Basic Health Habit No.9: Rest and Relaxation

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Rest and relaxation is necessary for the creation and maintenance of health, and to reduce the risk of disease - it is fundamental for the health of all humans.

Rest and relaxation is an essential part of effective habit formation and will make it easy and fun. You will feel more motivated, make healthier choices, and be more productive with the inclusion of this habit in your healthy lifestyle.

This may be your master habit; the habit that can help to fast-track and sustain your health goals.

Rest and relaxation is a Basic Health Habit.

The Physiological Health Benefits of Rest & Relaxation 

  • Improved Health: rest and relaxation is a necessary part of a healthy lifestyle along with the other basic health habits for anatomical structural integrity, and physiological health and function. 
  • Relief From The Effects of Chronic Stress: asthma, sleep apnea, high blood pressure, irritable bowel syndrome, ulcers, systemic inflammation, anxiety, panic attacks, depression, infections, pain, headache, insomnia, allergies, tumour development, immune system dysfunction, increased cholesterol, heart disease, hormonal imbalance, migraines, hyperhidrosis, cold hands and feet, learning disabilities, constipation, sexual dysfunction, increased risk of soft tissue injury, emotional exhaustion, decreased bone density, chromosomal telomere damage, reduced social and emotional skills. 
  • Reduces Stress: stress is a major risk factor for all disease, including heart disease, diabetes, digestive disorders, asthma, Alzheimers, immune system dysfunction, depression, anxiety, obesity, accelerated aging, increased risk of soft tissue injury, and premature death. 
  • Healthy Habit Formation: When the prefrontal cortex responsible for decision making is overloaded by chronic stress and fatigue - your resolve and best intentions are likely to succumb to emotional desire for instant gratification. Reset Your Brain's Default Neural Network 
  • REST-Assisted Relaxation and Chronic Pain: In many studies, flotation REST (Restricted Environmental Stimulation Therapy) combined with other relaxation methods, have created physiological changes resulting in a reduction, and in the higher percentage of test cases, total relief from chronic pain disorders. This approach empowers the individual with the internal regulation of pain experience through behavioural management.
  • Many recent studies have shown that our mental resources are continuously depleted throughout the day and that various kinds of rest and downtime can both replenish those reserves and increase their volume. 
  • Time for rest, relaxation, and reflection is essential to mental processes that affirm our identities, develop our understanding of human behaviour and instil an internal code of ethics. These moments of introspection lead to better decision-making. 
  • The brain requires substantial downtime to remain industrious and to generate its most innovative ideas. 
  • Rest and relaxation replenish the brain’s stores of attention and motivation, encourages productivity and creativity, and is essential to both achieve our highest levels of performance and to simply form stable memories in everyday life. A wandering mind unsticks us in time so that we can learn from the past and plan for the future. Moments of respite may even be necessary to keep one’s moral compass in working order and maintain a sense of self. a
  • The Default Mode Network:
Coordinated communication between disparate brain regions - the default mode network (DMN), takes place only when resting and relaxing. 
  • The default mode network is able to integrate more information from a wide range of brain regions in more complex ways than when the brain is consciously working through a problem.
  • The DMN is but one of at least five different resting-state networks (RSNs) - circuits for vision, hearing, movement, attention, and memory.
  • Rest and relaxation is critical to learning and memory. The brain consolidates recently accumulated data, memorizing the most salient information, and essentially rehearses recently learned skills, etching them into its tissue.
  • Mental breaks increase productivity, replenish attention, solidify memories, and encourage creativity

The Physiology of Stress

Many neurochemical, hormonal, and physiological changes occur in the body in response to stress, affecting metabolic, connective tissue, cardiovascular, respiratory, gastrointestinal, renal, endocrine and immune system functions.

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The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) are the two main systems involved in the stress response. The SNS is involved in the regulation of blood flow, heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration.

The release of neurochemicals and hormones by the hypothalamus and the pituitary gland triggers the adrenal gland to release stress hormones, particularly cortisol, which is a corticosteroid hormone. Cortisol increases the availability of the body's fuel supply (carbohydrate, fat, and glucose), which is needed to respond to stress. These corticoids increase arterial blood pressure, frees fats and glucose from the adipose tissues, reduce allergic reactions, reduce inflammation, and can decrease lymphocytes that are involved in dealing with invading particles or bacteria.

However, if cortisol levels remain elevated for too long, muscle tissue breaks down, there is a decreased inflammatory response, and suppression of the immune system occurs. High levels of cortisol can cause depression and psychosis.

Chronic stress touches every area of the body and has been identified as a major risk factor in disease formation, premature aging, and increased risk of injury.

