Taking A Break

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Do you ever long to take a break from your life?  Are you sometimes so tired of managing its daily stressors that you find yourself wanting to pitch your entire existence, move somewhere else, and start your life again?  Do certain relationships sometimes cause you such distress that you fantasize about running away from them and never coming back?

Would that running away permanently was a viable solution.  Unfortunately, no life we would ever create somewhere else for ourselves would be free of stress, and nowhere we go can we ever escape ourselves (that is, our way of reacting to stress).  Far better to stay where we are, fight the devils we know, and focus on forging a more resilient self out of the raw material of our stressful experiences.

In order to do this, however, we do need regular breaks.  Taking breaks actually enhances the development of strength.  Termed hormesis, we find this principle at work in at least two important biological systems.  Muscles grow and become stronger in response to stress (that is, working out) as long as the stress is followed by adequate rest.  Recently, we’ve learned that neurons become more resistant to diseases like epilepsy, migraines, and even dementia when stressed and then allowed a period of rest.  The thing that stresses neurons and thus ultimately leads to their increased hardiness?  Thinking.

Which might partially explain why sleep is so important.  The point, however, is that resilience doesn’t develop by removing stress from our lives (an impossible feat in any event).  It develops when we’re exposed to stress and then given adequate time to recover from it.

While there’s no lack of stress in the lives of anyone I know, I’ve certainly observed a consistent lack of reprieve from it.  Sleep may help somewhat, but psychologically we seem to require a different kind of break from stress to refresh ourselves enough to be able to better manage it over time.  We need, in essence, to be able to forget about it for a while.  A mental break, as it were.

Vacations can certainly help by removing us from stressful situations physically—but they typically come too infrequently.  And even then we may not be able to remove ourselves mentally from what’s causing our stress.  Far better than relying only on vacations for breaks is learning to distract ourselves temporarily from stress while we’re in the middle of dealing with it.

Distraction works when the thing we’re using to distract ourselves is genuinely engaging:  something that truly takes our mind off our stress by taking it onto something else.  A good book; an entertaining movie; a challenging hobby; exercise.  Knowing what distracts us effectively, planning such activities on a regular basis, and clearing time in our schedules to make room for them is challenging but crucial.  Merely imagining taking breaks won’t work.  We actually need to do it.  The difficulty in doing so may be compounded by the extra anxiety we feel at turning our minds away from our problems temporarily, but, like sleep, such breaks not only make us more capable of managing stress in the short term, but also help us develop the inner strength that makes us feel less stressed in the long term.  Taking breaks may feel like running away, but isn’t:  rather, it’s a way to refresh ourselves to dive back into the fight more effectively.  So give yourself a break.  An active break.  Regularly.

Next weekHow To Grow Up

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  • I don’t think you can run away from your problems, but you can get out from under work situations and personal relationships that cause you stress, for whatever reason. I did, and I wish I had done it sooner. I am now much more relaxed and happier. I still have some stress and some problems, you can’t get away from them entirely, but at least I enjoy my life more.

  • What a terrific topic, Alex!!! As a writer, my office is in my living room where I have a great view of the outdoors. When I’m having a tough time writing, I’ll take a break—just like you said—and go downstairs and watch The Rockford Files or The Rifleman on the TV. I get so engrossed I guess you might say I’m giving my brain a rest, which I never thought of before. I usually come up refreshed and am able to compose again.

    Ruth: Glad you liked it.


  • Well… we create our own stress, so the key is to learn how to stop creating it in our lives. We choose our own reactions to the events in our lives and we choose how to feel in any given moment. It’s just that it’s usually an unconscious choice. But the minute you realize that, in the midst of feeling stressed out over something, it becomes “consciousness looking back on itself” and that creates a space between you and the stress you have created… thereby decreasing it. This can be done deliberately with a little practice. Voila—instant break!

  • I love this advice. So often we can feel controlled by the “tyranny of the urgent” when in reality there are very few things that we absolutely CANNOT step away from. We always have time for whatever we prioritize, and our own mental health needs to be at the top of our list. Thank you, Alex!

  • To paraphrase Emily Dickenson, “Because I could not stop for stress/He kindly stopped for me,” meaning, it will get you.

    I have known power business sorts who have had strokes just to slow them down. They confess afterwards that nothing they had done in business was worth that lesson, but learn it they did.

