The 20 Minute Ultradian Healing Response

An Interview with Ernest Lawrence Rossi, Ph.D.

Updated on January 2, 2000 & June 11, 2002

1. What are Ultradians? What is the Ultradian Stress Syndrome and what is the Ultradian Healing Response?

A: Everyone knows that being your best in work, play and general health requires that you are well rested. What is really new and exciting in current research is to learn that nature has built a natural rhythm of activity and rest in all of us that runs for about an hour and a half or so throughout the day- we call it an Ultradian Rhythm because it takes place many times a day. That's all ultradian means - A rhythm taking place many times a day.

In my book The 20 Minute Break I tell you how to recognize your natural rhythms so you can avoid stress and learn how to maximize your performance and health.

The basic idea is that every hour and a half or so you need to take a rest break - if you don't you may be well on your way to the Ultradian Stress Syndrome: you get tired and lose your mental focus, you tend to make mistakes, get irritable and have accidents - If you continue to ignore your need to take a break you can experience more and more stress until you actually get sick.

When you learn how to recognize your need to take a 20 minute break you can convert your stress into what I call The Ultradian Healing Response - Its that wonderful feeling of comfort and well being that you naturally have when you are tired but let yourself have the freedom to take well deserved rest.

2. What does a 20 minute break have to do with stress and health?

There is an entirely new way of understanding what stress actually is! Stress is nature's signal that we are getting too high on our stress hormones (eg. cortisol, adrenaline) and be need to take a healing break. If we don't we fall into the many psychosomatic symptoms of the ultradian stress response.

Taking a 20 minute healing break allows your mind and body to recover - it more than just a luxury to feel good! Your mind and body needs a chance to build up its internal supplies of available energy -to clear up the backlog of unfinished business and gear up for another hour and a half of good work, play and health. The Ultradian Healing Response allows you to optimize your health as well as your performance and creativity.

3. How does taking a 20 minute break prevent accidents?

This is one of the most dramatic things we have learned in recent years! Most accidents are due to Human Error." Most human error is due to fatigue - not getting enough sleep at night or not taking appropriate ultradian breaks throughout the day! In The 20 Minute Break I discuss many of the great catastrophes of our time - THREE MILE ISLAND, CHERNOBAL, UNION CARBIDE EXPLOSION IN BHOPAL, INDIA. Most human error accidents by airplane pilots, train engineers, truck drivers and you and I are due to a lack of attention - essentially a state of ultradian stress and fatigue. Knowing when to take a 20 minute break can restore us all to optimal mental attention so that we can pay attention to the road!

4. How does a 20 minute break improve creativity and performance?

Many really creative people throughout history - Leonardo da Vinci, Thomas Edison - have noted how their best inspirations seem to come after they have made a great conscious effort to solve a problem and then taken a break when they were initially frustrated with failure. Then after taking a break for a while - lo and behold - the new creative idea seems to pop into their conscious mind all by itself. Taking a 20 Minute Ultradian Break allowed their inner creative mind to work out the answer without outside interference. Empty barrels make the most noise! If you are continually out there beating the drum of all the things you are supposed to do -when will your inner creative mind have a chance to find something new? In my book The 20 Minute Break I discuss many simple ways you can optimize your creativity by recognizing those quiet periods throughout the day when nature is calling you to take a break so it can do the really creative things we all need to live a happy and healthy and productive life.

5. How does the U.S. Armed Services use the 20 minute break?

Some of the best and most interesting research in this area has been done by the U.S. Army Department of Behavioral Biology at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in Washington. They were concerned with the HUMAN ERROR factor on all levels of performance skill ranging from radio and computer operators to pilots. They found that letting people have appropriate rest - particularly an ultradian break every hour and a half or so dramatically reduced errors, accidents and stress related disorders.

The most dramatic story I've read about recently was a quote by a French officer who reported that during one period of the war in Kuwait soldiers armed with nothing more than a bayonet to probe the sand ahead of them for land mines would spend only 20 minutes at it - that was as long as they could maintain optimal mental alertness and concentration when their lives depended on it!

6. What does all this have to do with our addictive society?

This is the most tragic story of our current society. When we do not get adequate rest - we try to stimulate ourselves artificially with all the illegal drugs.