Multitasking has been found to increase the production of the stress hormone cortisol as well as the fight-or-flight hormone adrenaline, which can overstimulate your brain and cause mental fog or scrambled thinking.   
Multitasking creates a dopamine-addiction feedback loop, effectively rewarding the brain for losing focus and for constantly searching for external stimulation.
The prefrontal cortex has a novelty bias, meaning that its attention can be easily hijacked by something new. The irony here for those of us who are trying to focus amid competing activities is clear: the very brain region we need to rely on for staying on task is easily distracted. We answer the phone, look up something on the internet, check our email, send an SMS, and each of these things tweaks the novelty-seeking, reward-seeking centres of the brain, causing a burst of endogenous opioids (no wonder it feels so good), all to the detriment of our staying on task. It is the ultimate empty calorie brain candy. Instead of reaping the big rewards that come from sustained, focused effort, we instead reap empty rewards from completing a thousand little sugar-coated tasks.   
Just having the opportunity to multitask is detrimental to cognitive performance. Glenn Wilson, former visiting professor of psychology at Gresham College, London, calls it info-mania. His research found that being in a situation where you are trying to concentrate on a task, and an email is sitting unread in your inbox, can reduce your effective IQ by 10 points. Wilson showed that the cognitive losses from multitasking are even greater than the cognitive losses from marijuana use.  
Russ Poldrack, a neuroscientist at Stanford, found that learning information while multitasking causes the new information to go to the wrong part of the brain. If students study and watch TV at the same time, for example, the information from their schoolwork goes into the striatum, a region specialized for storing new procedures and skills, not facts and ideas. Without the distraction of TV, the information goes into the hippocampus, where it is organized and categorized in a variety of ways, making it easier to retrieve. MIT’s Earl Miller adds, “People can’t multitask very well, and when they say they can, they’re deluding themselves.” And it turns out the brain is very good at this deluding business.   
The metabolic cost of shifting attention from one activity to another causes the prefrontal cortex and striatum to burn up oxygenated glucose, the same fuel they need to stay on task. And the kind of rapid, continual shifting we do with multitasking causes the brain to burn through fuel so quickly that we feel exhausted and disoriented after even a short time. We’ve literally depleted the nutrients in our brain. This leads to compromises in both cognitive and physical performance.   
Repeated task switching leads to anxiety, which raises levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the brain, which in turn can lead to aggressive and impulsive behaviour. By contrast, staying on task is controlled by the anterior cingulate and the striatum, and once we engage the central executive mode, staying in that state uses less energy than multitasking and actually reduces the brain’s need for glucose.   
Multitasking requires decision-making, which is also very hard on neural resources and little decisions take up as much energy as big ones. Daniel J Levitan 

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If you learn to use a perfect afternoon,
In a perfectly useless manner,
You have learned the meaning of life. 
Lin Yutang

Seeking vs Downtime
The drive to seek is deeply baked into the brains of mammals, and it is deeply baked into you. It was created for a world in which novelty was a rarity. Our ancestors evolved in a world where almost nothing interesting ever happened. 
Our brains would have been more than adequate to handle the few exciting things that came up, and been perfectly content to sort of idle along the rest of the time. That idle mode feels really, really good, because it is probably the natural waking rest mode of the brain. 
Our brains have an insatiable urge for seeking new things, and now we have limitless sources of novelty. We are stuffed beyond the limit with unprocessed, undigested, and unhelpful experiences that we cannot convert to energizing, useful, practical knowledge; we are caught in a seeking-dopamine reward feedback loop. 
We can't stop pressing the seek button, looking for another little hit of dopamine. We are information junkies, and our brains are full. Like rats in a lab, we could just keep hitting the seek-dopamine reward button until we collapse. 
Downtime means deeply quiet, really simple, totally open time in which you are not working, accomplishing anything, or taking in new information. 
Another way of talking about this is to say that the frantic, amped-up feeling of too much seeking clears away. When we are seeking all the time, we are intaking new material constantly without ever actually dealing with it. 
Downtime means staring at trees, or strolling aimlessly in a forest. Hanging out at the beach, or sitting on a mountainside. Even in the city, it's not that hard to just kick back and watch the sky or relax at home. Let yourself get really bored. Michael Taft


With all that happens in just one day of modern life, it would take something like a week of hanging out next to a stream to process. Simplicity is not an efficient enough process; it cleans too slowly. We were not designed by evolution to have that much stuff to clear out. Input is greater than the processing available.

This is where meditation comes in. Meditation was invented during the founding of the Axial religions, around 500 BCE. Before that, I suspect that people had little need for it. Life had been simple enough and still natural enough to allow the brain the downtime it needed. But with the construction of massive city states, civilizations, new technologies, and highly interconnected modern societies, people's ability to cope with the novelty overload they were experiencing began to break down.

