A good work-life balance is one of the keys to contentment, but the activities that many of us choose to do for relaxation are actually making us more stressed, warn the experts.
Work and relaxation
Get the proportions of each right and you have the perfect recipe for a balanced life. As humans, we are designed to switch easily between activity and relaxation modes. Our nervous systems can achieve peak performance when under pressure. In emergency situations, people have been known to perform one-off superhuman feats such as a mother lifting a car to free her child trapped beneath it.
It’s the same in nature too. An antelope can run five kilometres at a speed over 70 kilometres per hour if – but only if – it’s being chased by a puma. Between each wild chase, it renews its energy and vigour by grazing for hours at a time. In the same way, we should be renewing our resources by relaxing at weekends or at the end of a stressful day at work.
Our lives are a constant chase
However, our modern lives are increasingly becoming like a constant chase. We’re getting less and less time to graze in peace and renew our resources. But these days, it’s not so much the result of physical exertion as the pressure to perform that we experience in almost every situation in our lives.
“When we are feeling under pressure, our sympathetic nervous system gets more active, releasing the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol,” explains psychologist and psychotherapist Dr Patrizia Collard, visiting lecturer at the University of East London. As a result, your pulse quickens and your heart beats faster to increase blood flow to the muscles, while your bronchial tubes dilate to allow more oxygen to enter your body. Less urgent functions, such as digestion and immune defences, are put on hold as your body prepares to fight or flee. This is as likely to happen during competitive leisure activities as in a work meeting or job interview.
“Mindfulness can help you to stop and remember who you are."Michael Harrer, psychiatrist and psychotherapist
“It happens whenever we do something that causes us to feel under pressure to perform. Even a yoga lesson can be stressful if I compare myself to the others to see who can stay in the lotus position the longest,” warns Dr Collard. The same thing happens in a tennis match or a mountain hike when you are only interested in matching your personal best as opposed to having fun.
In nature, stress hormones are broken down automatically and quickly by the immediate physical response of a fight-or-flight reaction. However, these physical responses are rarely relevant in our modern day-to-day lives, so we must consciously make time for exercise without pressure and take breaks to avoid constant stress and exhaustion.
But even doing nothing is no guarantee of relaxation. That’s because it depends on how you are doing nothing. “If you become lethargic or apathetic when doing nothing, it can even turn into depression,” says Dr Collard.
Although we often think of watching TV as a relaxing activity, this isn’t the case. “Stimulation by the TV or computer causes our brains to be constantly hyperactive – and we are already completely over-animated,” she adds.
There’s another reason you should reflect on the amount of media you consume: researchers at the University of Mainz in Germany have proven that when your consumption of video games and TV is too high, particularly if you're stressed, you can start feeling guilty for not making better use of your time.
And you can't relax if you’re feeling guilty.
If you’re prone to stress, using your free time to genuinely relax can be something of a challenge. While exercise can have a balancing effect, that’s negated if you put yourself under pressure to perform. And while doing nothing can slow you down, you have to ensure that your mind takes a break too.
Find the off button
A crucial key to preventing stress is mindfulness. It’s not for nothing that mindfulness-based therapy methods have played a major part in preventing burnout. “Mindfulness is trying to bring the present to the fore. The present means the here and now, what you are currently experiencing,” explains Michael Harrer, a psychiatrist and psychotherapist from Innsbruck, Austria. It sounds really simple, but it isn’t. Anyone who has tried and noticed the endless stream of thoughts running through their head will know how hard it is. It’s these thoughts that stop us from experiencing real calm – even when we’re doing nothing at all.
If you switch off your own thought noise and completely live in the present moment, it can teach you to be happy. “There are two ways to do it,” explains Dr Collard, who has been giving mindfulness training for 15 years: “One way is through meditation. Start with five minutes, just following your own breathing. Or simply listen to the sounds in your immediate surroundings.”
The second way to practise mindfulness in your daily life: “I can carry out any activity in a consciously mindful way. Mindfully drinking a cup of coffee, mindfully getting dressed or mindfully eating an egg,” says Dr Collard. It’s important to focus your full attention precisely on that one thing, noticing the taste and sensations. And no, you can’t check your emails or text messages while you’re doing it!
Mindfulness as a way of life
If you train yourself to be mindful, you can make it into a way of life. “Mindfulness can help you to stop and remember who you are,” Michael Harrer explains. “By returning to myself for a moment, I am always able to shut down a bit.” And how does mindfully doing nothing feel? “Doing nothing within mindfulness is seen as a mode of being, rather than a mode of doing. Being mindful brings me into kind, non-judgemental contact with myself and my surroundings. I don’t want to change anything, it's all right to look at it as it is.”
Being, not doing; observing, not judging… We can all learn from the antelope.