The 5-Minute Habit to Switch Your Brain From ‘Work Mode’ to ‘Relax Mode’

By Jessica Migala July 12, 2021

Millennial woman relaxing after a hard day's work

Learning how to properly shut down after a hard day’s work can set you up for success in the long term.

Image Credit: fizkes/iStock/GettyImages

It’s tough to turn off at the end of the day.

You’re ready to be done, but still buzzing from the cascade of emails that didn’t seem to end, the Zoom calls (that could’ve been an email) and to-dos that never had a chance of getting done.

Just like you cool down with a swift walk or some stretching post-workout, you can cool down after your day to switch from work mode to relax mode. How? With a quick deep breathing exercise.

“Taking a few minutes to breathe gives a signal to your brain that there’s a boundary to your day and a transition that’s going to happen,” Cynthia Ackrill, MD, a stress management expert who uses breathing techniques during workshops and client coaching, tells LIVESTRONG.com.

“Unless you give your brain a cue, it can be nearly impossible for some people to unwind.”

How Deep Breathing Works to Transition Your Mind

First, telling yourself to stop and breathe “mentally gives you permission to close up shop,” Dr. Ackrill says. These cues are what your brain thrives on. But doing so has physical benefits, too.

If you’re sitting at your desk right now, it’s possible that you’re taking shallow breaths through your chest (meaning your belly barely moves when you inhale and exhale.)

Deep breathing, however, tells your body to chill. “Breathing evokes your body’s relaxation response — the antithesis of the stress response — and allows you to reboot and recharge,” Dr. Ackrill says.

They key is to make exhales longer than the inhale, or to take long, slow breaths — both techniques that trigger the parasympathetic nervous system, aka your relaxation response, she says.

These actions can slow your heart rate, lower your blood pressure and tells your body that everything is alright. That provides a feedback loop that then tells your brain there’s no danger. (Obviously, you’re not running from a saber-toothed tiger, but in modern days, that inbox can feel like a threat.)

The Step-By-Step Guide to Switch from ‘Work Mode’ to ‘Relax Mode’

Here’s how to make it work for you.

1. Put a Cap on Your Day

There are a lot of reasons you might struggle to close out on the day:You might have to work again later. Or, maybe you’re afraid of forgetting the things that didn’t get done.

“Closing the day can be enormously powerful. Take a few minutes to capture what you’ll need to remember so that you can leave it behind,” Dr. Ackrill says.

Jot down these things on a sheet of paper to leave on the top of your desk or use the Notes app on your phone. When thoughts are out on paper (or your phone), your brain doesn’t have to work overtime holding it in your memory.

And, as an added bonus, these neatly organized to-dos will make tomorrow morning feel a lot less hectic.

2. Plan Out Where You’ll Breathe

On the way home from work, one of Dr. Ackrill’s clients would park one block away from their house to breathe. Others have stopped at a park to let nature help calm them down.

If you WFH, you might want to go into another room to take the break or take a quick walk around your backyard.

Have kids? It’s up to you whether or not you take this time alone or get them in on the action.

“Some people make this a family ritual where you lay down on the floor with a book on your stomach and see who can make the book rise by breathing,” Dr. Ackrill says. The best choice is what feels most comfortable for you and your lifestyle.

Try to fit in one to five minutes of breathing, depending on what you need.

(Sometimes, five minutes can feel like a chore. This is meant to be something that actively helps you, and to be something you look forward to.)

How you choose to breathe is up to you — and there are plenty of options. There are many different types of breaths you can take for stress relief. To explore breathing exercises, try the Breathwrk app, available on the App Store.

Try Coherent Breath

One of Dr. Ackrill’s favorite stress-relieving breaths is called the Coherent Breath.

To do it, you inhale for a count of six and then exhale for a count of six. (Make sure your belly expands on the inhale and comes back in on the exhale.) In total, you will take about five breaths for that minute, which is pretty slow.

Not everyone will be comfortable with those long breaths, she says, so you can take soft belly breaths instead. “Simply sit down, put one hand on your lower belly and breathe so that your hand rises on the inhale and falls on the exhale,” Dr. Ackrill says. Remember to make the exhale longer than the inhale.

Try to use this time as an opportunity to check in with yourself. Ask yourself: ​How am I doing right now? What do I need?

You can let that set the tone for the rest of the evening to really dial into your mental and physical needs. “When people learn these breathing exercises in my workshops they say ​wow, I really feel different​,” Dr. Ackrill says.

Here’s to starting the night off right.

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