Right now we’re in the midst of the COVID-19 global pandemic. Just that sentence is stress-inducing! But even when the world isn’t experiencing a health crisis, we’re still bombarded with media, to-do lists, family, work, and all sorts of expectations.
I found myself this past week not making any time to take a mental break. I’m up at 5am with the baby to feed him, pump, check the news, talk to my husband, get some work done, feed the baby, check Facebook, pump while watching TV, reply to a text, send some emails, stress about daycare and the Coronavirus, feed the baby, start dinner, brainstorm ideas while I shower, get more work done, watch more news, check more Facebook…
And I feel the anxiety creeping in. For me it starts with getting snippy at the smallest things, usually something obnoxious my husband did like leaving a fourth towel on the bannister. Like seriously, either hang it back up in the bathroom or put it in the hamper, amiright?!
I notice the physical tension in my body. There’s a buzzing feeling in my chest, an energy I need to get out, my jaw is tight, my breathing is short, tension headache is setting in.
It’s like when you leave your computer on and all your programs running for days (maybe weeks!) without restarting or shutting down your computer. What ends up happening? It starts getting glitchy and working slowly and eventually you need to shut it down and restart the computer.
We need mental breaks. A mental break is a moment or several moments where we turn off outside influences and even our own running thoughts. It’s hitting the reset button so we can run more efficiently.
My anxiety was setting in because I hadn’t made time to take my mental breaks. I’d been in mental go-mode all my waking hours and my mind, body and emotions were starting to pay the price.
So I told my husband he’s on baby duty. I went and ran on the treadmill, every 30 seconds reminding my brain to just stay focused and present in the moment and not start planning and thinking. It’s an effort, but I know it’s necessary.
I took a shower and, again, gently reminded myself to bring my attention back to the present, to enjoy the heat and the water, feel the soap and shampoo, to be here now. I then sat and meditated for 15 minutes and continued the effort to release the hold that my running thoughts had over my mind and find a second here and there of peace and quiet.
When I was done I felt like I’d washed my brain. I came back downstairs relaxed yet energized, calm and ready for anything. I was back to myself.
Here are 5 ways you can take that much needed mental break in a matter of seconds or minutes, to give yourself the stress-resilience you need to combat these difficult times.
We get so caught up in autopilot that we forget to take a few deep breaths.
Here’s a technique to breathe in a way that will reverse the stress response in your body by telling your Autonomic Nervous System that everything is OK and no need to be on alert in fight or flight mode. It will also give your mind a break from bombarding thoughts and clear your mental cache.
You can do this anywhere. I especially do this when waiting in a slow line, or if something is taking a long time to load on the computer, or when the baby keeps waking up every 7 minutes.
Simple mental break breathing:
- Start with a re-calibrating, big inhale, hold it, and breath out all the way.
- Now breath in slowly to the count of 4 then hold for a second.
- When you hold, hear the silence between the breaths.
- Then breath out to the count of 4 and hold for a second at the bottom.
- When you hold, feel your mind clearing as you listen for the space between inhale and exhale.
- Repeat until you feel relaxed.
Mindfulness is the act of paying attention to the present moment purposefully and without judgement.
Ever walk into a room and forget why? Or realize on your drive home you zoned out and don’t remember the last few miles you drove? Or automatically turn the TV on when you get home?
These are all mindless acts. We’re not paying attention, we’re acting automatically, out of habit.
Our brains LOVE patterns and habits. That’s why we find ourselves on autopilot so often. Thinking is one of those habits. Our brains like to be busy, it makes them feel helpful and entertained. That’s why when we do take a moment to relax, we either want to plan or daydream or watch TV.
But taking a moment to be fully mindful can give us the mental break we need to refresh and relax our minds.
You can do this anywhere, anytime. If you’re driving and your mind is buzzing, you can take a mindful moment and feel the wheel under your hands, the air from the window blowing your hair, the sun on your face or arm. You can mindfully notice everything you see out the window.
