• Catherine Chadwick

Eating When Stressed: Understanding Ultradian Rhythms

Understanding our biological rhythms and using them to our advantage is enormously beneficial not only for our health but also for our productivity and creativity. You have probably heard of the Circadian Rhythm. The Circadian Rhythm is a cycle of approximately 24 hours which governs the sleep/wake cycle we all experience every day.

Other rhythms to which we are subject are known as Ultradian Rhythms. An ultradian rhythm is simply a rhythm that occurs several times a day, of which there are many in the body. Some of these relate to hormone secretion and regulation of body temperature. The one I want to focus on is the Basic Rest Activity Cycle. This is a continuous cycle that also operates during sleep. After you wake in the morning if you are not too stressed, you have a period of between 90 and 120 minutes of focused attention. After this time, you will want to "switch off". You may start to feel woolly in your head. This period of reduced focus lasts roughly 20 minutes. Very often this is the time when people go for a cigarette break at work, or make themselves a cup of coffee. Then you come back to work and are able to focus for another 90 to 120 minutes and so on throughout the day.

Now, it appears that this rhythm is nature's way of allowing you during that 20 minute period to build up internal supplies of available energy and assimilate the activity of the previous 90 minutes, gearing you up for another hour and a half or so of good work or play. It appears that many famous highly creative individuals throughout history have recognised that by going with their natural cycles in this way, they would often have fresh insights and solutions on resuming work. Leonardo da Vinci himself advised his students to periodically go away from their painting so that when they came back they would see their work with fresh eyes. This is something I am sure we have all experienced.

Ernest Rossi who has won several awards for outstanding contributions to the field of psychotherapy has actually written a book called "The Twenty Minute Break" in which he refers to the Ultradian Stress Syndrome. He maintains that not honouring this natural biological need we have causes tiredness, irritability, loss of mental focus, frustration, accidents and can ultimately lead to sickness. Typically in an 8 hour working day, most people experience 4 to 5 peak periods when they are at their best in making decisions, planning and doing. In his opinion, it therefore makes no sense for employers to try to get people busy every minute of the working day. Taking a 20 minute break every couple of hours or so allows the mind/body to catch up with itself and create the ideas and energy that is needed to optimize the next work period.

Dr. Herbert Benson an American cardiologist of Harvard Medical School discovered that by bringing the brain to the height of activity by intense focus for a period of time and then suddenly moving it into a passive, relaxed state that it is possible to stimulate much higher neurological performance than would otherwise be the case. He stated that over time those who learned to do this as a matter of course consistently performed at higher levels. He called this switching in this way invoking the Relaxation Response. To invoke the Relaxation Response, Herbert teaches a practice that combines deep muscular progressive relaxation with focus on a neutral word such as 'one' as you breathe out. He suggests doing this for a continuous period of 10 - 20 minutes. You can find the exact instructions on what to do on the Relaxation Response website. So whilst Herbert Benson makes no mention of ultradian rhythms, what you can see is that he is suggesting a way to maximise the way we are naturally designed to work.

So how can you best use your 20 minute break? Following on from Dr. Benson's findings and the fact that your brain is not responding sharply to stimulation during this period, an activity that invokes the Relaxation Response is the most appropriate. These activities might include deep relaxation, a self-hypnosis technique such as taking yourself in your mind to a peaceful place, doing some yoga, jogging or even praying. And for best results, all should be done away from your desk.

For my 4 week relaxation course and a free mp3 relaxation recording, please visit my website www.catherinechadwick.co.uk

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