Need to Know: What Is Brain Rest?
Editor’s note: “Need to Know” is a series inspired by common forum questions and comments from readers. Have a comment or question about MS? Visit our forum. This week’s question is inspired by the post, “Have you learned how to pace yourself?” from April 13, 2019. Have an experience you want to share? Leave a comment here or at the original forum topic.
Many, if not most, of my daily MS symptoms are of the cognitive variety. My brain becomes like a device on a slow network. Signals must take to back channels to get simple tasks done, which affects ordinary activities like speaking, reading, focusing, or listening.
When I’ve had trouble with this traffic jam of slow signals, my neurologist always says, “Go get some brain rest.”
At first, I wasn’t sure what she meant by that. Does she mean “take a nap?” Well, yes, but there’s more to brain rest than sleeping.
What is brain rest?
You don’t typically see prescriptions for brain rest in most situations. One major exception is traumatic brain injury.
If you or a loved one has ever experienced even a mild concussion, what’s the first thing the doctor tells you to do? Rest your brain.
This makes sense when you’ve been in an accident, your head was struck by an external object like a ball, or you suffered trauma from a bad fall. (I did that once. I was ice skating after 20 years of not ice skating, duh! I fell backward, and the back of my head hit the ice so loud it sounded like a strike at the bowling alley. The first thing out of the doctor’s mouth was, “Rest your brain.”)
It seems obvious: Anytime you suffer a head injury, the brain needs rest to heal the damaged tissue. But does brain rest make sense for people with neurological conditions like MS?
Why brain rest for neurological disorders?
Our brains are constantly working, even when we’re unaware of it. Body-wide communication happens without our conscious awareness, such as sweating to cool off, processing liquid wastes, comprehending language, consolidating memories, even sleeping. These functions require uninterrupted neural activity.
When demyelination occurs, and even afterward, the brain will need rest when overtaxed. After all, the brain is considered a “glucose hog.” It burns more glucose than any other organ in the body. Think of brain rest as “filling the tank.”
The MS ‘traffic jam’
Imagine your central nervous system (CNS) as a transportation grid. If some streets become impassible, traffic will seek detours that can take longer, and the ride might be bumpy. Still, the trip will be completed.
In MS, when inflammation occurs, it can exacerbate areas of damage or lead to new “potholes” in the CNS “grid.”
The brain has alternate routes, luckily, but detours are typically slow. Sometimes, too, demyelination only partially obstructs nerves, leading to disrupted signal delivery over damaged axons.
Disease severity and damage location (the brain versus the spinal column, for instance) also dictate the severity of disruptions and where they will occur.
These “traffic jams” are caused by:
- Stress. You’ve heard it many times: “Avoid stress.” Why? Stress causes inflammation and can disrupt function. Chronic stress without relief demands brain rest.
- Overwork. If you do a lot of intellectually challenging work, you can overdo it. Another cause for overwork? Multitasking, or doing too many cognitive tasks at once.
- Overstimulation. If you struggle with energy levels while in crowded environments, it’s because you’re processing sound, noise, temperature, smell, tactile sensations, maybe even taste. Too much and your brain will slow … way … down.
How to achieve brain rest
Try these different ways to rest your brain. It may mean taking only 10 minutes or a longer spell to fully recharge.
- Unplug. Put away all devices with screens or earbuds. Information overload from media of all kinds demands a break.
- Meditate. Empty your mind of constant traffic and chatter. I take walks to achieve this. (Note: Some people don’t find relief while meditating. Sounds like you? Try the next option.)
- Yoga and breathing exercises. If you practice yoga, or at least know how to practice its asanas, this can be its own kind of meditation.
- Reduce sensory stimuli. Environments rife with external sensory stimulation, such as festivals, airports, conferences, and workplaces, tax the brain. Find a quiet place to decompress whenever possible.
- Alone time. Social activities require a lot of energy. My extroverted self has a shelf life. After so much time spent in the company of others, I need to step away to recharge.
- Take a nap. A short nap (less than 30 minutes) provides one of the best opportunities to recover from an overworked brain.
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