All my life, I’ve operated under two modes: “On” like the Energizer Bunny, or “off” and asleep. I knew no in-between.
I understood, in theory, that everyone needed breaks. Breaks are good and necessary. So I tried to take breaks, and genuinely believed that I took them. Except I’d been wrong all along. I recently learned that stopping an intense task to do a different one just as intensely does not constitute a break.
What even is a break? Ten minutes? Fifteen minutes? Or can it be two minutes? How many breaks a day are okay? Does watching YouTube count as a break? Does my mind need to be “off” for a break to count as a break? I was stumped.
I asked Google. I looked up research literature on breaks. In therapy, I explored how breaks might help my ADHD brain feel less exhausted – physically and mentally – and strategies that might help me actually take them.
Yet I kept ignoring the alarms I’d set to start my break, or I’d get to the sofa, only to watch some intense, thought-provoking YouTube video. I instituted a “No-YouTube rule,” only to find myself reading some intriguing online article or forgetting about the rule and watching YouTube again.
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I thought I couldn’t get myself to take breaks because I didn’t need them, despite the fact that I was so exhausted in the evenings that brushing my teeth became a struggle.
Mental Exhaustion and Headaches: The Consequences of Not Taking Breaks
The turning point came when my doctor asked me about the headaches I had apparently reported frequently having on some mental health inventory update.
“Huh?” Do I get headaches? What counts as a headache? Is it that feeling I get when I hyperfocus too long, and my head feels pressurized like it’s filled with TV static? Had I been so desperate to keep my mind occupied and avoid the visceral pain of boredom that I never realized it caused me headaches? “Yeah, I guess I get headaches a lot,” I said.
A few weeks later, when I noticed I had a headache, I went all-out. I would do nothing except lay on the sofa and notice whatever happened inside me. I wanted to see if my headache would subside.
[Read: How To Slow Down Your Racing ADHD Brain]
For the first 10 minutes, buzzing thoughts ricocheted in my mind like pinballs, and my leg muscles were so tense I felt like I was about to run a race. Twenty minutes in, my quad muscles twitched and released. After 30 minutes, I could finally take a full, deep breath and realized that my headache was gone. Not only could I think again, but I felt ready and excited to do my next thing.
I was horrified and relieved. Horrified because this properly restful break took half an hour of marinating in my internal chaos. (I can barely tolerate waiting for a red traffic light to turn green, so 30 minutes of waiting is excruciating.) Relieved by this more precise definition of a break: a headache signals break time, and its dissipation means my break can end. I finally had proof that I am not a robot with only an on-off switch. I am a human who needs rest beyond nightly sleep to be my best.
It’s not just human beings who need breaks, of course. Even machines need them. Last summer, my partner and I visited Mount Washington in New Hampshire. On the drive down from the summit, signs warned us to stop frequently so our car’s brakes wouldn’t burn. My partner, a thrill-seeker and avid sim racer, shrugged off my concern when we skipped a turnout. When we did stop at the next parking area, our red Toyota Corolla was emitting visible heat waves and melting-rubber fumes. Before I had the chance to get angry about not stopping earlier, a silver Honda wagon screeched to a halt ahead of us, dark gray smoke rising out of its tires. The stench of burning rubber hit our noses.
The consequence of not taking a break wasn’t lost on me. After doing too much, too fast, for too long, I could be that car. Just as the car’s driver could have prevented this by taking a break earlier, I ultimately have the choice to take breaks in my own life. The smoking car proved to me that breaks are worth taking.
I Need a Break, No Matter How Much I Avoid It
Don’t get me wrong: I still resist taking breaks and don’t particularly enjoy them. Getting myself to stop a task is like ripping Velcro apart, and my mind’s always making up new excuses to avoid slowing down. But that’s okay. Elite race-car drivers travel at mind-boggling speeds and have a team ready to repair the vehicle, so they don’t wipe out on the track.
My partner likens my ADHD’s speed and intensity to ’90s race-cars, with powerful engines and terrible brakes. My system is bound to overheat and needs to cool down somehow. I’m learning that I can choose how I want to cool down. I’ll take the discomfort of regular, adequate breaks over crashing into bed out of sheer exhaustion every night. If I give myself the breaks I need to recharge the energy my ADHD saps, I can do more of the awesome things I dream of doing without the danger of smoke and burning rubber.
‘I Need a Break’ and Mental Exhaustion: Next Steps
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