Take a Break – Working Professionals

By Patricia Reich

I don’t have enough time!

Take a break, take a breath.

My college-junior called for my birthday this week. Gosh, it was great to hear his voice, which I don’t much, because he is a scholar athlete and either on the field, in the weight room, or in the library. He was saying that after about four hours of studying, the library starts to make his eyes hurt and he just has to get up, go home, and take a break. His instincts are right on. I am hearing similar stress in conversations I have with students and coworkers here at Smith too, especially this week, as we enter the heart of fall when recruiting peaks, pre-holiday workloads max, and exams loom.

In the midst of so-much-work-and-so-little-time, taking a break seems counter intuitive. “Keep going” makes more sense. “…Don’t stop. There’s more to do…Time is running short…” In fact, it’s exactly when you feel as if you just can’t stop or you won’t get it all done, that you should stop.

The threat of too little time is treated by your body with the same biochemical response it uses to combat the threat posed by a prowling tiger. The tiger threatens your biological survival; being overwhelmed threatens your psychological survival. To the primitive brain, the amygdala, it’s all life-threatening. Your threat-response system does not distinguish one kind of threat from another.

When you worry “There isn’t enough time,” the amygdala registers “threat” and initiates the fight or flight response. When the threat is not actually mortal, we call this an amygdala “hijack,” because scarcity of time isn’t a “real” threat in the way a tiger might be, but the primal response takes over anyway. You really don’t need all of your might to fight or flee time scarcity as you would to escape a tiger, but the primitive brain offers the same, singular response.

The body automatically releases hormones into the bloodstream that transfer resources to conserve energy and improve your survival potential. Blood is sent from extremities to vital organs; the senses are adjusted to limit their focus to the threat only; you lose your peripheral vision in service of that laser focus; and since you can no longer process the full spectrum of inputs, you are left to operate inside that proverbial “tunnel,” hoping to see the light at the end of it.

When you’re in the fear tunnel of not-enough-time with your senses restricted, you actually have fewer resources to solve the problem; the equation; the case; the essay. You are less able to think beyond the problem and see more broadly across an array of solution options; your creative problem-solving has been sacrificed for the sake of the faux threat. With the reduced capacity triggered by a scarcity mindset, getting your work done becomes much more difficult. You’re left to fight the homework tiger with constrained thinking, the opposite of what you need for learning.

So instead, pause. You need not be the victim of feeling overwhelmed. Recognize when you feel threatened and turn back the chemical tide of fear with the biochemistry of wellness.

Start with oxygen – take a breath. Then, consciously replace your focus on scarcity with a quick mental inventory of what you have in abundance. Feel gratitude. Relax your shoulders. Get up and take a walk. Smile at someone. Give them a hug. Non-fear thoughts and actions, like appreciation and affection, will generate oxytocin, which is the antidote to the hormones that serve fear. Instead, release the chemical river of “I have exactly the time I need to succeed…” – and you will succeed, as you always do; it’ll just be easier this time.