Listen To Your Body Rhythms And Take A Break

Posted on February 15th, 2012

Photo courtesy of BananaStock

You have probably heard that your body has rhythms. Perhaps you even know what circadian rhythm is and that it changes depending on your environment. But have you heard about ultradian rhythms? Probably not, but you have most certainly felt them. Ultradian rhythms are responsible for your productivity, attention, memory, stress, health, and much more. Unfortunately very few people know about ultradian rhythms. Not being aware of these rhythms can lead to psychological and physical problems.

Body rhythms

  • Infradian rhythms - regular, repeating pattern with a cycle which is longer than 24 hours, for example, the monthly menstrual cycle 1.

  • Circadian rhythms - often referred to as body clock and has roughly 24-hour cycle. This rhythm is adjusted by environmental cues such as daylight. For example, when you travel to a different time zone, your body clock adjusts to the new environment after a few days.

  • Ultradian rhythms - recurrent period or cycles repeated throughout the day.

What are ultradian rhythms?

Ultradian rhythms are natural body cycles that occur throughout the day every 90-120 minutes. Dr. Ernest Lawrence Rossi, a psychology researcher introduced the concept of ultradian rhythms, or biological cycles of rest and activity that regulate physical and mental health. Approximately every 90-120 minutes, the mind and body give us clues signaling the need for rest and change in physical and mental activity. Ignoring these signals may lead to fatigue, stress, and ultimately physical (psychosomatic) illness.

Ultradian rhythms signals

Think about your typical day, are you able to stay productive, focused, and energized all the time? I am sure that you can recall moments from your day when your concentration decreased, your productivity vanished, and your mind began to wonder while you felt like stretching or taking a break. If you have been sitting or concentrating longer than 90-120 minutes (depending on your rhythm) you will begin to experience signals sent by your body telling you that you need to take a break. Think if any of these ultradian rhythm signals seem familiar to you:

  • Sharp drop in concentration, performance, and productivity.
  • You feel like you need to stretch, move around, or just take a break.
  • You begin to yawn and lose your concentration.
  • Your mind becomes distracted with fantasies or daydreaming.
  • Physical discomfort expressed through tension or fatigue.
  • You start browsing websites, check Facebook and Twitter instead of doing work.
  • You begin to make careless errors in spelling, typing, or counting.
  • You begin to forget things or frequently experience “on the tip of your tongue effect”
  • You need to urinate.

Unfortunately most people do not recognize any of these signals as something that they need to take care of and continue their work. In my experience, the feeling that I need to urinate or that my lower back hurts too much is one of the strongest signals telling me that I need to take a break.

Ultradian rhythms are usually unnoticed and yet people talk about them all the time. Here are some popular posts related to ultradian rhythms without mentioning these rhythms directly.

What happens when you override your natural rhythm

Urgent and important tasks can easily override natural mind-body rhythms. A simple email or a phone call can shift your attention away from your body’s signals. Ultradian rhythms are flexible and adaptable to real world demands. However, this adaptability comes at a price of stress. The more we ignore our rhythms and continue to work without taking a break, the more likely we are to experience stressful effects.

When you ignore your natural body rhythms, your body releases stress hormones, which give you an energetic boost. You feel more alert and enthused. You may even feel good, excited, or intent for a short period of time because your fatigue and pain are masked by your body’s natural opiates (beta-endorphins).

When the adrenaline runs out and your body decreases resilience, your body begins to cry for help because it needs to replenish and rebalance itself. If you still continue to ignore your body’s signals, you might begin to experience the ultradian stress syndrome. Symptoms of ultradian stress syndrome include: laziness, manic or selfish behavior, anger flashes, short-temper, irritability, tension and hostility.

When people continuously ignore their body rhythms during the day, three outcomes can happen:

  • Need for artificial stimulants such as caffeine, nicotine, or alcohol.
  • Fatigue that makes you tired and sleepy (often occurs during studying).
  • Irritation, discomfort, stress, anger, and frustration.

At work when people begin to lose concentration they get up to drink a cup of coffee or they go for a smoke. I am not so sure that it is the nicotine that makes people feel better as much as it is a short break that they take from their work.

