Ever wonder how you can be cranking along one minute, productive as can be, and the next minute feel like somebody has pulled the energetic rug out from under you? Suddenly, you’re tired and foggy. You can’t focus, and you crave coffee, sugar, or both. You are experiencing an ultradian trough. It’s the down cycle of a larger up-and-down pattern known as an ultradian rhythm.
Much like circadian rhythms, ultradian rhythms move in cyclical, oscillating patterns: up and down. But in our culture, we tend to prefer the “up,” so we try to stay there all the time.
In this installment of The Living Experiment, we’re talking about the value of respecting our bodies’ and minds’ needs for regular, recurring rest breaks and how doing so can support better health, happiness, and productivity.
Nature’s Ups and Downs
- Everything in nature operates in recurring, rhythmic cycles: up and down, in and out, expansion and contraction. Look at any heartrhythm readout and you’ll see this classic wave-form pattern. Brainwaves work this way, too. So do your hormonal and digestive systems. This is true of all animals, plants, and natural systems.
- Your body is wired up to operate in ebb-and-flow mode: During the active “up” periods of ultradian cycles (typically 90 to 120 minutes long), your system accrues the byproducts of all that activity, and it offloads various forms of pollution — metabolic waste, neurological snippets, cellular debris.
- The stress and fatigue you experience are signals your body and brain have become overloaded. They need some downtime (typically about 20 minutes) in order to organize, repair, and clean up all that detritus — a process that occurs during what is known as the ultradianhealing response.
- When you don’t take the breaks your body demands, it responds by ratcheting down the available energy stores and reducing your cognitive capacity. You may experience a case of the blahs along with rising frustration and irritation.
- As you fight your body’s need for ultradian-rhythm breaks (which Pilar affectionately refers to as “URBs”), it might look like you’re hard at work, but you’ll actually experience diminishing returns.
- Focus, productivity, and mood progressively erode. Metabolism and immunity suffer. Blood sugar, hormone, and lipid levels become dysregulated. Tension and inflammation rise. Sugar cravings surge. The risks of accidents and errors dramatically increase. In short, you pay a high price for your determination to keep going in the face of your body’s protests.
Heeding the Body’s Signals
- The best way to respect ultradian rhythms is to watch for early signs of fatigue and distraction. Other common “pause” signals from the body–mind include hunger, thirst, fidgeting, and bathroom urges.
- When you notice these signs, hit the pause button on all forms of work, activity, and concentration so that your body can kick into recovery mode. Or come up with your own strategies. The more adept you become at respecting your body–mind’s need for a pause, the more powerfully those systems will perform.
Each day this week, book two 15- to 20-minute breaks — one midmorning and one midafternoon. Set an alarm or reminder. Notice where your energy is when each alert goes off. Ask: Am I tired, hungry, distracted? Even if you don’t feel depleted, take a break: Hit the bathroom, take a walk around the block, sit with your eyes closed and breathe. Stay away from your computer and smartphone. Just let your mind wander, and let your body move or rest as it prefers.
Go get a glass of water and drink it — slowly — while doing nothing else. See how this simple act of self-care replenishes you.