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Mindfulness -

To Take a Break or Breakdown

“Most people feel that they need to be on the verge of a breakdown before they take a break,” a fellow yogi told me over breakfast on the third day of a retreat in the countryside of Turkey. An infectious disease doctor and avid traveler, she ended up counseling me, the aspiring and exhausted psychologist trainee, on the burnout I felt after graduating from a rigorous doctoral program. I was looking forward to 10–day yogic immersion in a new country and stretching myself in a number of ways before returning back to the US to what I hoped would be the next step in my career path. Still, her words stayed with me for the next week in what unknowingly became the beginning of a year hiatus in which I’d stretch myself more than I ever imagined.

It was September when I returned back to Washington DC as the postdoc opportunity I was banking on fell through, just like many others. I came back to no job, no partner, and needing to move out in my apartment within the month. I reflected on the wise words of my itinerant yogi-therapist and became painfully aware that the only thing I had any desire to do was yoga and travel, which I hoped would offer me the time and space to think about what I actually wanted for my next step in life. So, I did what others advised against and bought a book on backpacking across Southeast Asia on a shoestring budget, figuring I could afford 10 more weeks abroad before I fully came back to reality and several part-time jobs. 

During my time traveling, I stood under waterfalls, explored outdoor markets, took a two-day trip down the Mekong River and met innumerable others who were much more interested about who I was than what I did. Backpacking isn’t necessarily easy or comfortable, and there are many stressors to contend with when you’re in a country where you don’t speak the language, might not entirely know what you’re eating, and met your travel companions only a few hours ago. Still, this experience brought me a welcomed reprieve that not only reminded me that the world is a much kinder place than is often advertised, but I was also much more resilient than I had remembered. It also made me realize how much I loved my intended career path which I, fortunately, decided to continue and love to this day.

I’m well aware that the ability to travel is a privilege, but simply being in nature is found to have many benefits. The Japanese have a practice called “forest bathing” which describes how simply being in nature can bring a sense of ease and calm when we disconnect from technology and take in the sights/sounds/smells of the forest. I’m also well aware that not everyone lives near a forest. The practice of ‘grounding’ or ‘earthing,’ where you have physical and unobstructed contact with the ground has also been reported to have benefits.

I understand that neither of these ideas will appeal to some, but most people enjoy fresh air and water, so perhaps it’s possible to take a stroll in a park or near a body of water for a change of scenery. The important part is that you find a way to slow down, connect with nature, and disconnect from the many distractions that fill our days.

Taking a break can even be done in micro doses, such as a mindfulness exercise that examines a flower, or sitting for five minutes under a tree to notice the thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations that arise. It could be trying a different route to run an errand or slowing down to savor the food’s flavors that often go unnoticed, or seeing what happens each time you look at someone in the eyes and smile as opposed to being buried in your phone. That said, it’s worth mentioning that many activities listed above can be squeezed into evenings and weekends, but too often people neglect to take time away from work to indulge exploration. Perhaps booking a vacation is an ideal reason to take time off, but there’s never an ideal time to be away. As a psychologist, I speak with many people who feel that they cannot take a break. Yet as the last two years have turned lives upside down and people have quit and changed jobs at alarming rates, perhaps it’s worth stepping back and asking yourself what you want for this next step of your life?

Behavioral activation is a term we use in behavioral health that describes doingX first and the feeling motivated by the rewards in order to change a behavior, as opposed to feeling motivated to do X first with promise of it being fulfilling. Breaking out of a pattern – be it a strict routine or endless days of chaos – is challenging for most people because we become habituated to our environment and circumstances, regardless if they’re healthy or maladaptive. From talk of languishing to flourishing to everything in between, we’ve since entered another spring season – a time where new life begins. You might just find that variety is the spice of life, and that what you plant now nourishes you throughout your next steps, but if not, I hope you find a way to take a break before potentially having a breakdown.

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