Give Me A Break!

“Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, but the

present is a gift. That is why it is called the present.”

–Oogway in Kung Fu Panda

In a recently released family fun film, Kung Fu Panda, Po,
the unlikely hero in the movie, saves his entire town from
destruction by learning how to focus and be present. Lucky
for him, cell phones and Blackberries weren’t invented back

In our 24/7 nonstop frenzied workaholic culture, modern
people find it difficult, if not impossible to embrace this
simple concept. To exercise, to eat less, and to sleep more
has become a thing of the past. Patients often tell me that
they can’t expend the time or energy to do so. But what I’d
like to know is: Why does it take work to find rest?

Scheduling In Rest and Relaxation

In our modern day world, rest is complex. Even the simple
notion of taking “breaks” throughout the day has become
nonexistent and nowhere is this more evident than for
children. Instead of playtime, they schedule play “dates”
and instead of summer vacation, children get test
preparation. Ironically, the only time they get a break now
and then are when they get “time outs” for daydreaming in
class or for misbehaving. No wonder leisure time is looked
down upon these days.

For adults the situation is far worse. Taking vacations
fill many people with dread and anxiety. Patients tell me
that going on vacation is even more stressful than staying
at work. After they come back from vacation they’re faced
with double their usual workload. Instead, they take more
“sick days” than “vacation days” to recuperate from stress
induced illnesses. Even worse, down time, in our harried
culture is seen as unproductive. But is it?

According to researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of
Technology (MIT) pauses and breaks can heighten
productivity and not lessen it as we may assume. They
showed that rats that paused between new, unfamiliar tasks
used this time to “replay” their thought processes and
therefore gain better mastery each time they ran along the
same piece of track. What they found was that these breaks
were integral to mapping out in their minds the best ways
to navigate—allowing them to heighten their productivity
(get the cheese at the end of the maze faster) and not to
lessen it.

Of course, we aren’t rats. But studies done on humans show
similar findings. In a study spanning 20 years,
researchers showed that the risk of heart disease in women
who took less than one vacation every six years had an
eight times higher than those who “got away” at least twice
a year.

A more recent study using similar research methods used to
test sleep quality of NASA pilots and astronauts, showed
that people who took vacations were on the average getting
1 hour or more of high-quality sleep and more importantly
had an 80 percent increase in their reaction time. Even
after they came back from vacation they were able to
maintain better sleep quality with a 30-40 percent higher
reaction time than prior to the trip.


When I was a growing up, the best commercial on TV was
about a toy bunny that never stopped because of the
Energizer battery that supposedly kept it running longer
than any other battery on the market. Back then, the
commercial highlighted timelessness as a unique benefit.
These days, however, timelessness has become the norm. Most
of us, much like the energizer bunny, just keep: “going
and going and going”. It’s gotten to the point that I
sometimes overhear people answering their cell phones in
the bathroom. Even in academic medicine, our meetings and
conferences are packed back-to-back with lectures and
presentations, and at the end of the day, everyone is
physically and mentally exhausted.

And so the question becomes why do we feel a compulsive
need to be working all the time? A patient that I posed
this question to commented that everyone knows that if you
left the office for an hour, things would go on normally
without you. But everyone feels an obsessive urge to be
constantly in the office, or answering their phones or
checking their emails every 2 seconds and that it’s more of
a “cultural” issue. Yet when I see how much of what I treat
stems from over work and over stress, I can’t help but to
think that this “cultural” adaptation may be making us less
productive than ever before. Instead of evolving, we seem
to be devolving. Just like the energizer bunny, we keep
going and going just to get nowhere fast.


So what can you do to reduce stress, and maintain
productivity? There are the more obvious methods, such as
going outside for lunch, having breakfast and dinner with
your loved ones, or even taking a short nap in the
afternoon. Regular exercise is also important, not only for
fitness issues, but it’s another form of a break that
forces you to focus on your body’s movements, rather than
stressing about what you have to do or what you haven’t

Notice that all these methods of “relaxation” and stress
relief brings you back into focusing on “the present”
moment. I know this may sound a little new-agey, but this
simple concept has profound implications for your overall
health and well being. Most of our stresses are often based
on our anxiety about the past (if only I had done this) or
what could happen in the future (what if I get fired?) or
on circumstances we have absolutely no control over.

