We struggle to exist—mentally and physically. We experience joy and pleasure amidst the struggles. Or for the positive thinker, we experience struggles amidst the joys and pleasures. Although struggle is inherent (this world isn’t devoted to creating lives of ease), we still feel disappointed and discouraged when difficulties befall us. Our reaction screams, “I can’t believe this is happening to me.” We need a mental health breaks to gather resources, rebalance our minds, and courageously move forward.
The gurus of positivity remind that struggles promote growth—I agree (some of the time). Some theories suggest warmly welcoming difficulties, grateful for their blessings—I disagree (most of the time). As if this attitude toward pain magically transforms struggles into blessings.
Does an abusive marriage increase wisdom more than loving intimacy? Does unemployment trump a promotion? Does losing a child, suffering from addiction, or being struck down with a deadly disease make me wise? Perhaps, sometimes. But this sometimes needs to be marked with a bright asterisk. Struggles must be balanced with enjoyments, too much hurt overwhelms and depresses the soul; wisdom is not garnered from depression and overwhelm. Helplessness is born here. Some events devastate. Along with struggles, we also need joys, happiness and security. What benefit is knowledge of pain without accompanying growth and joy?
Life is Difficult
Difficulties evoke discomfort, awakening feeling, intruding on mental energies, and limit creative endeavors. The wisdom gained from pain has costs in well-being—there’s a trade-off. We don’t function efficiently under severe stress, making shoddy decisions that we typically could avoid in a better state of mind.
The body responds to trouble with a biological process, releasing chemicals that motivate action; experienced as emotional upheaval. Troubles trigger an emotional alarm. When we recognize meaning behind a trial, the purpose for suffering mitigates the annoyance and strengthens our resolve.
But some traumatic events lack clear meaning. We can manufacture meaning like many do, “There is a purpose for everything,” they proclaim. If this soothes your system, please entertain these meaning-oriented thoughts, make it through the trouble and then regroup.
We legitimately feel sorrow, sadness, guilt, or anger in response to experience. Feeling is not a crime. Difficult emotions have evolutionary purpose. We need them. We shouldn’t despise discomfort as the enemy. The feelings, especially when sharp, demand attention to examine the self and the world for causes. Sometimes thoughts, faulty conclusions, or unreasonable fears are to blame; other times, danger, loss, or unfairness.
We have limitations. We can’t always work through difficulties without help. No natural law or divine force shields us from too much stress. Our systems can be overwhelmed with grief, sorrow, or anger. Because of insufficient preparations, poor choices or simply bad luck, we may face stresses that outmatch our ability to process. Personal resources vary.
When forcefully invited to battle vexing pain, beyond our capabilities, our system deregulates and malfunctions. No wisdom is gained here. When biological signals flare beyond functional levels, we panic, responses become chaotic and unhelpful. Thoughts and actions no longer directed towards future goals; we simply want to survive. Under intense conditions, we become susceptible to helplessness, anxiety, depression, and physical ailments.
Knowing personal limits assists; we can monitor incoming stresses and pull back before the final collapse. Navigating difficult waters requires more than full-steam ahead. We occasionally encounter more than we can effectively process—no matter how well prepared. This doesn’t signal weakness. It’s the price of living.
The wise person doesn’t surmount every challenge; they effectively manage within their realm of power. They prepare, plan and avoid unnecessary challenges. Yet, even then, sometimes life overwhelms, delivering stress even the best planning couldn’t predict. For those challenges that exceed abilities, we need patience and escape.
The Science of Mental Health Breaks
Our bodies physiologically respond to stress. We have an adaptive stress response to life challenges. Laurence Heller, Ph.D. and Aline LaPierre Psy.D. explain “in the presence of danger, pain, extreme distress, or injury, a number of profound physiological changes ready the body for survival” (2014, location 1520).
Basically when aroused, the sympathetic nervous system prepares the body to react by increasing the heart rate, increasing blood flow to the muscles, and decreasing blood flow to the skin. The parasympathetic system controls bodily functions when a person is at rest. Some of its activities include stimulating digestion, activating metabolism, and helping the body relax.
Both the parasympathetic and sympathetic systems are part of autonomic nervous system. There is growing medical realization that most illnesses and diseases are the result of dysregulation and disorganization within the functioning of this neuroendocrine communication network (location 1542).
According to the Diathesis Stress Model, the major contributor to these diseases and illnesses is extended periods of stress, overloading our natural physiological capabilities to cope. We need mental health breaks to allow our system to reset, reestablishing a homeostatic balance.
Heller and LaPierre wrote that, “when the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches move in a flowing, reciprocal manner, the body’s internal state is said to be regulated.” They continue “in the relaxed state of autonomic balance, we experience ourselves as steady, strong, present, and at ease” (location 1585).
Mental health breaks help us rebalance these systems, escape immediate threats, and allow our automatic system to return to a balanced relax state. Here, in this state, our bodies rejuvenate. Our souls bathe in the calm simpleness of being.
Activities that Relieve Stress
Healthy distractions provide momentary relief, focusing attention away from the pain. We need breaks from insurmountable problems; an escape from the drudgery of a problem that refuses to be resolved. We need hobbies and activities that give pleasure. Engaging in activities that demand attention stimulates pleasure, recharges energy and develops self-discipline. Hobbies strengthen our psyche to re-engage in life.
Barbara Fredrickson suggests that positive emotions undo the damaging impact of stress. Mental health breaks require more than a collapse in exhaustion. Therefore, we should find activities that we enjoy that cultivate positive emotions.
Not every distraction has equal value—distraction alone is not the solution. If any distraction worked, a nightly trip to the bar or a glass of wine would do. Some escapes contribute to better living, while other escapes compound problems. When we engage in activities that improve living skills, we improve our lives. Healthy distractions–exercising, reading, or meditation—serve a dual purpose, developing diverse areas of our lives while providing a necessary mental health break.
Solitude as a Mental Health Break
Solitude has mixed blessings. Temporary breaks from social demands, leaving pressures of conformation behind. When solitude is used with other techniques of self-care, such as meditation, mindfulness, or exercise, our minds and bodies rest, rejuvenate and heal.
The torments lose their sting and we recover with momentarily escapes. The solitude from the change of focus recharges vital energy and reestablishes equilibrium, taming discomforting emotions so we can respond to the troubling event more effectively. Small escapes provide tremendous mental health benefits. With growth, energy and experience, we can eventually surmount the challenges that were once overwhelming; or sometimes just live more peacefully with them. New successes lead to confidence, and confidence to further growth. Small changes have enormous effects.
Listen to your bodies. Value your mental and physical health. We must find time for occasional retreats of solitude to maintain our mental sanity and compassionate heart. Treat yourself to a much needed mental health break in solitude.
Heller, L., LaPierre, A. (2012). Healing Developmental Trauma: How Early Trauma Affects Self-Regulation, Self-Image, and the Capacity for Relationship. North Atlantic Books; 1st edition.