The most amazing thing we have learned about all sorts of addictive substances is that they imitate our mind and bodies natural hormones and messenger molecules to turn us on or off. Many additive drugs replace the very same hormones and messengers that are naturally turn on and off during our ultradian peak performance and rest periods.

We turn to addictive drugs because we have forgotten how to listen to our natural mind and body signal for maximizing top performance as well as rest.

Once we begin to use addictive drugs, however, we are destroying ourselves - burning ourselves out - burning the candle at both ends!

In The 20 Minute Break I show how most people in 12 step recovery programs can learn how to recognize when their personal ultradian stress response is building up to dangerous levels. They can learn how to convert the stress into healing.

Addicts need to recognize their own unique mind-body signals for ultradian stress and healing to reinforce the social and spiritual support they get from most 12 step programs.

7. How can taking a 20 minute or a nap help senior citizens?

We have recently learned that people tend to lose their natural rhythms as they get older. This is called "Amplitude dysrhythmia." They can't seem to get up enough energy to do the things they want to do.

Taking a nap in the afternoon can help some senior citizens get the benefits of growth hormone that is released after about an hour of sleep. Recent research indicates that some seniors can shave 20 years off their age.

But its not just taking a nap - seniors also need to do some vigorous aerobic exercise regularly to reach their daily peak by optomizing their mind-body rhythms.

The same is true -by the way - of people who are depressed. They are often suffering from being out of sync with their rhythms. An optimal amount of aerobic exercise to push up their rhythm peaks as well as taking an ultradian healing response at appropriate times throughout the day can help.

8. What does all this have to do with sex?

Foreplay - Foreplay - Foreplay!

Everyone knows that all the sex manuals advise a period of foreplay so that partners can get in the right mood for lovemaking. Now we know why. Most people need at least about fifteen or twenty minutes to turn on sexually.

For some time we have know that when you are asleep you dream every hour and a half or so. Both men a women experience a period of sexual arousal at this time - its most evident in men because they get an obvious penis erection. We now know this same ultradian rhythm continues in the daytime - if we are sensitive to ourselves we may feel a mild sexual arousal every few hours through out the day. When you relax and set a good mood with your partner you can actually turn on this sexual arousal with each other in what we tradionally call foreplay.

Think about the classical All-American date for a moment. Jack and Jill come home from work to their respective homes, shower and prepare to meet each other for dinner. With that simple act of sitting down to have a meal together they are taking the first step to getting their mind and bodies in psychobiological synchronization. Actually much more than their digestive systems are coming into rapport. A broad symphony of mindbody harmony develops on all levels from mind and hormones all the way down to the genetic level. The next thing they do is go to a movie, theater, music, art or whatever. These mutual social activities, providing all goes well, tend to breing them into greater mindbody harmony so nature can prepare them for the more serious things in life like raising a family. Yes, believe it or not, that is what a date is supposed to be all about: its an opportunity for a potential couple to explore the possibilities of creating a safe, well coordinated mindbody synchronization for a life together.

9. How can a 20 minute break help personal relationships, family?

Picture the typical American family these days - the way they are split up each in a different place of work, school, freeways -all going in different directions. When one family member is up another may be down - their rhythms are out of sync - so naturally they can easily become irritated with each other.

How do they manage to get together again at the end of the day? In The 20 Minute Break I outline many way people can get in synchrony with each other. Simply having a quiet meal together, for example, is an ideal way families can get their rhythms in synchrony - its not just sitting there shoveling in food - its a time for mind-body harmony to develop.

A crying irritated child is often feeling out of touch - out of synchrony with the family - the homespun virtues of sitting in a rocking chair hugging and humming or singing together can do child and parent a world of good by helping them literally get in touch with each other. Happy is the family that can create ever new ways of working and playing together to create a meaningful and secure life style.

10. How can a 20 minute ultradian help with self esteem?

A lack of self esteem usually comes from repeated failures. We often fail because we are tired and stressed - we don't know how to be our best! By taking a rejuvenating 20 minute ultradian break at those times of the day when your feeling tired, depressed and lacking in self-esteem, you are giving your mind and body a chance to catch up with itself.

