The brain needs more than a summer holiday

Many people go on summer holidays and look forward to recharging their batteries, but your brain can't recover from a stressful year in a few weeks. Instead, you should use the holidays to rethink your everyday life so that you also prevent stress in the long term.

Imagine a diet where you eat healthily and exercise for four weeks a year. In return, you live the rest of the year as if it's one long Christmas party with lots of alcohol, sugar, fat and cigarettes. It may sound like a dream to some, but you could hardly call it healthy.

Yet this is exactly how many people live when it comes to their mental health. They run on overtime and a packed schedule 11 months a year, and then they count on being able to slow down hard and recharge their batteries with a long summer holiday in the hammock. But the brain is an organ in need of constant care, just like the rest of the body, so this strategy is no use, says Imran Rashid, a doctor and author of the book "Offline".

"You can't live your life like that, because we are not machines, but living organisms that need a functioning daily life. Much work is digital, but many have forgotten that we are first and foremost biological organisms. Just as a plant needs water and sunlight, humans have a number of basic needs, including sleep and rest," says Imran Rashid.

Another problem with believing that holidays can be used as a respite to recharge your batteries is that you quickly return to your old habits. As a result, as soon as you walk through the door to your workplace, your brain becomes attuned to having to perform at the same pace again, and the effect of the relaxing holiday quickly fades.

The brain "overheats" every day

According to Imran Rashid, our brains are simply not equipped to handle the work pressure we are exposed to in many workplaces today. The biggest problem is that we are constantly interrupted by emails or chatter from colleagues, because in the long run this simply changes the brain, which becomes less able to focus on one thing for longer periods at a time. This is because the brain adapts to the environment, which is initially useful, but can also be harmful.

"Studies show that we are disturbed every three minutes when we are at work, and that we therefore constantly have to deal with something new. Over time, we then get used to being disturbed even when nothing is happening, and this changes our brain patterns. You actually lose the ability to focus or dwell on something," explains Imran Rashid.

Contrary to what we think, the brain is not very good at receiving and processing large amounts of information in the way most IDA members do in their work. Unfortunately, as a recent survey also shows, one in five IDA members suffers from stress or has symptoms of stress.

According to Imran Rashid, there are three main limitations to the brain's ability to do demanding analytical work.

  • Firstly, we have a limited working memory, which means we can comprehend a maximum of six pieces of information at a time.
  • In addition, we have a sensory apparatus that constantly bombards us with distracting impressions.
  • Thirdly, we constantly have to perform a processing in which that information has to be sorted, selected and interpreted.

The brain therefore quickly becomes "overheated", but few people manage to fit the necessary time for recovery into their daily lives.

"We've simply become too bad at resting and taking breaks, and that's a problem, especially if you process information for a living," says Imran Rashid, who points out that many people also cut back on sleep in order to get more done. 

Take stock during the summer holidays

So while four weeks in the summer house or on the beach can't make up for a year's mental wear and tear, it can be used to take stock of everyday life and whether your time is being well spent. We often let ourselves be controlled by external factors, such as checking our phone every five minutes or taking an extra two hours at work instead of spending time on activities that are restorative.

"You should sit down during the summer holidays and make a conscious prioritisation of what is important to you. How important is spending time on your family, friends and hobbies, and how much should work take up? The problem today is that work takes up a lot. Not because it's necessarily more important, but because it's more visible, particularly as a source of both income and recognition."

In addition, the holiday can be used to incorporate some good habits, which in the long term can help cool down the "overheated" brain.

"I've done more than 2000 preventive health screenings, and I always ask people: "when do you switch off your brain?". Those who don't answer right away typically have high stress levels. On the other hand, those who answer that they go to their summer house once a month to chop wood or that they go for a walk around the block once a day do not. So it's about developing strategies that allow us to recover on an on-going basis," explains Imran Rashid.

As long as there are breathing spaces in everyday life, holidays don't have to mean pure relaxation. For example, if you're planning to spend your summer break shaving minutes off your recent Iron Man time, it's also fine - as long as you enjoy your time on the bike and in your wetsuit, rather than just chasing a result in the same way you do when you're at work.

"You're the only one who knows if you're using your brain too much - if you should step off the accelerator or not. No one else knows what being busy feels like to you, so you're also the only one who can regulate your own activity level," Imran Rashid concludes.

Exercise: divide your activities into colours

According to Imran Rashid, the summer holidays are an ideal time to sit down and take stock of your everyday life. By dividing your activities into four colours, you can see if you're using your time consciously or if external factors are stealing too much of your attention.

Red hours: Covers those hours when you deliberately choose to slog through work or other tasks that consume mental resources. 

Green hours: These are the hours you deliberately set aside to rest, sleep or do activities to slow down. Here you give your brain a break.

Blue hours: Your good habits that you don't consciously control, but that you've incorporated over time. It could be eating healthily or exercising, but the main thing is that these are habits that you don't think about too much.

Yellow hours: The bad habits that are typically controlled by external forces. For example, if you constantly check your phone when you have a free moment.

Stress and working environment

Stress has become a widespread disease. Visit our stress guides to learn more about preventing stress and finding help when you become ill with stress.

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