Is quarantine really a break?
For those of us privileged to have homes to stay in and easy access to essentials during the lockdown, this time has often been spoken of as a much-needed break. The narrative has been of once busy office-goers, relieved from the rush of the long commute, finally able to detach themselves from the pressure to be productive by relaxing at home, taking care of themselves and stopping to look around. Picture yourself lounging on your bed, staring at the birds flying outside while you sip a cool drink.
Yet, even for those of us with privilege, most of this lockdown hasn’t been the lazy, resort-style vacation that it’s sometimes seen as. Personally, I have been finding myself busier than ever during the lockdown- work from home for office plus domestic chores plus running a blog means that many activities need to be crammed into my day to get done on time. The expectation that this would be a break couldn’t have been more wrong.
Making time to pause
When I talk about taking a break, what I mean is taking some time away from the activities that involve pressure to perform, deadlines and stress, to do something purely for our own enjoyment. The length of the break is completely flexible: it could be anywhere from a 15 minute pause between tasks to a whole day of relaxing.
There’s no dearth of research on the importance of taking a break. Slowing down activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which performs the ‘rest and digest’ functions, allowing us to relax, recover and build strength to work again. The alternative to this- constantly being in ‘fight and flight’ mode causes exhaustion, weakens the immune system, and leads to chronic stress. That’s not to deny the importance of work- whether in terms of a job, or care work or anything else- the work we do is essential for ensuring the well-being of ourselves and our loved ones. Yet, we need to recognise that, if we don’t pause, the build up of exhaustion and chronic stress may prevent us from being able to do this work in the long term. Remembering to take a break from the rush is even more essential right now, because we are also dealing with the additional anxiety and uncertainty of a pandemic.
But what about when it’s stressful to take breaks?
You might have had to re-read that heading twice. But if you’re anything like me, you probably understand this question all too well.
In our productivity-obsessed culture, taking a break can be a cause for guilt rather than relaxation, and this could send our heart rate soaring. And the problems don’t stop there: besides using constant work as a way to boost our self-worth, our productivity-driven systems encourage us to use work to suppress and numb any anxieties we may be feeling. We can even become what Brene Brown (in her book, The Gifts of Imperfection) calls “busy-aholics”- people who stay busy to avoid distressful emotions we may be feeling.
So, for me and fellow busy-aholics, taking a break can be a truly anxiety-provoking situation. Time set aside to slow down and relax without an aim may turn into a period of panic-stricken scrolling through the phone, with all the things we forgot to do and the insecurities and inadequacies we don’t like facing coming to mind. And to avoid these distressful thoughts and emotions, the cycle of numbing starts again- either by getting back to work or by scrolling through as many posts as possible on Instagram for hours on end and following a hundred new handles at top speed without really knowing why.
Not that there’s anything wrong with Instagram. And there’s definitely nothing wrong with working- it can be an important way to find meaning in our lives and a safe way of coping with overwhelming anxiety and moving on with life during the pandemic. The issue that these activities don’t give us a chance to mindfully slow down, experience enjoyment, recuperate and strengthen ourselves.
So, how can busy-aholics take a break?
- Make a ‘joy and meaning’ list: This is something Brene Brown talks about in The Gifts of Imperfection. She asks readers to think about the activities that they want more of in their lives because they spark joy and make their lives more meaningful. This could involve dancing, making art, reading, watching a new series on Netflix, decorating the house, time with family, more sleep or anything else. Every time you take a break, you can decide to do one of these things.
- Take breaks with intention: This follows from the previous point. If not having a set objective gives you anxiety, then it’s probably not a good idea to have nothing to do during the break. Setting intention can be as simple as deciding to do some colouring during one break and to phone a friend during the next. The important thing is that it gives you something concrete to do that gives you joy. And there’s no pressure to stick to it if you want to change.
- Remember that it’s not about ‘accomplishing’ anything: During your break, the art you make or poetry you write doesn’t need to be aesthetically perfect. You don’t need to show what you make to anyone else. This break is for you to find joy. Maybe that means you jump around and dance however you like. Maybe it means that you sleep or meditate. Whatever it is, there’s no pressure to be anything except yourself.
- Move: If you have a sedentary lifestyle, this becomes really important. And this movement doesn’t need to be exercise in the traditional sense. It may just involve playing your favourite song and dancing your heart out. Or stretching. A good idea is to listen to your body: What feels stiff? What parts feel like they want to move?
- Try changing the setting and style of your activity: For example, if you have done a lot of work sitting at the laptop and typing, it might not be as helpful to sit in the same position and watch a movie on the same laptop during a break. You could try getting up, moving around and engaging the other physical senses instead.
- Do something that makes you laugh: Maybe this involves watching a comedy TV show, reading P G Wodehouse or giggling over a memory with a friend. Laughing has many physical and mental health benefits, including reducing stress hormones and soothing tension.
- Seek mental health support: I can’t stress this enough. If being compulsively busy is a way of numbing or avoiding difficult thoughts and emotions, then those thoughts and emotions need to be faced and processed. To an extent, we need to use things that give us joy and meaning (including work) to stay stable. But this isn’t enough because fear around facing our difficulties may still be very strong. This is especially relevant right now, with the anxiety and uncertainty of the pandemic. We need to take some time face these emotions and vent them out. Going for therapy is a very good way of doing this. You can check out this article for some useful mental health helplines during the pandemic.
- Practice mindfulness: This basically involves being aware of the present moment and allowing thoughts and feelings to come and go without running after them. Like therapy, it is long-term in nature and may involve facing discomfort, especially in the beginning. There are a variety of ways to practice this including grounding and mindfulness meditation. Practicing mindfulness for a sustained period makes it easier for us to take breaks since it helps us to slow down and stay in the moment with a peaceful mind.
You can also learn more about Brene Brown’s books and research on her website.
Wishing you a restful break!
Co-Founder, Editor and Author
I am a feminist, bookworm, occasional writer and perpetual learner. I work at Kolkata Sanved, an NGO that uses Dance Movement Therapy for healing and empowering marginalised communities, and I’m currently training to be a Dance Movement Therapy Practitioner.
Email me: firstname.lastname@example.org
Artist and Visual Storyteller
I am a feminist and an artist with a keen interest in mental health. I have always found peace and the power of expression, in art and music, since a very early age. Empathy is my mantra and goal for life. The rest of me is essentially my love for dogs, swimming and food!
Email me: email@example.com
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