You're searching for an answer, an insight. Then it startles you: Bang! Annie Gottlieb reports on Dr. Herbert Benson's electrifying concept.
I didn't know how to begin this article.
I'd read the book The Breakout Principle (Scribner), by Herbert Benson, MD, and William Proctor, about maximizing performance and creativity. Then I'd interviewed Benson, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School and the author of several books on mind and wellness, most notably the mega best-seller The Relaxation Response (Wings).
After a few hours of trying different beginnings, I gave up and started trudging home from my office. About halfway there, it hit me: the lead, that crucial first sentence. Benson would say I'd just experienced a "breakout," a phenomenon as mysterious—until now—as it is familiar: You're striving toward a goal at work, in a relationship, in therapy, or at the gym, and you hit a wall. You're stuck, frustrated, and exhausted. Finally, you just let go. You turn to something completely different, perhaps something soothingly mindless and repetitive. "It could be as simple as putting on your makeup or brushing your hair," Benson says. "With me, it's sometimes shaving." And suddenly the answer is there. Your mind is flooded with insights and solutions, your body with the energy and grace that athletes call the zone.
That's a breakout, the term Benson has coined for a universal pattern of human functioning that powers our great leaps forward in every area of life. After such a leap, you don't slide back to where you were before. Every breakout you've ever had has lifted you, a millimeter or a mile, to a higher, freer plane. It's how we grow—not in one smooth arc, but in bursts that Benson diagrams as STRUGGLE > RELEASE > BREAKOUT > IMPROVED "NEW NORMAL."
Once we understand this process, Benson says, we can learn to help it happen. "Think back on it, and you'll find a certain set of behaviors you go through when you're stuck," he says. Whether it's a formal practice like yoga or a comfy space-out like knitting or folding laundry, he says, "you must get your mind completely off what you were struggling with."
Benson, who is also the founding president of Mind/Body Medical Institute in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, calls this "pulling the breakout trigger." In collaboration with neuroscientists and using new imaging technology, he's been researching what happens in the brain when you do it.
Next: What they discovered
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
There's a subtle knack to achieving the optimal mental state. "Try too hard and you'll lose the trigger," Benson says. "You can't make it happen; you have to allow it to happen. You go into a reverie, and then the mind, relieved of pressure, rearranges itself." And so does the brain. Based on the latest research, Benson and his colleagues suspect that it's the gas nitric oxide, released by a specialized (and only recently discovered) network of nerves, that shuts off stress hormones, turns on feel-good neurotransmitters like endorphins, and smooths the troubled waters of the struggle phase. (Nitrous oxide is also the secret of Viagra—and, ironically for a substance that seems to shout "yes!" its chemical formula is NO.)
Imaging studies of the brain during deep meditation and creative activity show the usual jagged, left-brain busyness giving way to what scientists call coherence, a serene synchronization of the logical left brain with the intuitive right and of the sophisticated neocortex with the primitive core.
What Benson believes he has seen on brain scans is what the ancients called vis medicatrix naturae, or "the natural healing capacity within us." With their power to alchemize stress into bliss, he says, breakouts are good for your health. With their power to deliver revelations and dissolve problems, they're good for your life. Faced with a crossroads or crisis, instead of knocking yourself out, you can trust this natural brain mechanism to come to your rescue. You've got to lay the groundwork, Benson emphasizes, but then you can choose to let go...and let NO.
A Simple Breakout Trigger
When active efforts at problem solving have taken you as far as they can, try invoking the "relaxation response," a simple way to open yourself to an exhilarating breakout. Benson's technique: Sit comfortably in a quiet place. Choose a word or a sound or a prayerful phrase that has positive meaning for you (peace, one, love). Close your eyes and breathe regularly. On each exhalation, silently repeat your words or sounds. If your mind wanders, don't fight it or feel you've failed. Just think, Oh, well, and gently return to your repetition. After 10 to 20 minutes, open your eyes, sit quietly, and let everyday thoughts seep back into your awareness. You've primed your brain for a flash of creative insight.