I like using the shower as a great time for a mindful break. It goes something like this:
Simple mindful showering mental break:
- Take the shampoo bottle in your hand, feel the weight of it, the sensation of flicking open the cap, how the weight shifts as you tip it over your hand and squeeze.
- Notice when your mind has wandered to what you need to do later, bring it back to the shampoo bottle.
- Take your time massaging it into your scalp, feeling your hair get wet and matted, your fingers creating small circles.
- Recognize your thoughts have gone to reliving a conversation from earlier in the day, bring your attention back to the feel of your hair.
- Hear the sound of the water running and the ceiling fan blowing, the feel of the heat on your skin.
- Once you realize your thoughts have been going over an idea you have, gently bring it back to the present moment.
If a “brilliant” idea happens to pop into my head, I have a shower notepad (yes, this exists!) and write it down before going back to my mindful exercise.
You can try this while doing the dishes, exercising, gardening, sweeping, getting dressed; you name it.
While mindfulness can be active when we are doing our daily activities, it can also be a meditation practice.
It’s an excellent way to give your mind a break from constant thinking. This doesn’t mean your mind needs to be clear of all thought in order to meditate “correctly.” On the contrary, thoughts will definitely come through your mind.
Meditation is the act of noticing that your attention is on the thoughts in your head, then purposefully redirecting your attention to something else in the present moment, like your breath. And you do this again and again.
Each time you bring your attention back, you give your brain a nice little break. You might find those breaks getting longer and longer.
Simple mental-break meditation:
- Find a comfortable place to sit without distraction for any amount of time.
- Start with a re-calibrating big, big inhale, hold it, and breath out all the way.
- Return your breath to normal and just notice it – the feel, the sound – find something about your breath to focus on.
- Your mind will wander. Notice when it does. Once you notice, bring your attention back to your breath.
- End with one more big breath in and out.
Spend Time in Nature
Even just a change of scenery can help reset and clear your mind. But nature has a special way of clearing out the cobwebs.
Just yesterday when I was feeling the stress building up as I hadn’t taken any mental breaks yet, I took that as my sign to hit the reset button.
I strapped on my shoes, bundled up the boy, and we walked around the yard. Part of the walk was done mindfully. I felt the crunch of snow underfoot and the warm sun on my face. And part was just simply connecting with nature.
Two simple mental-break ways to experience nature:
- Using all your senses, experience the outdoors as if for the first time with a youthful curiosity. I picked up a dead leaf and showed it to my son. He’s only 3 months old so crunching a dried out leaf is a new thing for him. I, too, took a moment to see, feel, hear and smell the leaf in my hand.
- You can also experience nature as though this is the last time you will see it. This might sound morbid to some, but it is an excellent way to feel gratitude and truly appreciate nature and be in the moment.
This allows you to fully immerse yourself in nature, giving you the much needed break from the busyness in your brain.
5. Good Quality Sleep
I sometimes get sucked into social media or binge watching a show (right now it’s Dateline stories!) and end up staying up late. Then it’s hard to get to sleep because I’ve gone past my optimal sleep time and then my mind spins, keeping me up.
We all know by now that sleep is important for our physical, mental and emotional health. But it can be hard to get yourself to go to bed, and when you do it may be hard to fall asleep.
Using the tactics listed above, you will find it easier to mentally disengage which can help you break away from work, tv, social media, whatever is keeping you from bed. It can also help train your brain to let go of thoughts, which will help you to fall asleep more easily.
So can creating a bedtime routine that you look forward to.
A lovely bedtime routine could include:
- A nice bath
- Cozy jammies
- A cup of tea
- Lavender spray for your pillow
- A good book
- Relaxing music.
Going to bed can feel so mundane, which makes it hard to look forward to and easy to put off. But we need to reset our brains and give our minds a break from all our life’s stresses, so get a good night’s sleep!