In a culture that values progress, productivity and continuous self-improvement, it’s difficult to honour slowness. Busyness has become a status symbol and so many of us find ourselves multi-tasking, overloading our to-do lists and rushing through our days in a state of anxiety and urgency. And when we do stumble across some time where we can slow down and relax, we often feel guilty for doing so.
Overtime, the chronic stress of everyday life without adequate rest and recovery builds ‘allostatic load’—wear and tear on the body and brain resulting from overactivity or underactivity of physiological stress response systems. The greater our allostatic load, the more likely we are to experience stress-related illness and mental health problems.
Being healthy—mentally and physically—is not only about good nutrition and regular exercise. It is also about rest and recovery practices so our mind-body systems (including our nervous system and endocrine and immune systems) can fully recover.
Here are five simple ways to incorporate rest and recovery into your life:
(1) Explore your relationship with rest
Many of us are experiencing a rest deficit. Partly because of the pressures and machine pace of modern life but also because, even though we yearn for rest, we then feel lazy for slowing down.
This is often the result of inherited norms and the way rest and relaxation were modelled to us growing up. If, as children, we were called ‘lazy’ for resting or shamed for not working hard enough, we may find it difficult to allow ourselves the rest we need.
Reflect on your relationship with rest and relaxation using the following prompts:
- What words spring to mind when you think about rest? Peace? Stillness? Anxiety? Guilt? Shame?
- Growing up, what were you taught to believe about rest? How did your parents relax? Were you ever criticised or shamed for resting?
- What are the signs your mind-body system is becoming depleted and dysregulated and you need to prioritise rest and recovery.
(2) Create a rest ritual
The relaxation response occurs naturally when our nervous system senses that we are no longer in danger, allowing our body to return to a state that is optimal for health, growth and restoration. However, in modern life, we are triggered into a state of fight-or-flight many times a day, often by situations that aren’t threatening to our survival—traffic jams, supermarket queues, work deadlines. These perceived threats mean that, without consciously practising relaxation, our body might not have time to shift into a state of safety and relaxation before the next stressor occurs. When this happens chronically, we are more vulnerable to high blood pressure, reduced immunity, anxiety and burnout.
Creating a daily rest ritual is one way we can give our mind-body system the recovery it needs. This might look like laying on the sofa for 10 minutes after work before you get on with chores. Or it could mean practising a guided meditation before you go to bed. Or carving out a few minutes at the end of your workout to listen to binaural beats while you’re laying with your legs up the wall.
(3) Do everyday things more slowly
When we rush we are signalling to our body that the present moment isn’t safe, triggering a cascade of stress hormones. By doing the everyday things more slowly—brushing our teeth, taking the bins out, having a shower—we are telling our nervous system that the present moment is safe, allowing our nervous system to shift out of a state of fight-or-flight so it can dedicate resources to restoration and growth instead of threat detection.
(4) Identify your time-traps
Most of us have experienced periods of time poverty—weeks, months or years when we feel as though we have too many things to do and not enough time to do them. When we’re time poor, we tend to be more stressed and less productive, we exercise less and eat less nutritious foods—all of which can affect our physical health and mental wellbeing.
To reclaim our time and use it deliberately so that we have time to rest isn’t easy. One of the first steps is to identify our time traps—those activities that steal time away from things that would increase our happiness and wellbeing
Reflect on your time traps. Each of us will have our own time traps but common ones tend to include: scrolling through our phone, emails, surfing the internet, interruptions from social media notifications, administrative work, multitasking, unnecessary meetings, chasing wealth, television, gaming, viewing busyness as a status symbol, overworking, perfectionism, failure to set boundaries, trying to solve other people’s problems
(5) Use a physiological sigh
Rest doesn’t have to be complicated or time-consuming. Something as simple as changing our posture, softening our jaw or sighing can shift our physiological state away from fight-or-flight and towards safety and relaxation.
One in-the-moment technique that can help reduce stress is a physiological sigh—two short inhales through the nose followed be an extended exhale through the mouth. This breathing pattern helps offload excess carbon dioxide, helping to regulate our mind-body system.
Relaxation is the absence of stress, a state of deep rest. A state of low arousal and low anxiety. A state where we return for health, restoration and growth. When we have been living in survival mode, learning to relax—to be still without anxiety or shame—often takes conscious practise. But, as we reshape our nervous system and rewire our brain to counteract the cultural messages that have conditioned us to believe our worth is found in our productivity, we discover that relaxation is not a luxury—something we get to do once everything else is done. Rather, it is essential to our health, happiness and wellbeing.