Pay attention to your body’s rhythms, and you will be happier and healthier
by Carl Rabke
Because the clocks and calendars of social activity are designed for economic convenience, an individual may have to learn to detect his own cycles and become aware of scheduling to protect his health.
—Dr. Gay Gaer Luce,
National Institute of Mental Health
Our world is a matrix of interdependent cycles. Spring pokes its green optimism through the frozen gray winter ground, which blossoms into summer, drying into the reds and yellows of fall, cooling back into winter. The tides, pulled by the moon, slide in ebb and flow around the land masses of Earth. The long migrations of whales, the mating of bees, the daily twirling of our planet on its axis, all function according to lawful and consistent cycles.
As embodied beings, we, too, are conditioned by the pulsing rhythms of life. We are hungry, tired, sexual, elated, sad, active, depressed— sometimes all in a single 24-hour cycle. These fluctuations are not as random and unpredictable as many might suspect, and in the last 30 to 50 years there has been a great scientific interest in studying our natural rhythms and the effect of ignoring or honoring the wisdom that they offer.
Many types of cycles affect living beings. Infradian rhythms are cycles that repeat over a time longer than a day. Some examples of infradian rhythms: the seasonal changes, the menstrual cycle, the hibernation of bears, or the cycle sometimes called seasonal affective disorders (which some researchers consider a type of human hibernation cycle).
Circadian rhythms take place roughly once in a 24-hour period. The ebb and flow of circadian rhythms can be seen in our cycles of sleep and waking life. Scientists have discovered within these 24-hour circadian rhythms many shorter cycles called ultradian rhythms. These patterns were documented in the 1950s by scientists Eugene Aserinsky and Nathanial Kleitmasa in their studies of sleeping and dreaming patterns. They discovered that during sleep we experience cycles of 90-120 minutes of activity, followed by 15-20 minutes of rest in brain functioning, oxygen intake, heart rate, digestive activity and other physiological systems. These cycles have since been documented throughout our waking life as well and have been termed the basic rest activity cycle (BRAC).
These ulradian cycles create a natural system of self-regulation—a period of optimal activity, followed by a period of rest and rejuvenation, which then begins another cycle of activity.
The wisdom of the bodymind offers subtle cues that can guide us to optimal functioning and well-being. We have a dashboard full of functional gauges that let us know we are in the red and should probably pull over next exit if we intend to keep going. The difficulty for most of us is that we don’t know how to read our own gauges, or in many cases we have been clearly discouraged from recognizing their existence and function.
In his book “The Twenty Minute Break,” Dr. Ernest Lawrence Rossi describes how to discover and listen to our own unique cycles of ultradian rhythms as they vary between individuals and circumstances.
As the precise timing and frequency of ultradian rhythms vary from person to person depending on circumstances, so, too, do the signs that indicate a shift into the rest cycle. Rossi points out some of the more common indicators: feeling the need to stretch, move or take a break; yawning or sighing; finding yourself distractedor procrastinating; noticing your body becoming tense, tight or fatigued; noticing hunger or a slight urge to urinate; making careless mistakes; or the mind wandering into fantasies or daydreams.
Most of us have experienced all these signs. However, the manner in which we attend to them, especially when we are at work, engaged in a task or have not finished our list of things to do, is often to ignore them altogether. If we notice them, we may attempt to counter their gentle invitation to rest by increasing our effort and focus or adding stimulants like coffee, sweets, Ritalin or a cigarette.
When we are able to let our activity come into alignment with those patterns, we set up what Rossi calls the “ultradian healing response.” If we ignore the subtle cues that we need rest, we set up what he calls the “ultradian stress syndrome.
The Ultradian Stress Syndrome
Fortunately or unfortunately, we have the capacity to override the self-regulating wisdom of our ultradian rhythms. In terms of our survival, this capacity to stretch the active part of the cycle is essential. For example, if an emergency arises that requires us to remain active beyond the regular 90 or 120 minutes of our cycle, we can override the the subtle cues that would lead us into a natural rest or restorative break. Rather than slipping into a parasympathetic siesta, we enter sympathetic nervous system arousal. Our bodies, the world’s greatest pharmacy, release stress hormones to speed the heart and breath rate while reducing the circulation to the organs of digestion. We are alert, energized and ready to handle the short-term emergency at hand.
Often, though, no emergency causes us to ignore the cues to rest, just the everyday activity of our lives. Our physiology is fired up to deal with a saber-tooth tiger. Instead, we check our email, finish cleaning the garage, or wander through a grocery store.
