It seems silly to write an article about rest.
After all, rest is kind of like breathing: It’s automatic. Or rest is like brushing your teeth: It’s something we automatically do every day, sometimes several times a day.
But for many people rest isn’t part of their lives, at least not regularly, or at least not genuine rest. Many of us are too focused on striving and never stopping. Because, we think, to stop is to quit. Because, we think, to stop is to be lazy.
So, we wait to rest until we’re so exhausted we have no other choice.
Many of us find it hard to rest because we’re perfectionists or we fear failure (or both), according to Kelly Vincent, PsyD, a registered psychological assistant who works with young adults, women, professionals and athletes in Lafayette, Calif. “Even though we may not recognize it as perfectionism, at times we are desperately trying so hard to be perfect by doing, accomplishing, and achieving everything we set our minds to.”
We worry that if we rest, our lives will spin out of control, she said.
We also might feel uncomfortable. It’s common for boredom to arise when we try to rest. And beneath this boredom reside “more difficult feelings like loneliness, anger, or feeling trapped,” said Panthea Saidipour, LCSW, a Manhattan psychotherapist who works with professionals in their 20s and 30s who want to gain a deeper understanding of themselves.
We might be afraid to rest because doing so will just set us back. After resting, we’ll have to work that much faster and that much harder and that much more to make up for the time our tasks went undone. So we wonder, what’s the point?
We might yearn to rest, but our minds are too busy racing, reviewing all the responsibilities that are piling up and spilling over into other days and weeks.
We might even be confused about what rest really is, said Sarah McLaughlin, MFT, a licensed psychotherapist and certified yoga teacher in San Francisco, who works with women who struggle with anxiety and feelings of not good enough-ness.
Many of us think using our phones is resting. After all, we’re sitting and scrolling or playing games. We’re not doing anything else. However, it’s actually exhausting. “We are absorbing the sensory input and our brain is quickly trying to process it all,” Vincent said. And we might start unconsciously comparing ourselves and experiencing negative feelings such as envy, jealousy and anger, she said.
We also think we’ll get our rest when we sleep. “But even sleeping isn’t restful for the person who can’t rest when they’re awake,” McLaughlin said. “If the brain is in a constant stress-state during awake hours then, in many cases, it is losing or has lost connective pathways that tell it to decrease or stop the stress response.” For instance, the stress hormone cortisol may be released during sleep.
McLaughlin defined rest as ceasing work and worry, as “being, rather than doing.” “The whole system—mind-body—is engaged in a restful state and we are present in that experience of resting,” which she calls “restful awareness.” (It’s not rest when the body is still but the mind is ruminating, she said.)
Saidipour views rest as “shifting from what’s external to what’s internal and making time and space for our inner selves, our minds, and our creativity.” That is, we might daydream or self-reflect, she said.
Below are ideas on how you can really rest.
Search beneath the surface. Saidipour stressed the importance of getting curious about why you’re not resting, about the thoughts and feelings that are driving your need to stay busy. Maybe by staying busy, you’re trying to protect yourself from certain feelings.
She also suggested exploring these questions: If I weren’t so busy, would I feel like a failure? Would I fear losing the approval of others? Would I fear becoming hopelessly stuck?
Understand the power of rest. So many people are in a constant state of stress. In fact, McLaughlin noted that 70 percent of visits to the doctor are due to stress-related health issues. “Rest is the only way to engage the part of our nervous system that allows for relaxation.” It is literally vital for our physical and mental health.
Rest also helps us show up for others (and for our lives). It “benefit[s] everything we touch and do for the rest of the day. We need to start valuing taking care of ourselves as much as we value accomplishing tasks,” McLaughlin said.
Rethink the narrative. This won’t happen overnight, but it’s important to chip away at the narrative that resting is failing. “Most people tend to attach their successes to their worth, value, and identity,” Vincent said. “We need to reframe and shift the narrative to a more realistic view, such as, ‘[I]f this task does not get done today, it does not mean I have failed. It just means that I will get to it tomorrow.’”
Practice acceptance. Remind yourself regularly that you’re not a robot, and you can’t do everything at once. Some tasks simply won’t get done. Practicing acceptance—accepting things as they are—can help you to temper your stress, and give yourself the mental space to rest. Vincent suggested reminding ourselves: “I did not expect this, but I accept it.”
Be intentional. As you’re about to rest, McLaughlin suggested saying to yourself, “I am going to rest now,” and asking: “Is my mind at rest? Am I truly allowing myself to ‘be’ instead of ‘do’?” She also suggested taking several deep, long, slow breaths. “Really focus on the breathing and connect both your mind and body in this present moment of restful awareness.”
Take in your surroundings. Vincent shared this example: Spend five minutes sitting on a bench. Notice the sun on your skin. Notice the colors around you. Notice the sounds. Notice how the bench feels. “Allow yourself to be completely present in the here and now.”
Focus on yourself. When figuring out how you’d like to rest, focus on what grounds you, helps you feel most alive and connects you to yourself, Saidipour said. This will be different for everyone. For one person, cooking is a meditative practice; for someone else cooking is misery. You might find these activities restful (or not): journaling; drawing; sipping coffee while watching the sunrise; practicing yoga; sitting on the beach.
As Saidipour said, “What helps you shift from absorbing external stimuli to tuning into your own body, thoughts, and feelings?”
Many of us have forgotten how to truly rest. We have developed negative narratives about what it means. We’ve replaced real rest with superficial, stimulating activities like scrolling through social media and playing games on our smartphones.
Thankfully, however, we can relearn to rest fully and wholeheartedly. Maybe you’ll even consider practicing today. Or right now.