Our brains are constantly working, but there’s a major difference between the kind of work we do for to make a living, versus the way our brains work to support us in our daily lives. Which is precisely why having some downtime every day is crucial to a balanced life and a productive workplace.

So how do you make the switch when you leave work for the day? And what activities should you do to give yourself a break? The answers lie in neuroscience. 

This Is What Happens To Your Brain When It’s Stressed At Work 

In order to understand the difference between break and work, you need to understand the brain with and without stress. When we are rushing out work and trying to meet deadlines, the brain enters a sympathetic state. What happens to most people at work is that they are in what’s called hyper-arousal, or a sympathetic state.

The positive side of the sympathetic state is that it acts as a motivator to accomplish tasks. But there is a downside to this brain activity, and it’s often occurs among people who work in environments where there are constant pressures and pressing timelines. In this environment, people enter a dangerous level of sympathetic activity, both in terms of intensity as well as frequency or consistency.

Too much stress, or activation of the sympathetic state, can lead to long-term health problems. That’s because sustained levels of cortisol can wear out the organs. And the longer your body is conditioned to respond to work with stress hormones, the harder it can be to learn how to break those patterns and relax. 

To determine if you’re in a sympathetic state, start by assessing your own body language. Somatic indicators for sympathetic activity include increased heart rate, fidgeting, tension—almost anywhere in the body, but for most people, especially in the neck, shoulders, chest, diaphragm, sort of upper thoracic area, tends to be a very good indicator. Frequency of breath (particularly if it’s shorter or quicker), and clenched fists are also signs.

Sympathetic states are helpful in that they keep us motivated to get things done, but too much is a bad thing. The opposite is known as a parasympathetic state, when our bodies relax and rest. That’s when chemicals like dopamine and serotonin come in, allowing your mind to recharge.

Burnout happens when your brain and body give you all the signals that a breakdown was imminent, but you don’t listen. Whether you didn’t know how to recognise the signs, or just ignored them, your brain and body will shut down operations if you don’t, as a self-protective survival measure.

So What Exactly Is Downtime? 

The brain is never not working, even when we are asleep. This means that there are different types of brain breaks. They can be creative breaks, breaks away from work, and even sleep.

Simple actions like scrolling through Instagram, chatting with a friend, and taking time for your hobbies all require brainpower, but they can also help your brain rest from work because the required effort is different. Taking brain breaks from work can help our brains do the repairing and restorative activities it needs to help us function better.  

On the other hand, leaving work only to take care of your kids, run errands or go tackle other personal responsibilities isn’t taking a break from work that your brain truly needs. While it is a break from your job, it’s not a break. 

A true break is one with an absence of responsibility and deadlines. While not easy to allocate, it’s necessary to have some time in your day when you aren’t thinking about what needs to be done. How you spend the time you have in that zone is up to you. 

How you spend downtime is up to you, but it should lead to feelings of emotional well-being or respite. Try to identify one or two activities that make you feel good on an emotional level, and try to do those things regularly. 

Making The Transition From Work To Downtime

Meditation is a great exercise for learning how to transition between work and downtime. This is because the practice of meditation teaches us how to force our brains to redirect and refocus from intrusive thoughts. That’s extremely helpful if you find yourself fixating on work-related tasks outside of the office, that you aren’t responsible for completing in that moment. 

Learning how to redirect your thoughts can help you to specifically focus on the present.

What happens when you separate yourself from work, deadlines and stress is that your cortisol levels go down and serotonin increases. You’re going from fight-or-flight cortisol to calming serotonin and eventually a pleasurable dopamine. You can also make the conscious choice to loosen your jaw, soften your knees and unclench your fists. Entering a relaxed state physically can also help your brain make the switch to downtime. 

Don’t Underestimate The Importance Of Some Daily Downtime

Everyone needs some downtime. It allows us to enjoy our personal lives (with family, friends, hobbies et) and get chores and tasks done.

On a brain level, it allows us to reach homeostasis and this is a necessary break from the aroused state. Being in fight or flight nonstop can cause long-term damage to the body, and it’s also an uncomfortable place to be mentally and emotionally.

Even if it’s just finding minutes in the day, creating space to cool your brain down to focus on fun, pleasure, or quiet is more valuable than we realise. Our brain, while capable of incredible innovation, intelligence, and change, does need moments of quiet because they’re not built for non-stop stimulation and information intake. In the loud world that we live in, take the time to find moments of quiet, so your machine can run efficiently longer.