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See Inside October 2005

Want Clear Thinking? Relax

A short mental vacation can ease the stresses of the daily grind and prompt fresh ideas


DAY IN, DAY OUT, people believe they can win their headlong race against time by maintaining an excessively hectic pace. As soon as they wake each morning, the same questions plague their minds: “What do I have to accomplish today? How do I get it all done as quickly as possible?” The term “relaxation” is practically a dirty word.

At some point, such driven people are likely to hit the wall. Their built-up tensions will be unleashed on some unfortunate, unsuspecting person. Or they will find themselves in the hospital with a bleeding ulcer or heart palpitations. At a minimum, they will become less effective thinkers, defeating their very ability to accomplish mental tasks. Constant scrambling and extreme workloads may bring success short term, but the long-term, negative effects are serious.

Even children are feeling pressure to overachieve these days. At a young age, they already exhibit a pronounced tendency toward competitive behavior. In 2003 the Lucile Packard Foundation for Children's Health in Palo Alto, Calif., surveyed parents whose children were nine to 13 years old; 35 percent of respondents said they were moderately or very concerned that their children were under too much stress. More and more boys and girls are pressuring themselves to always be better than their peers in whatever they do. Their lives are overshadowed by a fear that they will not live up to their own goals or the demands of their parents and teachers.

It seems that many adults have lost the ability to simply switch themselves off from time to time—to take a break—and youngsters are not far behind. This is a scary development, because the ability to relax is an important prerequisite for optimal performance on the job and in the classroom—and for a healthy life. Our brains, bodies and personalities are hurt by constant stress. Under this condition, the brain sends ongoing alarm signals in the form of high levels of the stress hormones epinephrine, norepinephrine and cortisol. Their presence raises a background level of anxiety that blocks the processing of information. The antidote is some purposeful downtime.

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