Your HSP brain needs breaks. Frequent ones. Here’s information to inspire you to create pauses for yourself throughout the day.
A friend sent me a great article last week about the positive effect on the brain of taking frequent-enough breaks. As soon as I read it, I knew I needed to explore the importance of that topic for highly sensitive people.
Why? Because an HSP deprived of breaks is a scary sight. When we push too hard for too long, we get frazzled, overaroused, impatient, and exhausted, and our performance suffers.
The Human Factors Engineering group at Microsoft, led by Michael Bohan, wrote the article in question. It’s a big plug for their software. Don’t let that put you off reading it, though. The brain study they did is fascinating and, from an HSP point of view, downright inspiring.
We all know we’re supposed to take breaks. It’s another thing entirely to see what happens to your brain function when you don’t. As Bohan puts it,
What makes this study so powerful and relatable is that we’re effectively visualizing for people what they experience phenomenologically inside…It’s not an abstraction—quite the opposite. It’s a scientific expression of the stress and fatigue people feel during back-to-backs.
HSPS need this inspirational motivation, because taking breaks is not as easy as it sounds. On the contrary: it is surprisingly challenging.
Why are breaks so very important for HSPs? Why do we have a hard time taking them? What strategies can we use to make it easier to pause and rest when we need to? Let’s explore these questions more, because taking ample breaks can have a major effect on your ability to function well.
Your brain on breaks
If you click on the Microsoft article and scroll down, you’ll find color-mapped images showing what participants’ brain waves looked like when they took ten-minute meditation breaks—using the Headspace meditation app—between 20-minute meetings online. You’ll also find images of their brains when they did similar meetings back-to-back, without breaks.
The difference is striking. Those who took breaks remained cool as cucumbers. Their scans stayed blue and green. The participants who moved from meeting to meeting without a break experienced a notable increase in beta-wave activity, the brain indicator of stress, which shows up orange and red in their scans.
The article offered three key takeaways:
- When you take a break between meetings, your brain resets, so stress doesn’t accumulate.
- When you don’t take breaks, your ability to focus and engage diminishes.
- Transitioning abruptly from one meeting to another causes stress to spike.
Does this sound familiar? It certainly did to me. The study did not include the HSP trait in its variables, but we can safely guess that the participants were a mix of HSPs and non-HSPs. I have no doubt the effects on HSPs of skipping breaks would be even more pronounced.
Why is non-stop activity so hard on HSPs?
The above study looked specifically at video meetings, which are even more tiring than in-person meetings. In reality, though, for HSPs, any concentrated effort requiring intense mental focus is highly stimulating, whether we label what we are doing “work” or “play,” and whether we are online or off.
With our unusual deep processing ability, our HSP brains work overtime to understand, categorize, and analyze our experiences as they happen. After a certain point, our brains effectively overheat.
That’s one way to summarize this study. You can focus intently for a certain length of time before your brain starts to “overheat.” By taking breaks, you give your brain a chance to “cool down” again.
To understand this more deeply, let’s look at another study. This one has a mouthful of a title: “Sensory Processing Sensitivity Predicts Individual Differences in Resting-State Functional Connectivity Associated with Depth of Processing.” Phew.
To clarify, “sensory processing sensitivity” is the research name for the highly sensitive trait, and “rs” refers to “resting state.” Bearing that in mind, here’s what the study concluded:
…SPS is associated with rs brain connectivity implicated in attentional control, consolidation of memory, physiological homeostasis, and deliberative cognition. These results support theories proposing “depth of processing” as a central feature of SPS and highlight the neural processes underlying this cardinal feature of the trait.
In other words, a lot goes on while you are “resting.” Amazing, isn’t it? Brain rest gives your sensitive brain a chance to perform essential processing tasks, while also refreshing its ability to concentrate.
Understanding the neurology of deep processing…and why it’s hard to stop
Let’s take a moment to unpack each of the four tasks mentioned in the above study:
- Control of attention. The ability to focus on what you need to focus on is essential to complete tasks of any kind. When you take breaks, you refresh your ability to control your attention. When you don’t take breaks, your ability to focus diminishes, as the Microsoft study showed.
