When my daughter was a toddler and given to vibrant tantrums, I’d duck into the bathroom and tightly shut the door to deliberately decompress for a few minutes and settle my jangled nerves.
Doing so saved me from many regretful mothering moments. And it’s why I say I’ve done my best parenting in the bathroom.
Deliberate decompression has helped me in many other ways, as well.
It’s been an on-the-spot mindfulness practice to cope with moments of overwhelm – i.e., the bathroom technique. It’s also been a longer-term strategy that’s helped me course correct and renew my mind, body, and spirit.
Deliberate decompression takes many forms.
It can be as simple as pausing and purposefully relaxing the body by taking a full breath in and out, dropping your shoulders a few millimeters, and softening your belly. (Much of the day, whether we’re aware of it or not, we brace our core as if we’re waiting for a sucker-punch.)
We also can soften and widen our gaze to induce states of relaxation. (More on that below in On My Mind) Standing up and from the desk chair you’ve been glued to for the last three hours and stretching, taking a walk, napping, and, of course, meditation all count as intentional ways to deliberately decompress.
Using any of these approaches throughout the day creates more ease and increases alertness, concentration, creativity, and productivity as research on the Pomodoro technique, https://todoist.com/productivity-methods/pomodoro-technique which advocates taking work breaks every 25-minutes and science on napping and meditation show.
Hitting pause, especially when our emotions run high, also allows us to take our next action with wisdom at our side. Often, when we don’t pause, any insight or kindness we possess quickly gets run over by reactivity. (Like I said, it’s always good to know where the nearest bathroom is.)
Deliberate decompression also can be like a long-form poem – a day, a week, or a month or more off work to do nothing or whatever you want, provided, of course, you can financially afford to do so or desperately need to so do.
I once fell in the desperate camp and quit a job to decompress. In the fruitful uncertainty thereafter, I decided to change what I wrote about, become a mom, and later a mindfulness teacher. I’m far from alone in experiencing the upside of downtime.
General Dwight Eisenhower famously decamped to Telegraph Cottage on the outskirts of London during World War II to read cowboy novels and golf, which those who knew him well said prevented him from having a “mental crack-up.” Others have had creative breakthroughs on vacation. Lin-Manuel Miranda got the idea for his award-winning play Hamilton while reading Ron Chernow’s biography of Hamilton when on a break in Mexico.
For years, German sociologist Sabine Sonnentag has been exploring whether emotional resources for workers are as valuable as physical energy for athletes. Her work shows that workers who take time off are invariably more productive, have better attitudes, and are more collegial. Drawing on the athletic metaphor, Soojung-Kim Pang writes: “However much you love the game at some point, you have to stop playing and rest.”
As a culture, we’re notoriously bad at resting. Paid time-off piles up like laundry in an overflowing hamper. And apparently, we’ve been piling up even more vacation days during the pandemic, according to Zenefits, a human resources software company. (Some of that’s because we’re frightened about what will happen to our jobs if we take a break from them.)
But if you’ve been charging too hard lately, maybe it’s time to step back and ask yourself whether you need to deliberately decompress – even just for a moment or a weekend. You might be surprised by the good that comes from it and by how much your weary mind and body require it.
Lately, a friend of mine has been taking a breather by driving to the beach 15 minutes from her home and sitting in the sand whenever her schedule allows. I add this note knowing what a Los Angeles luxury it is to spend time at the beach. I also know that for many essential workers, who are putting in long hours on our behalf, a day at the beach seems like, well, a day at the beach.
I have to say, though, my friend looks very tanned and very relaxed.
On My Mind
Ralph Waldo Emerson said “the health of the eye seems to demand a horizon. We are never so tired, so long as we can see far enough.”
Turns out Emerson was on to something.
Most of us think the main job of our eyes is to see. But neuroscientist Andrew Huberman says that our eyes aren’t just for seeing objects, shapes, and colors. They’re primarily designed to help us regulate the state of our nervous system. Our eyes, for example, notice sunlight and darkness, which help coordinate the body’s internal clocks, cueing us when to be alert and when to fall asleep.
How we use our visual gaze also affects our nervous system. When we narrowly focus our gaze to stare at our iPhone we engage the go state of our sympathetic nervous system. In contrast, when shift into a more panoramic gaze to take in a sunset we activate the rest and digest state of the parasympathetic nervous system.
One isn’t better than the other. We need to do both. But we tend to spend a lot of time visually focussing and not so much time taking in the scenery.
For that reason, Huberman offers a simple hack that can help relax our nervous systems. Every so often, he suggests defocusing or shifting into panoramic vision where you can see what’s in the periphery. Taking a walk or riding a bike also induces optic flow, which is additionally relaxing to the nervous system and yet another way to deliberately decompress.