattern cycle about a topic such as work, and this type of thought pattern can actually make problem solving more difficult. It can also be linked to conditions such as anxiety and depression. So if you find yourself thinking about work in this way, even when you are on vacation, it’s important to take steps to help change this.

If you find that you are constantly thinking about work while on vacation, try to find other problems to solve, like planning your next trip. Giving your brain a different task to solve can often help. If simple measures such as this don’t help, there are many other steps you can take, including talking to a healthcare professional.

Technology now means that we rarely switch off, even when on vacation. Constantly checking social media or emails can set up cycles in the brain like an addiction, so that you get a ‘hit’ of dopamine every time you check something. And studies show that up to 90% of people check their work email when not in the office. So if you are going away, simple steps like create an out-of-office automatic response can help decrease your stress. Ensuring that the sender understands that they won’t receive a response as you are on vacation can help decrease your stress, enabling you to reply to emails when you return to work.

Is there truth behind the phrase ‘a change is as good as a holiday’? Can we make our brains more resilient by changing the nature of the things we tackle?

When on a beach holiday, the sun gives your body Vitamin D, which it needs for various functions including building strong bones. Without it, you can end up with weak bones, or even rickets.  In the mental sense, a change can be regarded in a similar way, in that it is good for your brain in different ways to those that you might initially expect.

Along with the unexpected connections that can be created during daydreaming that have already been discussed, mental downtime is needed for stable memory formation and renewing our focus and attention. As discussed, evidence suggests that taking brief breaks can help refresh your attention and focus. This can also be achieved by switching between tasks that require a different amount of focus – for example, from a high attention task of planning financial accounts, to a low focus one such as filing. In this sense, the change of task can act to help refresh you.

Resilience relates how people can maintain normal functioning even when they are exposed to excessive levels of stress. Evidence supports that this is an active process. According to some evidence, coping with stress at moderate levels can enable a feeling of ‘mastery’, which can then help encourage resilience in future instances of stress.

There is also evidence that controlled exposure to certain stresses can promote resilience, for example in the military. Elements of this are used clinically to treat conditions such as anxiety or phobias. Exposure is gradually and carefully changed in graded exposure programs at a pace suited to the individual, to help them change their reactions to situations or objects over time.