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$vuetify.icons.faPhone1300 650 620

Take a break

Take a break

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Need a holiday? Maybe the break you really need is more than just physical. Housing talks to Dr Steve Woodbury about how to respite right.

Anne-Maree Brown

General Manager of Content

The United Nations, under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, stipulates in Article 24 ‘Everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay’.

And there is some science to why this is so important. A World Health Organisation (WHO) study found that 745,000 people died in 2016 from heart disease and stroke due to long hours. For people (and raise your hand if this is you) who work 55 or more hours per week, they had a 35 per cent higher risk of stroke and 17 per cent higher risk of dying from heart disease. That is powerful data.

But let’s be honest, as a business owner there are always reasons to put off a holiday. And when you do take a break, it doesn’t offer you the recharge you need. But how can we learn to take holidays that truly benefit us?

‘When you take a break, the anticipation brings you excitement’
Dr Stephen Woodbury is the founder and Director of MindZen Method

Calm your inner animal

According to founder and Director of MindZen Method, Dr Stephen Woodbury (or Dr Steve as he’s often called), your health is at risk without the right emotional foundations just like a house without sound foundations is at risk of collapsing. ‘Builders, like most people, often feel like they are on a treadmill, constantly running faster and faster, without getting anywhere,’ he says. ‘This is why taking a break is important because it helps you step back and get the bigger picture.’

However, he says holidays work only if you are aware of what your unconscious animal instincts are processing all of the time. ‘We are still, on many levels, using our “ancient brains”,’ Dr Steve explains. ‘The ancient brain is designed to attack or run away, this is the fight or flight response, while our modern brain has social conventions that encourage us to repress our emotions. This is not how we are designed to deal with stress.’

He adds that we are always on the alert for danger to be able to survive, just like in a pre-modern world: ‘If you aren’t aware that your brain is on hyper alert, holidays can be just as exhausting as staying at home, if not more so.’

So, what do we need to know about our animal brain when taking a well needed break?

‘When you decide to take a break, the anticipation brings you excitement and you are craving a step away from your everyday stresses,’ Dr Steve says. ‘But there are always challenges, delays, unexpected issues or things that disappoint. That is just our innate animal mind in overdrive.’

The result is our anxious mind takes a while to settle down to enjoy the holiday, and so we continue to feel restless. Then, before you know it, we are back home again. ‘There is so much pressure on this one single holiday event that we feel we are cheated if it isn’t perfect. But if you know your animal mind is just doing what it has been designed to do to keep you safe in the wilderness, it might help to understand and excuse why holidays are not always what we need them to be.’

The samurai’s strength came from being masters of Zen meditation
‘It doesn’t matter how old we get; we are all still a toddler on the inside’

Find your no-mind

How do we quiet the anxious animal inside? Dr Steve says it’s a case of going into a break knowing you need to take some personal agency over your conscious and non-conscious mind too.

Sounds confusing? Well, it’s actually fairly simple. He explains: ‘Our brains are geared on two levels. Cognitively, we are constantly thinking, reasoning, remembering and planning. Meanwhile, under this “thinking” brain activity, is the non-cognitive mind activity. This is your mood, personality and your attitudes which all affect how we communicate and work in the world.’

But they are both parts of ‘your’ mind and knowing you have a sense of control can make all the difference. Because the unconscious mind works faster than the conscious, you tend to have all of the ‘feelings’ before you have all of the ‘thinking’. If you aren’t aware how to switch off, both sides will struggle to truly relax and the conflict between your ancient and modern brains actually increases stress and anxiety.

For Dr Steve, this understanding came from his own personal experience, not theory. After a series of injuries, accidents and extreme pain in his youth caused him permanent damage, he went on a journey of researching pain management that led to a doctorate and PhD.

What he found was a connection to the teaching of Japanese samurai. While most westerners are familiar with their 13th century glory days of intimidating swordcraft and military skill, their learning and practices still exist. What might surprise some is that the samurai’s strength came from being masters of Zen meditation. The purpose of this was to open up their subconscious instincts and draw them into a state of ‘mushin’ or no-mind.

‘You do need to digitally detox at certain times to train your no-mind brain’
You might find your ‘flow’ doing activities such as swimming, painting or listening to music

‘For many in the building industry, I suspect they most likely had a natural affinity to the combination of mind and movement,’ Dr Steve says. ‘Many may have started their career being interested in the “making” part of building. That in itself is a creative craft that has an aspect known
as “flow”.’

He explains that without even realising it, builders and tradespeople may have tapped into their ‘Zen or no-mind’ by experiencing the calm that comes from moulding a piece of timber or repetitive physical tasks that can allow the conscious thinking part of the brain to calm for a time.

‘If you think back to those actions, it most likely had that feeling of “flow”, a natural rhythm, which affected your breathing. That is where your mind is peaceful. The samurai were trained in art as well as warfare to find that harmony. For us today, we might find it in activities, such as swimming, painting, listening to music or being outside. You might also find it making or building something and being on a holiday.’

If you have moved from being on the tools to being the boss, there is most likely a part of your mind that needs to find another way to find no-mind. The conundrum though is once you are ‘thinking’ your flow state is interrupted.

Finding that feeling doesn’t just help you to discover more relaxation on holidays, but you can use that no-mind state when you need it, for example, after work, first thing in the morning or on weekends. ‘You do need to digitally detox at certain times to train your no-mind brain. Leave your phone at home if you take the dog for a walk and ignore it if you are in the car on the way home. Over time your health, your mindset and your loved ones will benefit.’

It’s child’s play

Some researchers have found that the whole discovery of flow can be attributed to our inner child and our need to play.

‘It doesn’t matter how old we get; we are all still a toddler on the inside,’ Dr Steve says, adding that learning often comes from play, which can also put us in a positive mood. ‘That is why any holiday that involves new discoveries, new sensations, sights and sounds are so important.’

In that exploration state you are more likely to be physically active, with your mind motivated to keep on learning. You may even engage in conversations you wouldn’t have at home.

But balancing activity with rest and recovery is key: ‘All the best sportsmen need to have an “off-season”. To be the best in your peak, you need to rest.’

So, to get the most out of down time, maybe try finding at least one of these three things: your inner animal, your inner child or maybe a bit of your own inner Mr Miyagi. Remember to wax-on, wax off before you take off.

Email Steve directly at steve@mindzengroup.com or visit MindZen Group.

Balancing activity with rest and recovery is key. To be the best in your peak, you need to rest.
'I suspect they most likely had a natural affinity to the combination of mind and movement’

First published on 24 March 2022.

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