One powerful concept that I see repeatedly in various forms
of Eastern traditions, meditation practices, and
success-achieving programs is the process of “pausing” and
being in the present moment. As C.S. Lewis, the 20th
century thinker and writer has said: “…the present is the
point at which time touches eternity.” This concept has
been described in a variety of ways as in taking a “power
pause” or in “falling still”. All these methods involve
breathing techniques where one focuses only on your
breathing. They all train you to consciously control
breathing, to make it slower, calmer, quieter, and more
regular. If you’ve been trained in yoga, you can probably
attest to that wonderful feeling you get after you practice
the “relaxing breath” technique. (for a FREE 21 minute
stress reduction audio that incorporates these breathing
techniques, visit one of our Experts, George Wissing’s
website at:

Physiologically, it’s been shown that slowing down your
breathing has a calming effect on your nervous system.
Further, lengthening your exhalation relative to your
inhalation can slow down your heart rate, inducing a state
of relaxation. This is explained by the fact that
inhalation is modulated by the stress portion of your
involuntary nervous system, whereas exhalation is
controlled by the relaxation part of your involuntary
nervous system. Therefore, extending your exhalation
prolongs the time you spend in a more calm, relaxed state.

Another primary benefit to breathing better, is that you
can sleep better, as well. As I explain in my forthcoming
book, Sleep, Interrupted coming this Fall, one disadvantage
we have for our speech and language development is that our
jaws became narrowed and this has made us all susceptible
to breathing problems when we sleep. Add to this our modern
processed foods, lack of exercise, and bottle-feeding this
problem may be getting even worse. In effect, many of our
most common and chronic health problems including heart
disease, diabetes, obesity, gastrointestinal problems, and
many chronic ear, nose throat may be a direct result of our
sleep interruptions due to breathing cessations. This may
be why so many of us are so sick and tired not to mention
overweight and overstressed.

A recent study revealed that people’s estimation of sleep
time was closely related to how stressed they felt during
the day. In other words, for the same two groups of people
who slept the same number of hours, the groups that were
under more stress perceived less quantity of sleep.
Conversely, not sleeping well, or sleeping long enough can
also make you feel more stressed.


One of the most common excuses that I hear is that people
don’t have time to sleep longer or take yoga or to stop and
pause during the day to keep their stress levels in check.
However, the beauty of breathing exercises is that with a
little practice, you can do it while waiting in line at the
grocery store, stopped at a red light, or even while at
your desk. Ideally, you should do it for 15-30 minutes in
the morning, and just before bedtime. But what I’ve found
even more useful is to spend 15-30 seconds to pause, and to
perform the breathing exercises between major activities
throughout the day. It not only relaxes you, but recharges
you, making you more focused on the task at hand.

Many experts suggest various ways of dealing with stress,
including meditation, breathing techniques, and exercise.
Each method has its obvious benefits. But one thing that
all these techniques have in common is that they force you
to take a break from your normal routine. Napping may be
the ultimate way to rest during the day, but walking
outside to eat lunch, afternoon tea, or even smoking forces
you to take a break.

You may be shocked that I include smoking in the above
list. Regardless of all the known detrimental effects of
cigarette smoke, think about what you must do when you
smoke. You must remove yourself from your job, go outside,
and spend 10-15 minutes in isolation, doing deep breathing
exercises. In fact, in a sense, you are meditating on your
breathing. Many smokers feel more relaxed after the first
few breaths. But since it takes up to a minute or more for
nicotine to reach your brain’s pleasure receptors, why is
it that you feel a rush the second you inhale? This is what
George Wissing, in his book, Stop Smoking for the Last
Time, questions. George is a hypnosis, NLP expert who
suggests that it’s the breathing and not the nicotine in
the cigarette that’s helping you to relax. Think about
it—why do people tell you to take a deep breath whenever
you’re stressed?

So the next time you feel stressed and can’t figure out why
you feel that way, consider taking a break. Better yet, try
taking a moment to do some form of breathing exercises. Try
taking short, regular 30 second breaks, or even going
outside for lunch. For the truly brave, try taking a
prophylactic wellness day (to avoid having to take a sick
day), and spend time for yourself, rather than catching up
on chores. Although all of these suggestions may sound too
simple to work, the simplest things often yield the most
powerful results. As Kung Fu Panda learned the hard way,
you shouldn’t dismiss what’s most obvious. As Confuscious,
that famed Chinese philosopher once said:

“Life is really simple, but we insist on making it

So go ahead. Take a break. The rest will follow.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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