The Art of Unwinding: Why It’s So Good For Your Brain

The Art of Unwinding: Why It’s So Good For Your Brain

How to switch off during your holiday, and why your brain will thank you for it

Summer is a time for relaxation and properly switching off. On holiday, most of us have a simpler existence: we rest more, read material that is totally unrelated to work, fill up on fresh fruit and veg, swim and explore. All of these things are restorative. From a scientific perspective, they all have benefits for our brains too.

Image by Jesse Schoff on Unsplash

Part of this comes from the fact that activities like aimless lounging around, daydreaming, pottering and reading for pleasure rather than purpose all activate the default network in the brain, sometimes also called the mind-wandering network. When this flourishes, inspiration is more likely to strike. We are better able to free-associate and harness our emotional intelligence and intuition. Perhaps that’s why, so often, we return from holiday with a fresh perspective on a situation we’ve been feeling stumped by, or the resolve to take our lives in a bold new direction.

The default network is what enables us to think in an abstract way, which is the perfect counterbalance to the ‘wood for the trees’ feeling we all get when we’re mired in thinking logically and functionally about our day-to-day. It helps us to envisage new possibilities: to imagine fresh solutions to old problems.

But there’s one big sticking point. In order to reap the benefits of holiday downtime, you need to be able to switch off in the first place. This is something many people find difficult. In my work as a coach, I’ve regularly encountered those who skip holidays or work through them. They damage family and romantic relationships with this behaviour, being wedded to their devices when they should be fully focused on rare quality time with family and friends.

People who fall into this trap often have issues with feeling indispensable and relinquishing control, but I always explain to them that they are denying their brain the rest it needs to function best by indulging this negative behaviour. This is because when they are engaged in task-focused work, their brain’s control network will dominate. The counterbalance to the default network we just mentioned, this series of pathways governs our task focus and logical thinking, relating to analytical and goal-focused thought. So it makes sense that when you want to let your brain relax and have those ‘blue sky’ moments we all crave, you need to help it switch off.

Here are some ways to do this:

· Do a digital detox on your holiday. Put an out-of-office on your email and don’t check it. Leave devices in your holiday apartment or hotel room for the day rather than taking them down to the pool or beach with you. Somebody else will have their phone if you need to take a picture! Removing the temptation to check social media, email and messaging apps is a great way to give your brain a chance to do something more interesting instead.

· If you find yourself thinking about work, do a mini meditation. Nobody needs to know what you’re doing. Close your eye, breathe deeply and check in mindfully with each part of your body, from your feet to the top of your head. Breathe in for a count of four and see if you can breathe out for a count of eight. This will reduce levels of adrenaline and cortisol in your body, decreasing stress and allowing the default network to do its work.

· Choose books and magazines that will take you somewhere else. Opt for novels over factual books, as this is more likely to fire up your imagination by improving connections across your brain. Consider reading a new author or a type of fiction you wouldn’t normally go for. Feeding your brain in this way is a great way to help it switch modes.

· Consciously think of channelling the energy you normally put into work and problem-solving into relaxation. Turn it into a challenge. How much relaxation, fun, new experiences and good-quality interaction with your loved ones can you pack in? This isn’t about having a packed schedule of sightseeing and activities, it’s about trying to be fully present and savouring every moment.

 

From: Harper’s BAZAAR UK 

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