Siddhartha Gautama (the historical person now known by his title, the Buddha) said that suffering was caused by tanha which is usually translated as desire, but which could easily be alternatively translated as seeking. Seeking causes suffering. Constantly on the lookout for novelty, you cannot rest. You get caught in a hyperactive feedback loop that eventually rags you out. To combat this affliction of modernity, the Buddha prescribed meditation.

It is essentially getting out of the way, and allowing the brain eventually to revert to its natural state. The state your brain evolved to be in most of the time. A kind of alert, relaxed openness. Not thinking about anything in particular, but not striving to remove thinking either. Not seeking, in other words. Michael Taft

A Practical Guide 
to help get you there

The best things happen when you're relaxed.

  • Reduce your stress: 
When the prefrontal cortex responsible for decision making is overloaded by chronic stress and fatigue - your resolve and best intentions are likely to succumb to emotional desire for instant gratification.
Massage will create and strengthen the healthy relationship between you and your body and give you the direct experience of stress-reduction and relaxation. Health-promoting circulation is increased, congestion eased, and pounds of stress, erased.

  • Mindfulness and Habit: 
Mindfulness de-automatizes habits, and shines a light on habit triggers. It allows us to observe how a habit operates. Mindfulness allows us to take a step back from the influence of stress and is an antidote to stress; giving us the room needed to change our responses, choices, and finally, we can replace the dysfunctional habit with something that works better for us.

  • Animal companionship
  • Journal
  • Laugh
  • Spa
  • Autogenics
  • Nap
  • Walk
  • Stillness
  • Yoga was originally created to prepare the body for long hours spent meditating; it is an excellent choice to help build resilience for the rigours of life in the 21st century.
  • Sleep 

  • Contemplation, Introspection, and Reflection:
The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration—it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done. Tim Kreide

  • Daydreaming
Letting your mind wander is not a waste of time - a different kind of thinking occurs.  When you aren't deliberately trying to solve a problem and you let your mind go where it wants to go; it gives the brain a chance to stop focusing on immediate tasks; provides more mental space; improves thinking; makes novel connections; brings more mental resources to complex problem-solving; develops ideas; consolidates learning; allows the subconscious to resolve important life problems faster, and can even help maintain progress toward long-term goals.

Professor Kalina Christoff of the University of British Columbia Cognitive Neuroscience of Thought Laboratory, who studies neural and cognitive mechanisms of human thought, reasoning and problem-solving, has made an interesting discovery. She found that two key regions of the brain were both highly active during daydreaming that are rarely active at the same time, working in tandem when we daydream: the default network of the frontal and posterior prefrontal cortex linked to easy, routine mental activity and the executive network associated with high-level, complex problem solving, the lateral prefrontal cortex and the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex. 

Some progressive corporations, businesses and science labs have daydream rooms and are encouraging their employees and scientists to use daydreaming to find solutions, and to generate creative ideas.


Dopaminergic Society 

The dopaminergic mind hypothesis seeks to explain the difference between modern humans and their hominid relatives by focusing on changes in dopamine. It theorizes that increased levels of dopamine as part of a general physiological adaption due to an increased consumption of meat around 2 million years ago by humans and later enhanced by changes in diet and other environmental and social factors beginning approximately 80,000 years ago explains this difference.

The high dopamine personality is characterized by high intelligence, a sense of personal destiny, a religious/cosmic preoccupation, an obsession with achieving goals and conquests, and emotional detachment that in many cases leads to ruthlessness and risk-taking mentality.

High levels of dopamine are proposed to underlie psychological disorders in industrialized societies, accordingly a dopaminergic society is an extremely goal-oriented, fast-paced and even manic society; dopamine is known to speed up our internal clocks and create a preference for novel over unchanging environments. In the same way that high dopamine individuals lack empathy and exhibit a more masculine behavioural style, the dopaminergic society is typified by more conquest, competition and aggression rather than nurturance and communality.

Paradoxical Relaxation 

Popularized by the Stanford Protocol at Stanford University to treat pelvic pain disorders that also includes self-administered trigger point massage, and stretching.

Mindfulness is a part of paradoxical relaxation that involves consciously relaxing and being aware of habitual muscular tension and body mechanics (how you use your body when moving); especially in response to chronic pain and anxiety, to aid relaxation.

It also involves coordination and control of breathing to achieve harmony with heart beat to achieve a positive state of calm. A form of meditation that focuses on the pain and tension, accepts it; doesn't try to relax it, just observes. That is the paradox: the body will relax without trying to relax it, and leads to a reduction or release from pain.

A method of relaxation which uses self-hypnosis invented by German Psychiatrist Johannes Schultz using repeated verbal requests to the body to relax, practiced in three, fifteen minute sessions daily.

Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR) is a term used to describe a sensory experience characterized by a pleasant tingling sensation on the head and scalp, which can be triggered by sounds like whispering or brushing, and visual stimulus like painting or drawing.

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