Radical rest: Are you resting or collapsing?

When was the last time you truly rested? I don’t mean sitting on the sofa watching TV, or even reading a book, but truly deep restorative rest. 

We’re increasingly well educated about how to be healthy. We know how to eat well and how much exercise we need to keep happy and healthy. We know how to get emotional and psychological support when we need it and we have better awareness about looking after our mental health. We also know we need a good amount of sleep to function well. 

But there’s a missing piece of the puzzle. 

One that goes against our culture of productivity, “powering through”, and fitting as much as we can into our days, weeks, and years. 

It’s rest. 

Why do we need rest?

Do you know that feeling of being tired but wired? When your brain is running through a thousand different things, worrying about the future, ruminating over the past, or thinking about your to do list. 

This can be happening when we’re busy doing other things, or when we’re watching TV, or when trying to get to sleep at night. It’s all signalling that your nervous system is in a state of “fight or flight”. 

We weren’t designed this way. Evolution gave our nervous system this capability so we could run from danger in a short sharp burst and then recover, allowing the “rest and digest” part of the nervous system to kick in again until another danger came along. 

These days our nervous systems are constantly on high alert due to stressful and busy lifestyles, as well as social isolation. 

And this is exhausting for our bodies and minds. Our nervous systems need rest in order to be healthy keep us well. When the nervous system is allowed to go into rest and digest mode it can get to work to:

  • Digest food properly so we can get the most nourishment from what we eat. 
  • Direct blood flow to our internal organs. 
  • Slow down our heart rate and lower our blood pressure. 
  • Repair, regenerate and heal. 
  • Support our immune system. 

Are you resting or collapsing?

We might think we’re resting when we sit down for an evening on the sofa and turn the TV on. After all, our bodies aren’t moving and our brains get to “switch off”. It feels like all we can do after a busy, tiring or stressful day. But what’s really happening to our nervous system here? It actually stays switched on in response to the flickering light of the TV screen, the constantly moving picture, the tense or suspenseful storyline, the raised voices, loud laughs or angry facial expressions (depending on what you’re watching). And our bodies, despite not moving much, can continue to carry habitual tension, often in the neck and shoulders.

More often than not, we’re collapsing at the end of the day rather than resting. 

In contrast, when you truly rest, you feel a sense of relief at giving your body, mind, emotions and nervous system the break they so desperately need. It’s lying on your back supported by cushions and under a blanket. It’s practicing a guided Yoga Nidra. It’s being in child pose over a bolster for support, with a blanket over your body to “disappear from the world”. It’s attending a restorative yoga class. It’s that realisation of “oh I really needed this” after a long Savasana at the end of a yoga class. It’s an Epsom salts bath with no distractions or interruptions. 

How can I get more rest?

You don’t need to quit your job and go and live in the mountains in order to support your nervous system. 

Although our society and its expectations make it feel indulgent, we can build in pockets of rest into our day. It can actually feel quite radical to take care of yourself in this way because it is still so much on the periphery of how we define being healthy. It’s counter to all the messages we receive about “doing more”, and “being productive”.

We need to redefine what well-being means and what it means to be productive. We need to prioritise doing less in order that we can do things well and stay healthy. And often by doing less we can actually still do all the things on our to do list but with a calm mind and nervous system instead of all the stress and overwhelm that often accompanies us everywhere. 

So here are some examples of how you could try to build rest into your day and support the “rest and digest” part of your nervous system:

  • Wake up gently and gradually with a daylight lamp and calm music. 
  • When you eat, sit somewhere comfortable, take some deep breaths and eat slowly rather than multi-tasking while you eat. 
  • Take a 5-10 minute break from work to lie on your back or in child pose with bolsters and blankets for support. 
  • Sign up to a restorative yoga class or book in for private yoga tuition. 
  • When you have time and space, prioritise a relaxing bath over powering through the to do list.
  • Practice a guided meditation or Yoga Nidra (Insight app is a good option for this) 

There will be other things you can think of that fit in with your preferences and lifestyle. But fundamentally it’s highly likely that you need to dedicate more time to purely resting.

For more about rest, you might also want to check out this article on 7 types of rest from TED

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