Plus, how to give your mind a break from work.
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We all know that just leaving the office doesn't stop our mind from racing. Our brains are constantly working, but there's a major difference between the kind of work we do for money and the way our brains work to support us in our daily lives. That's why experts say downtime is crucial to a balanced life and a productive workplace.

So how do you make the switch when you punch out for the day? And what activities should you try to give yourself a break? The answers lie in neuroscience. We talked with experts to learn more about what stress and daily workloads do to the brain—and what you can do to give your mind the restorative break it needs.

What happens to your brain when it's stressed at work?

In order to understand the difference between a break and work, it's helpful to understand the brain with and without stress. Dr. Jesse Hanson, Ph.D., a psychotherapist and advisor at Rehab.com, explains that the brain enters a sympathetic state when we have deadlines and pressure to perform. 

"What happens to most people at work is that they are in what's called hyper-arousal, or a sympathetic state," Dr. Hanson explains. "The positive side of the sympathetic state is that it's sort of the motivator to say, 'Let's get this done, let's get that done, let's get this done.'" There is a downside to this brain activity, however, and Dr. Hanson says he often sees it occur among people who work in environments where there are constant pressures and pressing timelines. "[Those people are] entering an actually dangerous level of sympathetic activity, both in terms of intensity as well as frequency or consistency."

Too much stress, or activation of the sympathetic state, can lead to long-term health problems, Dr. Hanson explains. That's because sustained levels of cortisol can wear out the organs. And the longer your body is conditioned to respond to work with stress hormones, the harder it can be to learn how to break those patterns and relax. 

So how do you know if you're in a sympathetic state? Start by assessing your own body language.

"Somatic indicators for sympathetic activity include increased heart rate, fidgeting, tension—almost anywhere in the body, but for most people, especially in the neck, shoulders, chest, diaphragm, sort of upper thoracic area, tends to be a very good indicator," he said. Frequency of breath, particularly if it's shorter or quicker, and clenched fists are also giveaways, he adds.

So, sympathetic states are helpful in that they keep us motivated to get things done, but too much is a bad thing. The opposite, Dr. Hanson explains, is known as a parasympathetic state, when our bodies relax and rest. That's when chemicals like dopamine and serotonin come in, allowing your mind to recharge. (More on that later.)

Melissa Doman, M.A.—an organizational psychologist, former clinical mental health therapist, and author of Yes, You Can Talk About Mental Health at Work (Here's Why and How To Do It Really Well)—describes burnout as the culmination of repeated stress. 

"Burnout happens when your brain and body gave you all the signals in the world that 'breakdown of the machine' was imminent, but you didn't listen," she says. "Whether you didn't know how to recognize the signs, or just ignored them, your brain and body will shut down operations if you don't, as a self-protective survival measure. It's difficult to feel purpose or fulfillment in your work or perform as usual if you literally can't function, and that's what burnout is, an inability to function and a level of unmanageable exhaustion."

What counts as downtime? 

Because our brains are always "on," it's helpful to think of the different kinds of mental breaks you can take outside of the office. Julia Jarrold, a licensed clinical social worker, therapist, and clinical content manager at Real, explains it this way: "The brain is never not working, even when we're asleep," she says. "This means that the brain engages in different types of work at different times which in turn means that there are different types of brain breaks. They can be creative breaks, breaks away from work, and even sleep."

Scrolling through Instagram, chatting with a friend, and taking time for your hobbies all require brainpower, Jarrold says, but they can also help your brain rest from work because the required effort is different. 

"Intentionally taking brain breaks from work can help our brains do the repairing and restorative activities it needs to do that will ultimately help us function better," she adds.  

As Dr. Hanson points out, leaving work only to take care of your kids, run a boatload of errands or go tackle other personal responsibilities isn't granting yourself the kind of break from work that your brain truly needs. "It's a break from your job and work but it's not a break," he says. 

So instead, he defines a true break as the absence of responsibility and the pressure of due dates or timelines. It's not an easy time to carve out, but it's necessary to have some time in your day when you aren't thinking about what needs to be done. How you spend the time you have in that zone is up to you. 

"So, if you're watching TV, that's not the best thing for our brain but it's at least a break from work," he says. 

Of course, certain elements of screentime can impact the brain. Reading the news, for example, might increase cortisol the way a looming work deadline does. The true cost, Dr. Hanson says, is that it often comes at the expense of more meaningful connections between humans. 

"We actually need eye contact, we need touch, we need everything that the screen cannot provide us in order to really have the optimal functioning nervous system and mental health," he says. "So I think that's really the biggest danger."

Doman says how you spend downtime is a personal choice, but should lead to feelings of emotional well-being or respite. She suggests identifying one or two activities that make you feel good on an emotional level. And you should try to do those things regularly. 

"Whether that means walking the dog for 20 minutes a day, or drawing cartoons with your kids, or dancing in your underwear to ABBA in the living room—just find what works specifically for you and stick to it," she says.

How to transition from work to downtime

As cliche as it sounds, meditation is a great exercise for learning how to transition between work and downtime. Dr. Hanson explains that the practice of meditation teaches us how to force our brains to redirect and refocus from intrusive thoughts. That's extremely helpful if you find yourself fixating on work-related tasks outside of the office, that you aren't responsible for completing in that moment. 

Learning how to redirect your thoughts can help you to specifically focus on the present. Dr. Hanson cites Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor's book, My Stroke of Insight, where she discusses the power of being in the present moment by noticing things around us with our five senses, which can calm our bodies. 

"What's going to happen is that the cortisol levels are going to go down and serotonin—the primary counterbalancer of cortisol—is going to go up. If a person is able to drop deeper, they'll also experience some dopamine," Dr. Hanson says. "So serotonin is really about calming and dopamine is about pleasure. You're going from fight-or-flight cortisol to calming serotonin and eventually a pleasurable dopamine response. So can understand why a person might say, 'Oh, I feel a little better; my shoulders aren't as tight.'"

You can also make the conscious choice to loosen your jaw, soften your knees and unclench your fists, Dr. Hanson says. Entering a relaxed state physically can help your brain make the switch to downtime. 

What are the benefits of downtime? 

Anecdotally, we all know that the benefits of downtime are crucial to our work performance and our overall well-being. Downtime gives us time and space to enjoy our personal lives and get personal tasks done. It grants us time with family, friends, and our hobbies. 

On a brain level, it allows us to reach homeostasis and is a necessary break from the aroused state, Dr. Hanson says. Being in fight or flight nonstop can cause long-term damage to the body, but it's also an uncomfortable place to be mentally and emotionally, he adds.

The benefits of downtime are perhaps best articulated when you consider the alternative. 

"To have zero downtime for your brain is a great way to make the machine break down. Even if it's just finding minutes in the day—if you can't find hours—creating that space to cool your brain down to focus on fun, pleasure, or quiet is more valuable than we realize," Doman says. "Our brains, while capable of incredible innovation, intelligence, and change, do need moments of quiet because they're not built for consistent stimulation and information intake. In this loud world, find the moments for quiet, so your machine can run efficiently enough when you're going 100 miles per hour at work."