- Memory consolidation: Memory consolidation is defined as “a time-dependent process by which recent learned experiences are transformed into long-term memory.” In other words, your HSP brain needs resting time to process new learning and experiences so that you can remember them. Without this processing time you get overaroused and start to feel like Lucy in the chocolate factory.
- Physiological homeostasis: The National Institute of Health explains that “the purpose of homeostasis is to maintain the established internal environment without being overcome by external stimuli that exist to disrupt the balance.” Homeostasis is the ability to self-regulate—the holy grail for HSPs. Breaks help us to self-regulate.
- Deliberative cognition: This is exactly what it sounds like—the act of thinking something through in a conscious way. Sounds like an HSP, right? When we take breaks, the cognizing part of our brain has a chance to communicate with other parts of the brain.
Taking all this in, you can see why your HSP brain needs breaks. However, we face a dilemma. Too much continuous concentration is overarousing for us, certainly. But transitions are overarousing for us, too. To pause what you’re doing and redirect your brain to another task takes a lot of mental energy.
Why we need proactive break strategies
Because transitions are overarousing, we’ll always be tempted to keep going without taking breaks, whether we are “working” or “playing.” Certainly, for me, this “pull” to keep going is even stronger when I am absorbed, and “in the flow.” I’m subject to unpredictable but constant external demands, and powerful internal ones too, including my capacity for absorption and my tendency to be overly conscientious.
Because of all the above, I have a really hard time stopping to take breaks. Then I end up in the “red zone.” This challenge persists despite a long list of observations so convincing that even the most break-skeptical, penny-pinching boss wouldn’t argue with me taking those extra minutes “off” each day.
I’ve thus far found only one successful strategy to deal with this challenge. I have to thoughtfully plan my breaks, including when they’ll happen, how long they’ll last, and even what I’ll do during them. I simply can’t count on taking breaks on the fly: too many factors conspire against me.
I’ve learned that the act of taking a break is itself a task, and needs to be respected as such. I need sturdy break habits, and I’ve had to persevere to develop them.
How I plan breaks
When I’m seeing clients for hour sessions, I schedule half an hour in between so I can go off and do something else and refresh my brain. When I have a chunk of unscheduled time, though, I use the Pomodoro Technique. I set a timer for 25 minutes. When it goes off, I pause whatever I’m doing, reset the timer for five minutes, then walk away from my desk.
The pause is critical. If I don’t stop right away when the timer rings, I’ll ignore it and miss my break. I have to set a strong intent each day to honor my need to take breaks. That helps me pause when the time comes.
However, I found it’s not enough simply to plan to stop for five minutes. My mind is like a dog with a bone. You can’t take the bone away unless you offer Fido an even more enticing bone. Similarly, I need specific choices of things to do during my break.
My enticing “bones” are the activities described in the cards shown above: various stretches, strengthening movements, body awareness practices, and small tasks like drinking some water.
Each of these activities feels good physically. Also, each of them is naturally time-limited—five repetitions of one stretch, 10 of another—so I’m not tempted to keep going after my break timer goes off. (For that reason, reading an absorbing book or picking up a knitting project is a problematic choice for a five-minute break: it’s too hard to stop.)
I’ve found I really need to get up and move my body, and my break can’t include anything on the computer. The Microsoft study participants meditated: that’s a wonderful HSP break, because nothing calms us more quickly than reconnecting to our spiritual intuition.
Creating a break friendly infrastructure
There’s just one problem with the above plan: you can’t do it unless your schedule permits breaks. Because I work for myself, I’m able to do that. I schedule at least 15 minutes, and preferably half an hour, between sessions.
However, the biggest determinant of your break habits is the strength of your intent and your level of proactivity and creativity. These qualities, in turn, are fueled by clarity.
That brings us back to the Microsoft brain images. It’s one thing to be told that smoking damages the lungs: it’s another thing entirely to see what a smoker’s lungs look like. I’ve found these brain images have the kind of power to motivate me to do what I need to do, but have trouble doing.
In reality, pushing ourselves too hard is physically, mentally, and emotionally depleting for highly sensitive people. You’ll function better and be happier in every way when you accept your HSP brain needs breaks. Then you can use your creative and persuasive powers to set up your daily schedule with plenty of room for brain rest.
Image ©2022 Emily Agnew