When you are alert and refreshed from an ultradian healing response you are better able to do a good job and feel better about yourself. That's a real foundation for building your self-esteem and warding off the depression of failure. In The 20 Minute Break I discuss many ways people can learn how to pace themselves through out the day so they can continually be at their best.

11. How can a 20 minute break relieve depression, anxiety and psychosomatic symptoms?

One of the most exciting research development suggests that many stress related problems like depression, anxiety and psychosomatic symptoms such as headaches, hypertension, pain, ulcers and so forth are all related to people being out of synch with themselves and the world around them.

By learning to recognize the tell-tale signs of The Ultradian Stress Syndrome people can avoid abusing themselves. They can learn to convert ultradian stress into ultradian healing. You can learn how to change stress into healing so that many psychosomatic problems seem to disappear like magic. You can learn how to take good care of yourself without depending on pain killing pills or worse.

12. What does this have to do with the ultradian diet? Can I really lose weight on this 20 minute break plan?

Picture the average tired, hungry and overweight person raiding the refrigerator! Some people feel they have to sneak a snack as if they are criminals.

The fact is that we all have a natural hunger rhythm every - hour and a half or so. Ideally we should all have a small meal about 6 times a day instead of overeating three large meals a day.

Having a nutritious 200-300 calories half a dozen times a day followed by a 20 minute ultradian rest period can leave you feeling more satisfied, rested and alert than old-fashioned heavy meals.

In The 20 Minute Break I review the excellent research that documents how this type of ultradian diet can help you control cholesterol as well as lose weight.

This more important than most people realize. Recent research documents, for example, how an appropriate diet with a moderate amount of calorie restriction can actually prolong life with better health. This research was published in Science (August 1999,Vol 285, pages 1390-1393) by a team led by Cheol-Koo Lee at the Institute on Aging at the University of Wisconsin. They found, in essence, that excess calories evoke a stress response at the genetic level. They found at least ten genes associated with stress whose expression profile could be improved with appropriate diet.

13. Business Applications

In the typical 8 hour workday most people can expect to experience 4 or 5 peak periods when they are at their best in making decisions, planning and doing whatever they have to do. It therefore makes no sense for employers to try to get people to be busy every minute of the work day. The idea is to work smarter, not harder. Taking a 20 minute break every couple of hours or so allowing the mindbody to catch up with itself and create the ideas and energy that is needed to optimize the next work period.

Meetings should not last more than 90 min at most. After that everyone is tired and more prone to making errors and getting irritated with each other.

Everyone needs to learn to recognize and respect their own personal rhythms of peak performance and need for healing rest and recovery.

All offices need:

1) a rest room as well as 2) an exercise room or walking place where you can get away from it all for a while; 3) a healthy food place 4) The attitude of working smarter not harder

This is best way to reduce spiraling medical costs related to stress and accidents.

Recent research at Harvard University confirms the importance of naps to maintain optimal human performance throughout the day (Medwick et al., 2002).  The senior author explains the value of naps in this way.  "A nap allows you to go back to your optimal performance level or switch whatever part of the brain you are using," explains Medwick. "A half hour will stabilize performance, but there is much greater benefit from an hour." Medwick hopes to determine the neurological mechanisms that are responsible for sleep-dependent learning as well as those that induce learning during sleep. (Published online: 28 May 2002, doi:10.1038/nn864).  

A scientific summary describes their research.  "Human performance on visual texture discrimination tasks improves slowly (over days) in the absence of additional training. This 'slow learning' requires nocturnal sleep after training and is limited to the region of visual space in which training occurred. Here, we tested human subjects four times in one day and found that with repeated, within-day testing, perceptual thresholds actually increased progressively across the four test sessions. This performance deterioration was prevented either by shifting the target stimuli to an untrained region of visual space or by having the subjects take a mid-day nap between the second and third sessions."

Sara Mednick  , Ken Nakayama, Jose L. Cantero, Mercedes Atienza, Alicia A. Levin, Neha Pathak & Robert Stickgold              
The restorative effect of naps on perceptual deterioration Nature Neuroscience, published online May 28, 2002, doi: 10.1038/nn864).
Correspondence should be addressed to S C Mednick. e-mail:

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