I was recently speaking with a friend who was sharing her excitement about her weekend accomplishments on a work project. She’s incredibly motivated about this project and it means a lot to her personally and professionally as she is a solopreneur.
She worked long and hard on a Saturday and by the end of the day, she was beat. In fact, she said something to the effect of,
“My brain hurts.”
The next day, my friend was not in any condition to do anything “productive”. (Oh, the shame!!!) She slept in (and well), she had a leisure morning and basically watched old movies most of the day. Even though she wanted to do more that day she simply didn’t have the “brain energy” to do so. It even lingered into Monday.
My friend did what she needed to do in order to recover from an amazing “Brain Workout”.
I explained that when we exercise our brain, just like when we exercise our body, we need to allow it to recover. Our brain needs rest just like our body needs rest. So often we are shamed or judged for not being productive ALL of the time. The truth is, our brain needs downtime just like our body does.
We exercise our body and it nurtures our physical health. When we exercise our brain, it nurtures our mental health.
As an Ironman triathlete, I know rest and recovery are a critical element of my training. Sure, I may bike for 6 hours and run for 45 minutes afterward but then I’ll spend the rest of the day and night, on the couch, eating, drinking (i.e. rehydrating), and resting.
Similarly, when we’ve put forth an incredible effort using our brain and we’ve been “thinking hard” for a while, then our brain needs a break too. Giving your brain a break and NOT thinking provides the critical rest and recovery it needs in order to support your Mental Health.
There are certainly ways to “train up” your brain just like you “train up” your body. Doctors do this all of the time which is how some can work a 36-hour shift or perform 12+ hour surgical procedures without a break. However, most of us have not trained for this level of “mental endurance”.
Our brain needs downtime. Our brain needs time to NOT think.
We all have our preferred ways to rest our brain and a few include meditation, exercise, or binge-watching on Netflix. There is NOTHING wrong with binge-watching TV and you could be doing your mental health a serious favor!
Mental Health and Burnout
There’s been a lot more discussion about #burnout in the workplace and I believe burnout occurs when we’ve reached the tipping point of our mental health.
Our motivation, drive, and sense of purpose can only carry us for so long but eventually, we reach our limit. Just like how a triathlete must refuel and rest their physical body, so must we, as employees and students, do the same for our mental faculties and our brain.
When we work too many hours in a day, days in a week, or weeks in a row without a vacation, we are not giving our brain the break it needs. We are not nurturing our mental health. When we try to work on more projects, attend more meetings, take on the work of 2, 3 or more other employees who have already burned out and quit, we are following the same, unhealthy mental path.
The more overworked and overwhelmed we are the worse our mental health becomes. Before long, it can transition into real physical health problems.
Some people advocate for a 6-hour workday or a 4-day work-week. This is a fantastic idea for supporting our personal lives and it is equally fantastic for supporting our mental health and giving our brain a break from thinking. However, consider an adult child caring 24/7 for a sick parent. They’re not paid for the job. They can’t always just “give it” to someone else to do. The risk of burnout is extreme when you never get a break from thinking about your life and the person you’re caring for.
I believe burnout is a symptom of poor mental health and a sign your cognitive abilities have reached their limit. The human brain needs rest and recovery just like the human body does.
Spending time NOT THINKING is critical for nurturing your mental health.
So, the next time your brain needs a break go ahead and binge-watch a few hours or a whole day on Netflix. Or, take a “mental health” day from work or school and STOP thinking about those projects and assignments for a bit.
You’re NOT a bad person for needing a mental break. You’re not weak. You’re not crazy. We don’t shame marathon runners for resting after a race and nor should we shame employees, students, parents, caregivers, etc. for needing a “brain break” after a huge or prolonged mental effort.