For a long time now, the importance of sleep has been well understood. It is, after all, the foundation of a healthy body and mind. But while we’re aware that 7-8 hours of shut-eye is needed for us to function well, there’s another less widely known form of downtime that is essential for our health and well-being.
Before wireless internet and smartphones, our brains were a lot less stimulated. Sure, we had TV, and the slow, hulking behemoths once called computers, but we didn’t yet have instantaneous access to innumerable shortcuts to pleasure.
Today, we spend a large percentage of our waking hours plugged into the mainframe. Whether it’s too much screen time or an addiction to social media, it’s taking a toll on our health. Now, a growing body of research is showing that mental rest is instrumental in allowing our brains to recharge and recuperate.
What is Mental Rest?
Getting mental rest simply means giving our brains a breather. We may not realize it, but we’re usually pushing that grey matter harder than we think. Even the seemingly passive absorption of a YouTube video can still exert a strain.
By implementing mental rest—either by daydreaming, meditating, or reflecting—we give our brains space to cement memories, process information, and make connections. This R & R is integral to learning and processing, and neglecting it can result in poorer cognition, memory, and lower mood.
Mental rest offers innumerable benefits, including:
- Sharper focus
- Better immune function and metabolism
- Enhanced productivity and creativity
- Improved mood
- A more robust cardiovascular system
- Decreased stress
Given its hugely positive impact, it’s clear mental rest should be a core component of our daily routines.
What happens to our brains during mental rest?
Using an EEG (electroencephalograph), scientists are able to measure brainwaves. These are the different frequencies emitted by our brains and are measured in cycles per second (Hz). They include Gamma (greater than 30(Hz) Beta (13-30Hz), Alpha (8-12 Hz), Theta (4-8 Hz), and Delta (less than 4 Hz).
Each band corresponds to different types of brain activity. When we are experiencing mental rest (feeling relaxed, dreamy, meditative, creative, etc.), we emit slower brainwaves.
On the other hand, higher brainwaves are associated with more intense, focused activities like problem-solving or decision-making. While higher brainwaves are a necessary aspect of healthy brain function when occurring for extended periods of time they can lead to anxiety, stress, and burnout.
Carving out some time for ourselves so our brains operate at these lower frequencies, is essential to curb stress, improve creativity, and boost our well-being.
The importance of breaks
Sometimes we become immersed in our work—this isn’t always a bad thing. If we’re passionate and love what we do, it makes sense that we’d feel compelled to crack on. Yet what we often don’t realize is that when we push ourselves too much, we operate on a base level of stress. This can place many demands on our bodies and exhaust our mental fuel.
Research suggests that taking regular rest breaks from your work not only helps restore energy in the short term but also prevents burnout in the long term.
What’s more, if you take a break, it’s advisable to do so in the morning. While conducting a study on the effectiveness of breaks, researchers found downtime of 10-15 minutes in the morning restored more energy and led to fewer afternoon health symptoms than taking breaks later in the day.
Different types of mental rest
So, now we know mental rest should be an integral part of our daily routine, but how do we actually go about calming our brains down?
When some people hear the word mindfulness, they immediately think of a monk sitting cross-legged in a mountain cave. But mindfulness can be done anywhere at any time.
Simply focus on the breath, sights, and sounds or an inwardly repeated word or phrase. These (and many other methods) are designed to anchor us to the present moment and help us detach from the constant chatter of our minds.
Mindfulness enables our brains to operate at lower frequencies and has myriad benefits, including stress relief, improved physical health, and enhanced well-being.
Considering the previous suggestion, this may seem counterintuitive, but letting our minds wander is actually hugely beneficial. When we don’t attempt to strongarm our mental faculties, directing all attention on a problem or task; when we don’t fret and worry about future potentialities or dwell on past blunders, we give ourselves invaluable time to process and grow.
Daydreaming is associated with slower Theta waves, and these mini-retreats from the hustle and bustle can promote new ideas and expand our creativity.
So, even though we’ve been conditioned in school to view daydreaming as aberrant behaviour, current research shows it’s crucial for a healthy mind.
Engaging with Nature
Getting away from the office for a quick stroll through the park may not seem like much, but it’s actually more essential than it may seem. In the words of William S. Helton, Ph.D., professor of human factors and applied cognition:
“For most people who work in jobs that require mental effort, breaks that involve exercise and spending time in natural settings are probably good bets.”
A mounting body of research is showing that being in nature, or even just viewing natural scenes, can reduce fear, anxiety, stress, and anger, increase positive feelings, and improve cognition and creativity.
This study found that even watching nature videos produced alpha brain waves in the participants, which are associated with restorative processes.
Its clear nature is more than just pretty but is also an amazing antidote to a hectic day at work and an overworked brain.
Sometimes it feels like life doesn’t let up. Work, commitments to friends and family, taxes, unexpected circumstances, the list goes on. This is why it’s essential we take some time out for ourselves and allow our brains to replenish their stocks.
At White River Manor, we know better than most the importance of downtime. True healing can only occur when we take our foot off the gas and give ourselves some much-needed mental rest. Contact us today to speak to a specialist about how they can help.