Happiness in this World

Reflections of a Buddhist physician

Taking a Break

Why breaks make us more resilient.

Photo: George Eastman House
http://www.flickr.com/photos/george_eastman_house/3123692128/
Do you ever long to take a break from your life? Are you sometimes so tired of managing its daily stressors that you find yourself wanting to pitch your entire existence, move somewhere else, and start your life again? Do certain relationships sometimes cause you such distress that you fantasize about running away from them and never coming back?

Would that running away permanently was a viable solution. Unfortunately, no life we would ever create somewhere else for ourselves would be free of stress, and nowhere we go can we ever escape ourselves (that is, our way of reacting to stress). Far better to stay where we are, fight the devils we know, and focus on forging a more resilient self out of the raw material of our stressful experiences.

In order to do this, however, we do need regular breaks. Taking breaks actually enhances the development of strength. Termed hormesis, we find this principle at work in at least two important biological systems. Muscles grow and become stronger in response to stress (that is, working out) as long as the stress is followed by adequate rest. Recently, we've learned that neurons become more resistant to diseases like epilepsy, migraines, and even dementia when stressed and then allowed a period of rest. The thing that stresses neurons and thus ultimately leads to their increased hardiness? Thinking.

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Which might partially explain why sleep is so important. The point, however, is that resilience doesn't develop by removing stress from our lives (an impossible feat in any event). It develops when we're exposed to stress and then given adequate time to recover from it.

While there's no lack of stress in the lives of anyone I know, I've certainly observed a consistent lack of reprieve from it. Sleep may help somewhat, but psychologically we seem to require a different kind of break from stress to refresh ourselves enough to be able to better manage it over time. We need, in essence, to be able to forget about it for a while. A mental break, as it were.

Vacations can certainly help by removing us from stressful situations physically—but they typically come too infrequently. And even then we may not be able to remove ourselves mentally from what's causing our stress. Far better than relying only on vacations for breaks is learning to distract ourselves temporarily from stress while we're in the middle of dealing with it.

Distraction works when the thing we're using to distract ourselves is genuinely engaging: something that truly takes our mind off our stress by taking it onto something else. A good book; an entertaining movie; a challenging hobby; exercise. Knowing what distracts us effectively, planning such activities on a regular basis, and clearing time in our schedules to make room for them is challenging but crucial. Merely imagining taking breaks won't work. We actually need to do it. The difficulty in doing so may be compounded by the extra anxiety we feel at turning our minds away from our problems temporarily, but, like sleep, such breaks not only make us more capable of managing stress in the short term, but also help us develop the inner strength that makes us feel less stressed in the long term. Taking breaks may feel like running away, but isn't: rather, it's a way to refresh ourselves to dive back into the fight more effectively. So give yourself a break. An active break. Regularly.

 

If you enjoyed this post, please feel free to visit Dr. Lickerman's home page, Happiness in this World.

Alex Lickerman, M.D., is a general internist and former Director of Primary Care at the University of Chicago and has been a practicing Buddhist since 1989.

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