Larissa Fedunik is NUPSA’s Student Communications Officer. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Downtime: we all need it, we all crave it and we all want more of it.
The past decade has seen an explosion in research into how we can maximise our downtime to improve our well-being, reduce stress and even increase our productivity. In the spirit of scientific self-improvement, here’s a (relaxing) stroll through some established and emerging areas of research into downtime.
Downtime: getting down to business?
Mental downtime isn’t just a (well-earned) slacking off period, it’s actually vital for productivity and health. There are plenty of studies to back up the theory that downtime fosters creativity and restores attention and motivation, as well as reducing stress.
Our brains are actually designed to take regular rest periods during the waking hours. Whenever you give your brain a break from action-oriented activities (which include working, but also watching TV and scrolling Instagram!) and allow your mind to wander, the default mode network (DMN) takes over. It’s critical to spend time in the DMN every day. Neuroscientists have established that being in the DMN allows your brain to reflect, consolidate info and make sense of what’s going on in your life.
It can also spark creativity. In a study on writers and physicists at the Center for Mindfulness and Human Potential at the University of California, researchers found that 30 percent of the group’s creative ideas originated while they were thinking about or doing something unrelated to their jobs. Downtime is also essential to prevent stress-induced burnout.
Yoga and meditation are also tried-and-true stress relievers, and there are real benefits to taking time out of your working day to squeeze in a session. In 2010, American health insurance provider Aetna staged a company-wide study of its employees, teaming up with health psychologists to investigate pain- and stress-reducing therapies. The company had recently started providing free yoga and meditation classes for its employees and wanted to track its outcomes.
A three-month study of 200 employees showed that participants slept better, felt less stressed overall and had more efficient heartbeat recovery rates after stressful events than those who didn’t take part. Even more interestingly, a follow up study of more than a thousand employees found that not only were participants less stressed, they also gained 47 to 62 minutes of increased productivity per week.
This begs the question: should we all just be working less? There’s quite a push for the four day working week in the UK right now. A report released this January by the New Economics Foundation, a UK Think Tank that backs the 4 Day Week Campaign, suggests that it could make us healthier, happier and more productive, plus reduce wage and gender inequality. They’re campaigning for working no more than thirty-two hours over four days – but getting paid for all five (it just gets better and better…)!
It’s an interesting concept, but unfortunately lacks large studies to back it up, so a four day working week could be a while off yet.
Thanks to DMN, your brain can solve problems and find creative inspiration while you’re not even working! Nifty, huh?
Meditating on mindfulness
Unless you’ve been living under a rock (or maybe one of those weighted stress-reducing doonas that are all the rage right now), you’ve probably heard about mindfulness and how it can improve well-being.
The definition of mindfulness is fairly straightforward. It suggests that your mind fully attend to what’s happening around you, or in other words, be “fully present”. Mindfulness can involve observing sights, sounds and other sensations, including internal bodily sensations and thoughts, without reacting emotionally to them.
If you think this sounds a lot like meditation, you’re not wrong. These days the terms are often used interchangeably, usually to refer to the practice of calming a stressed-out mind. Meditation has its origins in Hinduism, and ancient meditation focused on spiritual growth and transcending emotions to live in a calm present state. When meditation was adopted by modern, secular societies, it was practiced as a way to reduce stress and improve healthy living. The Medical Daily describes mindfulness as one of the many techniques of meditation.
Meditation can literally change your brain through the process of neuroplasticity. This affects not only the way the brain functions, but also its physical structure. Long-term meditators have been shown to have diminished activity in anxiety-related areas of the brain. Lab tests at the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research have also shown that meditation training increases your tolerance of socially stressful tasks, like public speaking or performances.
Meditation doesn’t just have mental health benefits. It’s also been shown to improve your memory and ability to concentrate, although researchers do concede that a lot of studies only use a small number of participants. A 2009 study from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe University in Germany found that people who had been meditating for years had greater visual attention than non-meditators. The same sort of attention test was used in 2007 at Leiden University in the Netherlands. Subjects who had just been on a three-month meditation retreat also had boosted visual attention compared to non-participants. Plus, measurements using an electroencephalogram showed that they had become more efficient at using their brain’s available attention to complete the test.
[Mindfulness] suggests that your mind fully attend to what’s happening around you, or in other words, be “fully present”.
Mindfulness: a how-to guide
Mindfulness is all over the blogosphere right now. It’s been described as a transformative tool that relieves stress, anxiety and depression and boosts focus and creativity, but you may have noticed a recent backlash, with critics arguing that these claims lack scientific evidence. However, rest assured that while it’s not a universal panacea, mindfulness has real benefits.
There’s been growing research into mindfulness training as a strategy to relieve stress, anxiety and depression, including here at UON. I asked Dianne Kirby, a UON counsellor and clinical psychologist who’s been involved in studies on mindfulness and stress management programs, how mindfulness practice can benefit postgrads.
“Mindfulness practice has considerable relevance for postgraduates leading busy lives and working under the pressure of constant deadlines. There is some evidence that regular mindfulness practice has positive learning and health benefits,” says Dianne. “Mindfulness has the potential to help you to [employ calm and health perspectives], improve your concentration and sleep, reduce negative thinking patterns and recover more quickly from stress.”
As part of a 2015 study, Dianne co-authored a stress-management and mindfulness program for UON students, which showed great results in enhancing participants’ well-being. You can read more of Dianne’s insights into well-being, resilience and positive self-talk in her article for NUPSA here.
You can practice mindfulness in a variety of ways, from sitting to walking and even eating or drinking. So forget the misconception that mindfulness is only achieved by lying still and thinking about nothing. It’s the practice of focusing on your inner and outer environment, not an attempt to create a mental vacuum! “In a fast-paced and frantic world, who wouldn’t want to be more mindful in everyday life? And any of us can intentionally savour our next meal or tune into our senses”, says Dianne, who recommends the following resources.
If you’d like to experience mindfulness, ‘Smiling Mind’ and ‘Get Some Headspace’ are two well-known evidence-based apps students often use. For those of you who already practice mindfulness, you may prefer other apps as a guide. ‘Insight Timer’ has meditations in many different languages but the site can be a little overwhelming to navigate.
If you would like a taste of mindfulness training, a short, free, well-reputed online course developed by Professor Craig Hassed and Dr Richard Chalmers from Monash University is open for enrolment and commences on July 1st, 2019. Further information about their ‘Mindfulness for Well-being and Peak Performance’ course is available here. The mindfulness mp3s are easy to access and use on a daily basis. Once you’re hooked, this course is followed by another inviting you to explore how to ‘Maintain a Mindful Life’.
There are some points to consider if you’re thinking about embarking in more intensive mindfulness training. Professor Willem Kuyken from the Oxford Mindfulness Centre says to consider the quality of instruction and teacher experience, any personal vulnerabilities (such as a history of dissociation or psychosis), and the support available for practice. Nicholas Van Dam and his team at the University of Melbourne also remind us of the need for further research into the reported benefits.
Even more resources on downtime and stress management