The anti-relaxation movement

Contributing Columnist

Chill out, calm down, chillax.  We hear these messages frequently.  The truth is, most of us don’t care to comply.  In our time, we have seen the rise of the anti-relaxation movement.  Given the choice between lowering tension and increasing arousal and excitation, loads of us  prefer sensory overload to sensual enlargement.

But it’s not just Bill Murray who argues arelaxed state of concentration improves performance and pleasure.  With the exception of athletics – public and personal – hyperarousal may not be all it’s cracked up to be – particularly when it becomes addictive.  For just like night and day, the body is built to cycle – between physical and mental activity, considerable exertion and the passive rest of sleep.  Without rest and restoration, we don’t regenerate – and that means we get ill.  So here are two prominent culprits to consider in the Anti-Relaxation Crusade:

1. Energy drinks and other caffeinated brews. Caffeine, particularly in the form of coffee and related components in tea, can prove rather healthy.  Frequent coffee and tea drinkers expect less long term disability, diabetes and Parkinson’s disease.  Some argue that coffee even prolongs lifespan to frequent imbibers.  Yet such positive data is not there for caffeine in the form of energy drinks. By comparison, tea and coffee contain hundreds of components that may heal as well as harm.

Recently the European Food Safety Administration – the European Union’s version of the FDA – came out with a lengthy report on caffeine.  Using 200 mg per dose of caffeine and 400 mg per day as a “safe” limit – numbers many researchers would really high – they discovered lots of Europeans were taking in sizable doses. Fully a third of Danes, 17% of the Dutch, and 14% of Germans routinely exceeded these “prescribed” limits.

And so did European kids.  Using 3mg/kilogram of body weight as a top measure, at least five percent of kids 10-18 years of age exceeded that level  in 6 out of 16 countries surveyed, in 9 out of 16 countries for those aged 3-10, and in 3 out of ten countries with data for toddlers (1-3 years of age.)  Younger kids got high caffeine does mainly through chocolate drinks.

For many European children, the fast lane starts remarkably early.

What’s the problem with too much caffeine?  Addiction, for one.  The main associated problems usually involve arrhythmias, insomnia,  and anxiety.

Today many adolescents prefer energy drinks – they should be labeled anti-relaxation drinks – to coffee or tea.  Many of these anti-relaxation drugs in a can are merchandised by the biggest food companies in the world.  What these drinks will do to their sleep – and as a result their ability to think, remember, fight off infections, and avoid heart disease – will work itself out over the next decades.  So far the signs are not good. And high reliance on high caffeine dosed drinks can lead to further reliance on sleeping pills, with their increased addictive potential and enlarged numbers for accidents, falls, and overall deaths. Moreover, caffeine is often is used to keep people up so they can enjoy a common anti-relaxation device:

2. Cellphones – Take a kid away from his caffeine and she might grouse about fatigue and fall asleep through the first half of school. Take away that cellphone and you might provoke rebellion, even revolution.

Possessing cheap, portable computers is a great boon.  But like most everything that is useful, there can be too much of a good thing.

It’s not primarily that people now text while they drive, markedly increasing accident and death rates.  The overall negative impact of cellphones may be worst at night – when people need to sleep.

Many adults and greater proportions of adolescents now interrupt rest throughout the night (and day) with textmessages, emails, phone calls, games, and videos. Cellphones arouse in multiple manners.  Not only do they “connect” people with people they care about, but their high levels of light, particularly arousing blue light, make it harder to fall asleep, stay asleep, and sleep deeply.  An American population that used to sleep 8-9 hours is now trying to get by with seven or less, a deficit most pronounced in adolescents, for adolescents need more sleep than adults.  Some of the outcomes of night-time use of cellphones include fatigue; worsened learning; increasing weight; greater irritability; more infections; messed up body clocks with decreasing performance across the board; and greater use of other arousing agents, like caffeine, to compensate.

As the ancients wrote, nothing succeeds like excess.

A society where there are increasing demands for more vacation and rest time often sometimes has a curious way of initiating personal calm.  Many people “off” work or school “relax” by playing video games where they mow down hundreds or thousands of aliens, Nazis orterrorists, or turn to television or movies where heroes violently perform the same.  Even when we try hard to “relax” we often turn to arousing entertainments.

Yet humans are supremely adaptive. We are built to have periods of cyclic activity -– as the Bible writes, a time to reap and a time to sow.  Getting people to take in less than 400 mg of caffeine a day might not be terribly hard – once people get used to looking at food and drink labels.  Chocolate drinks do not need to be a major food group for toddlers and children.  Cellphones are quite happy to snuggle with their chargers during the night, and most adolescents will happily survive eight hours without visiting facebook.

The biggest problem may be underestimating rest.  Biology is very fast.  Stuff gets used up.  Different forms of rest are required to rebuild the system for new challenges and a new day.  Otherwise we don’t last.

An answer may come when people recognize rest – the way we rapidly regenerate our amazing bodies – is positively exciting.  For sheer pleasure and performance, rest can fully compete with hyperarousal.

If you’re calm enough to notice the difference.

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