As an occasional responsive tool, overriding the need for rest is quite workable, even beneficial. As a regular way of being, countless problems arise. Initially, we might feel a rush of energy and an increase of clarity and functioning when we bypass the need to rest, yet both the short- and long-term effects of the stress hormones that carry this manic-type high give rise to a host of physical and psychological difficulties.
Once we start the cycle of relying on sympathetic arousal and added stimulants to function, we become more and more detached from our basic rest activity cycle. The chronic stress that results keeps us from the restorative aspects of rest, even when we sleep at night. When we live in this kind of stress cycle, our interdependent physiological systems miss the regular opportunities to recover and self-regulate. To make matters worse, when stress hormones course through the body on a regular basis, the healthy functioning of the respiratory, cardiovascular, digestive and immune systems all deteriorate.
The ultradian healing response
If, however, we develop the capacity to recognize and respond to the ulradian indicators of rest with some kind of a break, we can experience what Rossi calls the “ultradian healing response.” No matter how long you’ve ignored the signs of your ultradian rhythms, there is always an opportunity in the next 90 to 120 minutes to listen to and come into alignment with your own basic rest activity cycle, Rossi notes.
There are many ways to take a break and honor the cycle of the ultradian rhythm. Going for a relaxing walk, sitting in your office chair following your breath, taking a restorative yoga posture, closing your eyes and noticing whatever sensations are present, or just following your mind as it wanders wherever it goes—what is most important is that the momentum of activity releases, and attention turns inward. Turn off the cell phone, close the office door, step away from the laptop, set down the list of things to do—just for a few minutes; they will all still be there after your break. As the resting cycle comes to completion, there is often a spontaneous increase of energy or capacity to focus—better than a double Americano—as indicators that you are moving back into the cycle of activity.
The list of benefits that come from honoring our natural call to stillness and rest is as extensive as that of the ill effects of ignoring ultradian rhythms. As we provide a time of rest and receptivity, not only do we avoid accumulated stress and support psychophysiological health, but we also increase our capacity for optimal performance. Many great thinkers including Edison and daVinci have noted that some of the most creative insights and breakthroughs occurred when they have taken a break from what they were trying to do. In that time of stillness, of giving up the effort, the fresh insight spontaneously appears. Just as our physiological functioning is improved by listening to cycles of rest and activity, so, too, is our ability for effective creative, competent activity in the world.
Rather than forcing ourselves to always be “on,” we can allow ourselves to ride the natural cycles of optimal performance, followed by a chance to step back, regroup and see clearly, and then to return to activity when it effortlessly, spontaneously occurs.
In the preface to Tulku Thondup’s book “The Healing Power of Mind,” Daniel Goleman quotes a study that notes smokers increase their likelihood of developing major diseases by 60%, while those who live with chronic stress over an extended period of time increase the likelihood by 100%! As one friend joked with me when I quoted this study, “So if I take a smoke break to relax from stress, I’m still 40% better off!” Though it was said in jest, there was a point—most smokers manage to take a periodic smoke break no matter how busy they are, no matter how much needs to get done. They will manage to get outside, take a few minutes to relax with a cigarette. Smokers show that it is quite possible to include regular rest breaks in any day, and if we got hooked on the benefits of the ultradian healing cycle, we might never kick the habit.
Despite all the research that shows the negative effects of stress, we still have a deep cultral mistrust of rest. It is something to do when everything else gets done, which, as we know, is a time that never comes. Rest can easily be seen as laziness or self-indulgence, rather than essential.
As a massage therapist, one of the first things I ask clients who come in with stress-related difficulties such as chronic fatigue syndrome, migraines or fibromyalgia is “How often do you rest during your day?” Usually they look at me as though I had three heads—as though daily resting were some decadent far-off luxury that could never apply to them. The response is not surprising. How often are we encouraged to go lie in the grass for 20 minutes during our schooling? How often are you forced to “pay” attention when your system is ready to recoup from activity? Maybe one reason we have so much attention deficit disorder is that our educational system has a rest deficit disorder. Look at the medical world, in some ways our model of care: Your resident physician might be working the 28th hour of her workday when she sees you—not exactly a schedule that supports ultradian sensitivity.
We have been trained to see the active part of our cycle as the only one that has value, and we will do anything we can to extend it as long as possible. What we fail to realize is that though our culture might hail the Energizer bunny as a heroic model of how we would like our selves and our appliances to function, it doesn’t work for an actual living being. As we become less connected with the rhythms of the natural world, and more in alignment with the pulses of our Blackberries and cell phones, we lose access to the immense inner wisdom that we have available. Often, the most effective, most healing, most creative and inspired thing to do is nothing—at least for a few minutes. u
Carl Rabke is meditation instructor and Feldenkrais practitioner in Salt Lake City.