By understanding the science of the breakout, we can begin to master the art of it. Benson offers three rules. One: No struggle, no breakout. If a bath triggered your best eureka moment, you might suppose more life-changing insights will flow from more time in the tub, and then wonder why nothing happens. "Unless you've worked and struggled, backing off is not effective," Benson says. In creative work, the struggle is staring at that blank page or canvas; in a job project, it's arduous research and analysis; in sports or music, it's practice, practice, practice. Sometimes life pitches us into the struggle phase with an illness, a loved one's death, a job layoff, or a relationship crisis.
Two important things go on inside us during the struggle phase, according to Benson. One is a flurry of brain activity, strongest in the left or "thinking brain," the center of logical, linear, verbal reasoning. The other is the release of stress hormones, which increase our heart rate, blood pressure, and, in Benson's words, our "alertness" and "edge."
Up to a point, stress helps us think, cope, and work better. But beyond that point, it starts to tear us apart. The second rule is: Know when to quit struggling. In 1908, Benson writes, two Harvard researchers, Robert M. Yerkes and John D. Dodson, proved that increasing stress first improves and then impairs performance. The key to the breakout is knowing not only how to back off, but when.
If you keep pushing yourself when you feel stuck, stress hormones start to swamp your system, and your primitive brain (the deep core that drives your most basic life functions and rawest emotions) goes into overdrive. Warning signs may include recycling the same idea over and over, anxiety, fearfulness, anger, a tendency to cry, frustration, boredom, forgetfulness, a creative block, or symptoms like headaches, backaches, or insomnia, Benson says. Push on and you may harm your health. Instead "say to yourself, I've done everything possible." And then follow the third rule: Pull the breakout trigger. Watch your breath. Watch a ball game. Volunteer at a soup kitchen. Float in a swimming pool. Laugh yourself silly. Beat a drum. Stroke your pet. Listen to Mozart. Wash dishes. Hike a trail. Use the 12-step slogan "Let go and let God." There are countless ways to "sever completely your previous train of thoughts and emotions," the crucial mechanism of a breakout trigger, according to Benson. Physical or mental repetition helps, as does adapting a que sera sera attitude, in which you relinquish control. One simple powerful way to activate a breakout is with the "relaxation response".
Next: How to trigger a breakout
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