By Dr. Cat Baker, PhD, BCBA-D
I know we talk about brain breaks with our kiddo clients all the time, but brain breaks are not just for the benefit of your kids- they give you those same perks! Implementing these breaks throughout the day will decrease stress, promote patience, and greatly improve your mood. This can help create a positive and productive household for all!
Do you remember growing up with old computers that relied on dial up and a shared phone line? If you did too much on them, they would freeze, or siblings or parents would inevitably pick up the phone and disrupt our session! Sometimes, to get everything reset, we had to “unplug it, count to ten and plug it back in.” Our brains are a lot like a computer: if you want to be attentive, stay on task, and function optimally, your brain needs regular breaks.
Much of what we do as parents requires the use of their prefrontal cortex (PFC), the part of the brain responsible for “think-work.” It powers goal orientation, concentration, memory consolidation, logical thinking, executive functioning, and impulse control. If left to run on overload, the PFC will fatigue. If this happens, you will no longer be completing any of these tasks well, and will not be “thinking clearly.” So when does this fatigue occur? Every 60-90 minutes as an adult, your brain needs a true break. These breaks should be about 5 to 15 minutes in length, with a longer 30 minute break every few rounds, after roughly 3 to 4 hours. These breaks repower the brain, allow for the leveling out of stress hormones, and allow the physical body time to move about (not just sit still at the computer).
All of our households are different, but they probably have one thing in common- afternoons and evenings are jammed packed with homework, preparing for the next day, and helping our kids. It’s important to note that short breaks here and there will lead to fewer arguments and less time spent corralling the kiddos. Best of all, if you model these skills for your kids, they will learn them…they are always watching us!
So what are the actual benefits of a brain break? Increased productivity is the first benefit. Hitting pause long enough to give the PFC reprieve allows it to return to the task with renewed mental resources, increased creativity, and motivation to refocus attention. Brain breaks can also improve our learning and memory. It’s long been known that our bodies use sleep to consolidate memories. A 2009 study found that a simple rest period (aka brain break) also allows for the hippocampus to review and encode recent knowledge to memory. Third, if you include movement, such as jumping jacks, or even simple stretching, brain breaks can help move oxygen more effectively to our brain. Oxygen is vital to an active brain, 90% of the oxygen in our brain and body is stale until we take a deep breath or get up to move our bodies. You can use a brain break to shift your mood, depending on what activity you choose. Activities that promote our happy hormones (dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin, etc.) include stretching, laughing, listening to music, and meditation. So if you’re feeling “off” or frustrated, try one of these to shift your mood, and return to your tasks with a more positive feel.
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