Most us have heard about the supposed benefits of “unplugging” on vacation. Ever since email and electronic devices began virtually tying workers to the office even during their time off, countless studies and articles have been published urging people to actually power off when on holiday.
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But what actually happens to your brain when you power down your phone and forget about your inbox?
Studies have shown that people engage in deeper, more meaningful conversations in the absence of mobile devices. Even when people aren’t actively checking them, the mere awareness that their smartphone is turned on and close by leads to distracted, lower-quality interactions, the evidence suggests.
That’s because if you’re even wondering about what might be happening on your phone – even if you don’t look – your brain is multi-tasking. The reason why we have better conversations when the phone is turned off is that we are most efficient when we are focused on one thing at a time, according to Dr. Shimi Kang, a Vancouver-based psychiatrist and frequent speaker on the subject of workplace and mental health.
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“Devoting your full attention to something is like meditation,” she added. This, in turn, activates your prefrontal cortex.
Three main things happen to a brain in a meditative state, according to Dr. Rebecca Gladding, a Hawaii-based psychiatrist.
First, there’s a withering of the connection between the body’s sensation and fear centres and the area of the prefrontal cortex that is involved in processing information related to you and people you perceive as being similar to you. This decreases your tendency to think that something is wrong and that you are problem. As a result, anxiety levels tend to go down.
Second, meditation helps form a stronger link between your sensory centres and the area of the prefrontal cortex that allows you to “look at things from a more rational, logical and balanced perspective,” according to Gladding.
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Third, the brain also forms a stronger bond between your bodily sensations and the part of the prefrontal cortex that processes information about people who you see as different from you, which boosts your ability for empathy and for evaluating situations from someone else’s perspective.
Allow your brain to wander and you’ll be rewarded with greater problem-solving abilities, better ideas, and, potentially, important breakthroughs, said Kang.
Meditation also turns on “your moral compass,” which improves your people skills, another key professional asset.
That’s why sitting by the pool fully engrossed in a new novel will yield much higher returns in terms of future mental prowess when you return to your job than if you were checking your phone every few pages, she added.
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How to maximize the benefits of vacation on your brain
So what does the perfect vacation look like from your brain’s point of view?
As Kang put it, it should be a mix of “relaxed wakefulness” – that state of meditative bliss that generally requires being unplugged – and “play,” which occurs when the brain is engaged in some fun, new activity.
Here’s how to do it:
Relaxed wakefulness is that state of meditative bliss that generally requires being unplugged.
Keeping your phone in a drawer in your hotel is not enough, said Kang. It should be shut off. Better yet, left at home.
If you really can’t forget about your office email for the duration of your vacation, set aside a certain time of day to take care of business. Do not allow yourself to check your mobile devices outside those hours.
While you’re away, you should forget about your life on social media, too, said Kang.
Studies have shown that heavy users of social media have a higher risk of depression, she noted.
“The last thing you want to do is log onto Facebook and feel bad because someone has uploaded pictures of their vacation that looks better than yours.”
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Get your brain to do something new
A brain on vacation needs time to meditate but will also benefit from novelty. That’s a great way of getting rid of the kind of tunnel vision that a tired mind can develop after a year of going through work tasks and family routine, even if your job isn’t that repetitive.
Your mind needs variety to recalibrate and dig new neuropathways that will freshen and broaden your perspective.
“Your brain responds to novelty, it’s one of the ingredients of neuroplasticity,” said Kang.
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This may mean something as simple as picking up a book when all you’ve had time for during the year were newspaper articles and work-related reports. Or it could be trying a new activity, such as water skying or diving.
Visiting a new part of the world also offers a number of new stimuli, although you should be careful about not packing your schedule too full and making sure that figuring out the basics of how to get around doesn’t become, in an of itself, an exhausting task, said Kang.
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Sleep, eat and drink
Your brain will also be grateful if you take care of your body, said Kang.
“Sleep a lot and take plenty of naps, if you need to.”
Also, maintain a healthy diet and stay hydrated.
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Plan for it
Making the most of your vacation requires some careful planning.
“Write a really clear out of office email, with the contact information of colleagues people can turn to when you’re away, as well as the phone number of your hotel,” said Kang.
Others are very unlikely to go to the trouble of actually ringing up your hotel, unless it is a true emergency, she noted. This affords you the peace of mind of knowing that you can be reached in case of need and that everything else you’re missing out on wasn’t all that important.
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If you’re worried about the workload that will hit you when your return, try to work ahead as much as possible to ensure a soft landing back at the office.
Finally, when planning your vacation, make sure to balance activities with “time for doing nothing,” said Kang.
And now that you’ve read this, turn off your phone and go put your feet up.