“When we live without listening to the timing of things, when we live and work in twenty-four-hour shifts without rest – we are on war time, mobilized for battle. Yes, we are strong and capable people, we can work without stopping, faster and faster, electric lights making artificial day so the whole machine can labor without ceasing. But remember: No living thing lives like this. There are greater rhythms, seasons and hormonal cycles and sunsets and moonrises and great movements of seas and stars. We are part of the creation story, subject to all its laws and rhythms.”
Wayne Muller, Author “How, Then Shall We Live?”
Our existence is miraculously governed and sustained by rhythm. We know that there is a sustainable order in all of nature that happens through rhythmic cycles and patterns.
Circadian rhythms appear every twenty-four hours and regulate our sleep-wake cycle.
Circannual rhythms occur on average once a year. This is revealed through our seasonal variations that impact everything from bears hibernating, birds migrating, and people suffering from seasonal affective disorder.
Infradian rhythms happen with a frequency less than one cycle in 28 hours, such as menstruation, breeding, and tidal movements.
Ultradian rhythms occur more frequently than once per day. Stomach contractions and hormone fluctuations are as a couple examples.
There is another ultradian rhythm cycle that occurs approximately every ninety minutes. This one slows down our brainwaves, causing us to feel less focused, more apt to wander mentally, daydream. This is our natural relaxation response kicking in. And this is a good thing.
In this post I would like to emphasize the importance of this particular ultradian rhythm.
As we become mired in the day’s routine, especially when there is the need for high concentration or working in an environment governed by pressure, deadlines, and competition our brain is producing a lot of beta brainwaves.
Beta are high frequency low amplitude brain waves that are common while we are awake. They are involved in focused, intentional, logical thinking, and tend to have a stimulating effect. Having the right amount of beta waves allows us to stay sharp and complete academic or work-based tasks easily. Having too much beta activity however may lead to excessive stress and/or anxiety.
Now there is nothing wrong with striving for high performance and productivity in our work and lives, but the science behind stress tells us when we take regular breaks during our daily routine, whether at work or home – every ninety minutes or so – we have more energy, creativity, and achieve more by the end of our day. And perhaps most importantly, we do not risk exhaustion and burnout because we have minimized our stress through taking these periodic reprieves during the course of the day.
Nature did not design we humans or any other species to be robotic automatons. There is an organic wisdom in pacing yourself throughout your days, intentionally taking your attention off the task at hand every ninety minutes or so, and giving your brainwaves and nervous system a well-deserved twenty-minute respite.
Go for a walk, listen to music, or close your eyes and visualize a peaceful experience. Do something that gives you the feeling of slowing down, relaxing, and zoning out temporarily. This shifts your brain waves from high beta into more alpha waves, activating the relaxation response
The term, ‘Relaxation Response’ was coined by Dr. Herbert Benson, professor, author, cardiologist, and founder of Harvard’s Mind/Body Medical Institute. Benson can be largely credited for demystifying meditation and helping to bring it into the mainstream, by renaming meditation the “Relaxation Response”.
His studies in the 1960’s and 1970’s showed that meditation and/or a more contemplative approach toward life promotes better health, especially in individuals with hypertension. The Relaxation Response is essentially the opposite reaction to the “fight or flight” response. According to Dr. Benson, using the Relaxation Response is beneficial as it counteracts the physiological effects of stress and the fight or flight response.
So what has your daily rhythm been like lately?
The next time your ultradian rhythm kicks in and you find your focus has left the building and you are imagining your next vacation, your energy is definitely waning….step back and notice what you are tempted to do. Grab another cup of caffeine, push yourself to keep going, or listen to your self-talk clamor on about how lazy you are?
Realize that this lull is your body’s intelligence telling you to rest at regular intervals through the day. This is an aspect of an innate order at the level of DNA to staying alive and surviving.
After decades of resisting this message I ultimately reached burnout. Nonetheless, through my own force of will I continued to bulldoze through the mounting pressures and responsibilities I took on daily. The analogy here is pretending the car you are driving will continue to run because you have your foot on the gas, but the gas tank says empty! Eventually the automobile comes to a screeching halt.
In her book “The Happiness Track,” Emma Seppala debunks one of the biggest myths among Western workers: the idea that you have to be insanely stressed to be successful. “The idea that stress and success are inevitably intertwined has become so ingrained in our culture and work habits that we take pride in our stress levels,” she writes. “We may not like to feel stressed, but we wear it like a badge of honor.”
I plead guilty to having worn this badge for too long, decades too long. And it was only when my broken foot forced me to step off the busyness track that I was able to get the perspective I needed through immobility (and pain!). Through months of reflection born of a slower pace of life as the bone in my foot mended, I came to realize that I’d been trying to survive the pace of life I’d been entrained to live that a cultural norm had long promoted as integral to ‘success’.
The gift of having broken my foot was recognizing that surviving was no longer enough for me. Thriving and flourishing seemed far more attractive. That is when I took myself off autopilot during my daily routine and joined forces with my body and brain’s biorhythms to pace my energy, attention, and time.
What this looks like is now a slower pace throughout my days, still productive, creative, accomplished, and challenging myself but doing this intentionally. Allowing space for contemplation, mental meandering, physically relaxing, and wandering imaginatively.
And the amazing thing is I accomplish more at the end of my days, have more energy into the evenings, and at bedtime my nervous system is relaxed, ready and able to experience a night of deep rest and regeneration.
This in turn has brought me back to living from a depth of soul – like reuniting with a long-lost, forgotten friend.
“Where I come from we say that rhythm is the soul of life, because the whole universe revolves around rhythm, and when we get out of rhythm, that’s when we get into trouble.”
Nigerian drummer, educator, social activist, and recording artist