In the library you can often see people shifting their attention and eventually putting their head on the table and taking a nap. I often write my work in the library and I see people ignoring their ultradian rhythms all the time. People begin to lose their attention, they start stretching for a few seconds and then they force themselves to continue their work. It takes a few attempts for the “mind-body mechanism” to disconnect a person from their work and put him or her to sleep.

Prolonged experience of ultradian stress syndrome can lead to poor performance, bad memory, poor learning, emotional problems, psychosomatic illnesses, and even depression 2. In a nutshell, ignoring your ultradian rhythms leads to stress, and prolonged stress (distress) leads to psychological and physical problems.

How to take care of your ultradian rhythms

Ultradian rhythm is your mind-body’s signal to take break. This break can last from 10 to 20 minutes and can lead to renewed energy and improved performance.

1. Recognize the signals

Accept the fact that you need to take a break and rest every 90-120 minutes. It is only natural to listen to your rhythms and allow yourself a 10-20 minute break. Pay attention to your mental and physical signals. If you think that you are losing your concentration, you begin to check random websites, you feel like your energy is gone or you feel discomfort in your body, stop whatever you are doing, stand up, take a few steps away from your desk, and stand still for a moment. It is important to understand that this is not something that you have to do but rather something that you want to do.

2. Listen to yourself

Close your eyes and take a few deep breaths. Allow yourself to slip into a light state of relaxation and just enjoy the moment. Take a minute or two and just relax. Now, allow yourself to wonder and think of anything that your mind wants to think about. Do not analyze your thoughts even if you’ll begin to think about pink elephants. Just allow your mind to wonder in any direction.

The same rule applies to your body. Relax and allow your body to do whatever it feels life doing. If you feel like stretching, doing squats, walking, jumping, crying, laughing, doing pushups, lying down, rocking back and forth or just sitting down, then just do it without questioning your body. “There is more wisdom in your body than in your deepest philosophy.” - Friedrich Nietzsche.

Allow yourself to daydream, move any way you feel like moving or think about anything that you want to think about. Just let it happen. When you listen to yourself and you get out of the way, your self-regulation mechanism kicks in and you activate a healing response. Give yourself 10-20 minutes of relaxation. Your thoughts and your body motivation during your ultradian healing response can be different every time you take a break. Allow your unconscious mind to guide your thoughts and body movement, because it knows what you need the most in the moment.

3. Rejuvenation and Awakening

During the last few minutes of your ultradian healing response, feel the natural awaking, serenity and clarity. Once you open your eyes, you will be much more alert and energized.

Important notes

  • There may be a time during your break when you’ll feel like taking a nap. If you can, do it. Do not force yourself to do anything during your break unless you really feel like it.

  • To begin with, you can use a timer on your computer or a cell phone to remind yourself that you need to take a break. I use BreakTime for Mac to remind myself that I need to take a break. Sometimes I let the software remind me and sometimes I take a break myself.

Benefits of following your ultradian rhythms

I have practiced listening to my ultradian rhythms for more than 3 years. A simple break at the right time keeps me productive and energized throughout the day. When I feel an ultradian rhythm signal, I usually get up, close my eyes and listen to myself. Often my body tells me to stretch, do squats or just move. This is normal because I sit a lot while I am writing or reading.

By tuning into my natural body rhythms, I have been able to maintain good mental and physical health, higher productivity, reduced stress, and improve my well-being. If you would like to also learn more about tuning into your unconscious wisdom and working with your body, you can read more about mindfulness-based self regulation.

Visual Summary

Click on image to enlarge

Body Rhythms

Ultradian Rhythms

Take a Break Signals

Overriding Ultradian Break

Ultradian Stress Syndrome

Ultradian Healing Response

Daily Energy Cycle

  1. Bentley, E. (1999). Awareness: biorhythms, sleep, and dreaming. London: Routledge. 

  2. Rossi, E. L., & Nimmons, D. (1991). The 20-minute break: reduce stress, maximize performance, and improve health and emotional well-being using the new science of ultradian rhythms. Los Angeles: J.P. Tarcher. 

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