In my psychotherapy practice, as well as my own parenting experience, I’ve noticed a common yet difficult-to-articulate mental health concern among mothers. In my office, day after day, mothers of young children describe their exhaustion, their feelings of deep depletion and overwhelm not due to physical, intellectual or emotional fatigue. These women yearn for a reprieve — not necessarily from their work, but from intentional effort. They seek more inward-facing, restorative moments to stop and reflect. I call this type of moment:

A Neuroreflective Pause

Neuroreflection is simply internal processing time, similar to daydreaming. It exists when no output is required – no reacting or strategizing, no interaction, no goal — and is a vital component of the brain’s healthy functioning.

The brain needs time to digest the experiences of the day, without needing to respond.

Mothers are a prime example of those who often have a deficit of neuroreflective time. Taking care of young children requires a type of mental stamina, presence, and reactive effort that challenges the most energetic person. Often, the “breaks” from attending to children’s needs (such as when they nap) become filled with work that requires similar outward focus and concentration, rather than sitting still or zoning out. This further adds to the insufficiency of reflective time.

A Neuroreflective Pause provides a means to step back, consciously, without the need to react or remain present, to anything.

I believe this conscious “off” time is as important as sleep. Without it, we are more prone to react with anger and frustration, feel more irritability and depression, and experience anxiety, physical illness, and relationship turmoil.

So much of early childcare is about outward tasking and monitoring. In our culture of extroversion and immediate gratification, letting the mind wander even for a few seconds often comes with an implicit judgement of laziness. At worst, a moment of zoning out can put children in danger. But it wasn’t always this way. Long before parenting was as isolating as it is now, mothers had community members nearby, helping attend to children, so that the mother herself could take moments to process and reflect.

Neuroreflection occurs when no output demands or expectations exist, when one can either focus inward on thoughts, or “mindlessly” absorb information. Studies have shown that allowing the mind to wander improves many brain functions and maximizes creativity. In a study investigating mindfulness and creativity at the University of California, Santa Barbara, researchers determined that people often come up with their most insightful ideas while performing “an undemanding task that encourages mind wandering.”

The greatest “aha” moments of knowledge synthesis come about when the mind is not required to focus.

Because of the relentless tasking required in our current ideals of parenting, it is extraordinarily challenging for mothers to find such moments.

Do you need more Neuroreflective Pause time in your life? Here are a few tips to help:

-Protect your non-parenting time, such as the time after the children go to bed. Give yourself permission to watch mindless television, or scroll through your Instagram.

-Don’t force sleep, or schedule tasks, including interaction with others, when you need neuroreflective time.

-Instead of using substances to intentionally unwind after work, spend some time consciously “zoning out” — without an objective, and without guilt.

-Explain to your partner that neuroreflective time is essential for your mental health.

-Acknowledge that time off doesn’t always mean you are getting a Neuroreflective Pause if you have another task to accomplish.

-Gain an awareness of when you need a Neuroreflective Pause. Symptoms of deficit include increasing irritability, depression, confusion, emotional outbursts, and a sense of overwhelm.

-Sometimes you can experience neuroreflective time when taking a walk alone, or doing an uninterrupted project.

-See an experienced therapist to process your feelings and learn more tools to help with your mental wellbeing.


A version of this article was originally published at