    I myself have seen how my body manifests stress when I fail to reduce or remove it from my life; it is stark. I have often been in awe of my resilience, but thank you to the Doc for reminding me of what’s important.

  • Is there any correlation between the recovery period and the amount or type of stress? I also seem to find relief from stress by doing something challenging (a distraction of sorts but one that does not provide a physical or mental break).

    MIke: Don’t know of any correlation between amount and type of stress and recovery period. Likely this varies more by the individual. I wonder if doing something challenging works because by definition “challenging” is both something you feel you can manage and engaging—and therefore minimally stressful and distracting at the same time.


  • Knowing how to take breaks comes second to realizing what activities genuinely engage your mind and soul effectively.

    By effectively I mean that such activities transport you to a completely different plane of “existence” effectively taking you away from the stressors. Some activities or hobbies are so good at engaging our soul and mind, that they only need to be pursued for just a few hours a week for us to feel recharged and willing to face day to day life again.

    I am truly convinced that we owe it to ourselves to find out what those activities are fit each one of us.

    JL: Agreed.


  • I used to work with a hypnotherapist who I would see after work on Fridays. He always helped me dissociate from the stresses of the week and I often would walk several miles home after a session with a very clear, open mind. Meditation, self-hypnosis, exercise all helped me manage stressful jobs and personal situations.

  • Great topic, so useful reminder at this moment in my life…

    Thank you!

  • Alex, I actually changed my total existence three years ago when I sold everything I had, took an early retirement at 54 and moved to Costa Rica. I lived in a cabin looking over the Pacific ocean and literally lived in the rain forest. No TV, no mail, no periodicals, no papers. I had internet, but it was sporadic at best. The area was very isolated. After a couple of years the isolation and lack of stimulation started affecting me adversely and I moved back to the states. Be careful what you wish for; it isn’t always the way you think it might be.

  • Meditation ten minutes a day just before bedtime has helped me destress.

  • Sandra, you’ve nailed it: “But the minute you realize that, in the midst of feeling stressed out over something, it becomes ‘consciousness looking back on itself’ and that creates a space between you and the stress you have created… thereby decreasing it.”

    It’s that “space” in which we can try to center ourselves, notice our breath, reconnect with the more positive energy we need in that moment, and become grounded again in the midst of stress or even trauma.

  • I always look forward to getting your emails, Alex, thank you. Lately I’ve been telling myself, “Pain is inevitable, suffering is not.” (Didn’t I read that in one of your posts?)

    Sandra: Absolutely.


  • @Julie, yes indeed…my yoga teacher used to say, “Mind the gaps, the spaces between thoughts…” I try to do that, as it makes the spaces wider. A mini-vacation, so to speak!

  • What an amazing piece. Thank you.

  • Your worst enemy cannot hurt you as much as your own thoughts unguarded.

    But once mastered, nothing can help you as much.

    This little quote always bring me back to fine.

  • This column reminds me of Jon Kabat-Zinn’s book Wherever You Go, There You Are! Also, my Chinese-American primary care physician exclaimed to me during a recent particularly stressful time in my life: “The Buddha inside!”

  • I want to run away every single day but there is now where to run…

  • To avoid stress one must take breaks every now and then from work and from other responsibilities. Life cannot go on without a little dash of problem which means stress will also lurk all the time so the best way to avoid being it’s victim is to practice meditation, relaxation techniques and above all prayer. I think many of us who are loaded with commitments forget the most important commitment which we have towards God. Prayer often, or should I say always, heals. 🙂

    Check this out , it may be useful to your readers too—

    The 5 Factor Personality Test

    Personality as per the 5 most telling factors.


  • Thanks for the reminder of the stress/recovery cycle, Alex. I am pleased to learn that there is a similar cycle for neurons. Thanks for sharing that.

    I am also reminded in your article and in the responses above that we are always at choice in how we respond to situations. I have been studying a model called non-violent communication for some time now and found it to be very helpful in dealing with stressful situations. I keep coming back to basics of what I value and why. Based on what I value in my life, I choose what I do. In other words, in this moment, I value this (whatever it is) more than that (whatever that is). It’s been very helpful in bringing me back to center and choosing language and situations that are more supportive and less provoking of stress.

    And, you remind me that practice and practices are what helps us along life’s path.