A Case for Zoning Out

Why a Neuroreflective Pause is Necessary for Your Mental Health

What is a NeuroReflective Pause ™, and why is it so important for mental health?

For years, in my psychotherapy practice, as well as in my own parenting experience, I’ve tried to articulate a term for a common mental health concern among those whose lives require strict focus all day. In my office, mothers of young children, especially, describe a feeling of deep depletion that is not due to physical, intellectual or emotional exhaustion. These mothers, and others whose work demands dogged presence all day, yearn for a reprieve from intention. They seek more inward-facing, restorative moments to reflect. I have coined a term for this kind of moment:

A Neuroreflective Pause

Such processing time, similar to daydreaming, or mindlessly surfing the internet, exists when no output is required – no reacting or strategizing, no interaction, no goal — and is a vital component of the brain’s healthy functioning.

In short, the brain needs time to simply digest the experiences of the day, without needing to respond.

Caregivers are a prime example of those who often have a deficit of neuroreflective time. Taking care of young children, in particular, requires a type of mental stamina that challenges the most energetic and extroverted person. Often, time away from attending to children’s needs then becomes filled with work that requires similar outward focus and presence, which deepens the insufficiency of reflective time.

A Neuroreflective Pause provides a means to step back, consciously, without the need to react, to anything.

I believe this conscious “off” time is as important as sleep. Without it, we are more prone to depression, anxiety, physical illness, and relationship turmoil.

In our culture, where productivity is greatly rewarded, and engagement in the external world relentlessly required, letting the mind wander even for a few seconds often comes with an implicit judgement of laziness.  At worst, it can put people at physical risk. Therefore it is almost impossible to engineer regular Neuroreflective Pauses, especially in situations when one’s continuous presence of mind is necessary, such as during the workdays of nurses and physicians.

Even technology, which once was thought to improve human efficiency, contributes to this problem in the form of endless expectations for presence.  Not only are we expected to be ever-present within our real-life relationships, but also, now, in our online worlds.

Neuroreflective time, where no output demands or expectations exist, where one can either focus inward on thoughts, or “mindlessly” absorb information, provides a necessary time for the brain to recharge. In fact , studies have shown that allowing the mind to simply wander improves many brain functions, and in fact maximizes creativity. Professor Jonathan Schooler, who runs a lab investigating mindfulness and
creativity at the University of California, Santa Barbara, determined that people often come up with their most insightful ideas while performing an undemanding task that encourages mind wandering. The greatest “aha” moments of knowledge synthesis come about when the mind is not required to focus.

Do you need more Neuroreflective Pause time in your life? Here are a few tips

-Protect your downtime. Give yourself permission to watch bad television or scroll through your Instagram at the end of your day.

-Don’t force sleep, or schedule tasks, including interaction with others, when you need a rest.

-Instead of using alcohol to intentionally unwind after work, spend some time “zoning out” without an objective, and without guilt.

-Explain to your partner that neuroreflective time is essential for your mental health.

-Acknowledge that time off doesn’t always mean you are getting a Neuroreflective Pause if you have another task to accomplish.

-Gain an awareness of when you need a Neuroreflective Pause. Symptoms of deficit include increasing irritability, depression, confusion, emotional outbursts, and a sense of overwhelm.

-See an experienced therapist to process what you may be thinking or needing to say out loud.

A version of this article was originally published at www.thenurturetree.com

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