Taking Breaks Is Good for Your Brain — Here’s Why
You likely have an intuitive sense that taking breaks from work and life responsibilities to rest is good for your health. After a walk, time in nature or a few minutes without to-dos, you just feel better.
Finding the time to take breaks, however, is a whole other story.
“Many people don’t often have a choice in how much rest is available to them. The way society is set up, we treat rest as a privilege, not a right,” says Julia Kocian, a licensed clinical social worker and UW Medicine Graduate Medical Education mental health counselor.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Kocian notes advocating for a living wage along with changes to family leave policies, vacation time, sick leave and even the four-day work week can all help people access rest, prioritize their well-being and live healthier lives.
Making these changes in society takes time, and many of us need rest in our day-to-day lives right now. So, what can you do now to take a break and help yourself feel better?
What happens to your brain when you take breaks to rest?
Just as you need sleep to learn and build long-term memories, you need rest to promote brain function.
“What we’re learning is some of the same consolidation activities that happen in our brains when we’re asleep also occur when we rest,” says Samantha Artherholt, a psychologist and clinical associate professor in the UW School of Medicine Department of Rehabilitation.
Allowing yourself downtime with minimal stimuli helps replenish your brain’s capacity for attention, focus and creativity, and it allows you to process new information you’ve learned and tie it to other ideas, she explains.
This is slightly different from taking a break where you move or socialize — though there are benefits to taking breaks in that way as well.
“I view rest as intentionally slowing down or stepping away from an activity, while taking a break can be more active, like going on a walk or stretching,” Artherholt says. “The goal of any sort of rest or break is it should feel relaxing. You should feel refreshed and better after the break than you did before.”
Your brain gets a boost from rest and breaks because you have different electrochemical brain states based on what your brain is doing. When the brain is active it produces beta waves; when resting, alpha waves; daydreaming, theta waves; and sleeping, delta waves.
“The idea is we need to spend time in different brain states. When we engage in a variety of activities that require more and less focus, our brain can spend time in the different states, which helps it function and allows us to be creative, to problem-solve and to store information,” Kocian says.
You may have experienced this before if you've been unable to recall a name or fact, but it popped into your head later when you were relaxing. Similarly, a task or problem that feels unsolvable may suddenly seem obvious after some time away.
In these cases, by taking a break your brain enters a different brain state but is still active and problem-solving, even if you aren’t consciously aware of it.
How often should you take breaks and rest?
There isn’t a specific frequency or duration you should be resting. The key is that you do try to rest.
“The biggest thing is giving yourself permission to do it,” Artherholt says.
While what feels best will be individual to you, she recommends trying to distribute downtime throughout your day and week so that you have short breaks and longer chunks of time to unwind.
How to take beneficial breaks
Similarly, it might take some experimentation to find what type of break feels the most refreshing.
What feels calming to one person may be stressful to another. Moreover, various life factors (like juggling multiple jobs or caring for kids and older family members) can affect how much access you have to breaks and rest, and different people need different amounts of each to feel well.
Whether you are fitting in a few deep breaths or going on a weekend retreat, Kocian and Artherholt share a few general guidelines to make your breaks work for you.
Calm your central nervous system
Whether or not your break provides health benefits largely depends on how you spend that time — meaning folding a load of laundry or running an errand may be a break from your day job, but it doesn’t necessarily give you the benefits of rest.
“I wouldn’t say, ‘I had a lot of rest today. I did the laundry,’” Kocian says.
To receive the health benefits of a break, spend time in a way that calms down your central nervous system. Your nervous system helps you respond to threats and stressors by putting you into fight or flight mode. If your nervous system is constantly activated, it can lead to disease.
“It’s not that stress is bad or the body’s stress response bad, but if we stay in this kind of low-level stress constantly our sympathetic nervous system is activated for longer than our bodies were designed to deal with. That chronic stress can have negative downstream effects,” Kocian says.
Choosing to take a break and do a calming activity will allow your nervous system to return to its baseline state. While this looks different for different people, some options to try are meditation, exercising and getting out in nature.
Shift from doing to being
We live in a culture that emphasizes productivity, and this focus on accomplishments can make it difficult to allow yourself to relax. (Kocian notes the first question people ask when they meet each other is, “What do you do?” while Monday mornings at work start with, “What did you do this weekend?”)
“It’s not inherently bad that we want to set goals and achieve them — this helps us contribute to work and home environments and use our time in a way that gives us meaning. But the idea that we have to constantly be doing something is born from there, and it can make it hard to pause for rest,” Kocian says.
One way to cope with this is to pay attention to when you’re overloaded and need rest. This awareness can help you take steps to offload some work if possible. Small actions to remove nonessential to-dos, like turning off notifications on your phone, can give you more breathing room.
From there, it helps to practice allowing yourself to just be.
“From a cognitive perspective, it’s important when we rest to get as little input as possible. We know there’s a benefit of at least brief periods of quiet, or closing your eyes and getting some space,” says Artherholt.
You can start by setting a timer for one minute and letting yourself do nothing during that time.
Be kind to yourself
It’s easy to slip into trying to maximize your breaks for the most health benefits possible — and easier yet to berate yourself if you aren’t able to make that happen.
Try to avoid self-criticism if you can’t take time to rest each day. You want to listen to your body and respond accordingly (and if sometimes the only downtime you have is spent doing the laundry, that’s OK too.)
“There’s no point in beating yourself up. As you approach making a chance to take breaks, it helps to keep in mind the purpose of why we even care about rest — hopefully because we want to live happy and fulfilling lives,” Kocian says.