We live in a productivity-oriented, work-driven world. This culture of hard work has its merits—as a society, we've made considerable advancements involving almost every sector imaginable. From mobile technology to medical solutions, today's world offers many opportunities that would not have been possible without the hard work of passionate, dedicated professionals.
The downside of our emphasis on constant productivity? We find it difficult to locate or make use of our personal ‘off’ switches. Relaxation feels like an indulgence rather than a necessity for our health and wellbeing. Over time, this lack of rest actually hampers the very productivity we hope to achieve. More concerningly, it can damage our mental health, leaving us vulnerable to anxiety, depression, and a whole host of negative coping skills.
If there's a bright point in all this, it's that college students enjoy a unique opportunity to relax while taking pride in their recent achievements. Throughout the year, multiple breaks make it possible to recharge before returning to a jam-packed academic schedule.
Unfortunately, many students neglect to spend this time on truly revitalizing activities. Accustomed to attending class all day and studying all night, they're not sure how to make the most of time off. Some even question the wisdom of taking breaks. We delve into these concerns below, offering research-backed insights into the value of relaxation, as well as tips for making the most of time off.
Why Rest and Relaxation Are Important
Few things in life are more satisfying than setting and achieving goals. That rush of achievement has us constantly on the grind, as does our determination to prove ourselves to others. Without rest, however, our efforts to reach ambitious goals may provide diminishing returns. The old 'sharpen the saw' cliche comes to mind—mental focus simply isn't possible when we're exhausted or burnt out.
Rest and relaxation are crucial for accomplishing both academic and professional goals. They're also important for maintaining our mental, physical, and emotional health. When we fail to obtain the rest our bodies are programmed to receive, every aspect of our day-to-day lives will suffer. This is verified not only by personal experience as revealed in countless anecdotes, but also with a growing body of research. These three facts highlight the scientific benefits of regular R&R:
1. Relaxation Boost the Immune System
What does your sickness routine look like? Most people swear by soup, medicine, and sleep. Similarly, rest and emotional sustenance are vital when everyday life has you feeling run down. Without these essentials, you could be susceptible to a whole host of illnesses.
Research suggests that people who undergo relaxation training see better immune system outcomes. The reasons for these improvements vary, with rest influencing everything from blood pressure to sleep quality.
2. Relaxed People Are More Creative
If you've ever taken on creative projects while stressed, you've experienced first-hand how this can hamper personal expression. As a student, this can be particularly frustrating, as your tireless studying can actually impede your ability to complete projects or write papers that call for a creative approach.
Neuroscience verifies that, when we seem to be idle, our brains are actually more active. Better Life Lab director Brigid Schulte explains that, during leisure activities, "The default mode network lights up...[connecting] parts of our brain that don't typically communicate. As such, stray thoughts and memories can ‘combine in novel ways to produce novel ideas.’"
3. Relaxation Prevents—and Mitigates—Mental Health Concerns
Our frenetic pace of life contributes to a variety of mental health issues. While existing problems should be proactively addressed with therapy and other physician or psychologist-directed solutions, proper relaxation can provide a powerful source of relief.
Research indicates that practices such as progressive muscle relaxation can play an important role in mitigating anxiety. Relaxation techniques may even prevent mental health disorders in some people.
Stress Management Tips
It's no secret that stress gets in the way of a fulfilling life, but this knowledge has done little to resolve what is clearly a societal problem. Often, we just assume that stress is the default mode, rather than actively trying to address the issue. Like any goal, however, stress relief takes effort. These tips may help:
- Take steps to maintain your physical health. This means eating a well-rounded diet, drinking plenty of water, and most importantly, developing an environment that is conducive to sleep. Remember: Poor physical health contributes to stress, creating a negative spiral.
- Don't bottle it up. If you feel stressed, anxious, or depressed, resist the urge to keep these feelings to yourself. It's tough to be vulnerable, but you'll be surprised by how much easier it is to relax after a good venting session. Chat with a trusted friend, therapist, or hotline operator.
- Write about your struggles. When you don't feel comfortable confiding in a friend, try journaling instead. Writing may deliver unexpected insights into the dilemmas driving your current stress. If nothing else, it can provide some much-needed mental relief.
- Make plans that tackle stress at the source. If you can identify what, exactly, stresses you out, you may be able to address the problem head-on. For example, struggles with procrastination can cause major stress among students. Use time off to determine how you'll avoid procrastinating in the future. This plan could ease both current and future stress.
Ideas for Relaxing Over the Holidays
You've cleared out time in your schedule to relax. What next? Relaxation may seem like a natural, effortless function, but it actually takes some effort when you're accustomed to always being on the go.
Not sure how to unwind? Give these ideas a try:
1. Ditch Your Smartphone
If there's one thing you should avoid during your time off, it's scrolling through your social media accounts. While it seems relaxing, this practice actually makes you feel more anxious and less connected, as evidenced by results from a variety of concerning studies. This is one of few opportunities to unplug, so turn off your smartphone and make the most of this technology-free time.
Meditation can pay dividends for your mental health, but it's difficult to implement as a regular practice when you're dealing with the everyday demands of college life. Why not commit to practicing during your holiday break? A variety of resources are available to get you started, including audio guides, YouTube videos, and even classes on Zoom.
Remember, you don't need to master meditation right away—just make it a regular practice. With time, you'll find it easier and may even see substantial benefits to your physical and mental health.
Art can be deeply therapeutic. Unfortunately, we often see it not as an opportunity for personal reflection or expression, but rather, as yet another task to be perfected. Let go of this urge, and instead, enjoy the process of creating a work of art, with no thought of the final product.
Doodling and painting can be enjoyable, but don't be afraid to express yourself with collages, clay, woodworking, or any other methods that help you relax. Artistic pursuits such as music or dance may also help.
4. Hang Out with Pets
If you love cats and dogs, let them act as your personal therapists. Research indicates that the simple act of petting a canine or feline friend has a significant impact on your blood pressure and heart rate, leading to a swift sense of calm. Walking your dog is just as effective, as it combines the calming presence of your pet with the stress-relieving benefits of aerobic exercise and the great outdoors.
5. Progressive Muscle Relaxation
While you may be most interested in learning how to relax your mind, sometimes it's better to focus on physical sensations first. Therein lies the value of the aforementioned technique known as progressive muscle relaxation. This practice rests on the assumption that tension forms a natural psychological response to stress—and that purposeful muscle relaxation can mitigate anxiety.
To begin, lie in a comfortable location and close your eyes. Tense up a large muscle group. Breathe in as you hold the tension before breathing out and relaxing the muscles. Repeat this for several areas of the body. If you struggle to focus, an audio guide may help.
Make Relaxation a Priority
The above relaxation tips can make a world of difference as you shake off the stress of the semester and strive for total relaxation. Take full advantage of this opportunity to find much-needed rejuvenation. You'll return from the holidays feeling not only rested, but also, more passionate and excited to learn than ever.