If your default response to the “how are you?” question tends to be “I’ve been busy/stressed/tired” (or all 3) then this is the article for you.
We’re taking advantage of the holiday season to offer you ways to help de-stress your life and embrace the power of rest…because the benefits of downtime are many and if we want to be healthy, happy and successful, we’re going to need to spend a lot more time watching sunsets!
This article is all about helping you to recognise and prioritise the power of rest; feel less stressed whilst still being productive; create more space for the things you love; and stay present and connected with your co-workers, family and friends – even during a busy day – so you can fall in love with the softer, slower side of life.
Many of us were brought up to believe that, in order to be happy, we need to work hard at school, take all the exams, get decent grades, work harder at university, get better grades, get a job, get married, have children and then we will all live happily ever after. Ermm… that isn’t exactly how it’s worked out, is it? We are in the midst of a mental health crisis and a stress epidemic that has most of us spending our days tearing between expectations and aspirations. We overload our brains with information, overwhelm our calendars with appointments and convince ourselves that we can keep on pushing ourselves without consequence. We can’t. We human beings are experiencing unprecedented levels of depression, anxiety, insomnia, cancer, cardiovascular disease, obesity, diabetes and burn out – and the research all points to these being linked to stress, overwork and lifestyle. So, join us as we take a step off the treadmill. It might seem like a step you ‘just don’t have time for,’ particularly if busy-ness has been your default for a long time, but if we want to look forward to a life of long-term health and happiness, it may be time for us to pause to allow our bodies and also our minds and spirits, to ‘rest and digest’.
The busy story
“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
If we’re really honest, how much are we ourselves responsible for creating our busy narrative? Who is it but us that’s filling our diaries and saying yes to every request and demand that comes our way? A survey showed that 2018, American workers failed to use 768 million days of PTO—a 9% increase from 2017. That’s an average of 6.5 days when we could have been lying on the beach, doing something we love or just getting some good old-fashioned, much-needed sleep. We chastise ourselves for being lazy instead of giving sleep the credit it deserves when we all know that the more rested we feel, the stronger we are in mind, body and creative spirit. Sleep and rest impact every part of our lives from our performance at work to our relationships to our physical and mental health, and yet most of us aren’t getting nearly enough of it. Amongst its many benefits, sleep improves our digestion, builds our immunity, repairs cells, improves memory, boosts creativity and supports our mental health…and that’s just the beginning! Yet we seem to insist on overworking and over-committing and then feel angry and frustrated when we suffer from ill health, exhaustion or mental health issues – as if we somehow expect a different result.
Identity and the busy story
Over recent years, ‘busy’ has somehow become synonymous with ‘successful.’ The busy story is pernicious. It can become part of our identity when we’re not looking. How often do we find ourselves complaining (slash bragging) that we have ‘110 emails in our inbox’ or that we ‘have so many people to get back to’ with the implication being that we are incredibly successful and in demand, in fact basically indispensable? The idea that to be successful we need to work till we drop is dangerous because it’s a bottomless pit; it leaves us feeling drained, depressed and drowning in an overwhelming sense of ‘not enough’: not quick enough, not clever enough, not good enough, not (fill in the blank) enough. Just. Not. Enough.
Thrive or Dive?
The Autonomic Nervous System is made up of two major systems: the sympathetic nervous system (“fight or flight”), and the parasympathetic nervous system (“rest and digest”). The “fight or flight” response is triggered when the body senses threat of danger. This was indispensable when we were living under trees and needed to look out for passing predators, but our modern-day bodies and brains haven’t evolved as quickly as our environment and can’t tell the difference between, say, an overly-busy schedule and being chased by a bear. The body’s response is that the heart rate speeds up, the muscles contract and any systems that are not required for our immediate (as opposed to long-term) survival shut down, including digestion and immunity. Another issue for our systems to contend with is the fact that the brain cannot distinguish between a real threat and a potential or imagined one, which is why we can find ourselves getting tense just thinking about our packed schedule.
We need the sympathetic nervous system like we need fire doors: it’s an emergency escape for occasional use. However, the problem is that this ‘safety switch’ is being tripped far too regularly and, in some cases, constantly. In 2018, it was reported that 74% of the UK felt too overwhelmed or stressed to cope with daily life. Together with all the advantages and convenience of The Digital Age, comes the fact that we are constantly ‘on’: phones never stop ringing and pinging, inboxes are rarely empty and many of us are spending a large part of our lives in fight or flight. And it’s having a major impact on our wellbeing.
What rest isn’t…
Abby Seixas, author of Finding the Deep River Within: A Woman’s Guide to Recovering Balance and Meaning in Everyday Life, uses the animal world to illustrate why, when we miss out on rest, we are missing out on one of our fundamental needs: “If you watch animals, [you’ll see] they spend a lot of time not sleeping but resting […] The animal part of us needs this too. Every living organism needs rest. When we don’t take the time to rest, eventually it takes a toll on the body.”
When we talk about rest we’re not just talking about sleep. Rest is essentially a waking sleep. According to Rubin Naiman, co-author of The Yoga of Sleep, rest is “the essential bridge to sleep” and is something we need to start prioritising in our lives. Rest helps us to put the body back in the driving seat by influencing the autonomic nervous system. So how do we do it?
The Upside of Downtime
Like me, you may remember teachers at school regularly telling you off for dreaming and staring out of the window. I remember school reports often containing remarks such as: “Claire is very good when she’s with us, unfortunately she spends a great deal of her time in Wonderland!” Now that may have been true but I’m going to fight my corner here and say that I felt dream time was valuable. It was when I had my best ideas! You can imagine how delighted I was to discover that there is actually a scientific reason for it. When we do what we think is ‘switching off’, a system in the brain called the Default Mode Network kicks into action which, as it turns out, is a powerful source of idea generation. It’s why we often get our best ideas when we’re in the bath or out taking a walk. Staring and zoning out can actually be incredibly productive. Research from the University of Southern California shows us that when we ‘switch off’ the mind is anything but idle. The study showed that these times of ‘rest’ are incredibly important for creativity, memory consolidation and learning; Mary Helen Immordino-Yang and her co-authors argued for more “educational practices that promote effective balance between external attention and internal reflection […] ranging from free-form daydreaming and off-line consolidation to intensive, effortful abstract thinking.” Because downtime helps us to access the most creative parts of our selves.
You don’t have to go on a 2-week holiday in order to get into a state of rest. Evidence suggests that the brain takes advantage of every momentary lapse in attention in order to rest, even in just a blink of an eye. Researchers recording electrical impulses in people’s brains as they watched clips of British comedian Mr. Bean found that eye-blinks are actively involved in the release of attention and that the Default Mode Network woke up briefly with every blink.
Downtime is essential to mental processes that affirm our identities, develop our understanding of human behaviour (including our own) and instills an internal code of ethics. In other words we have time to consider who we are, what we care about and why. So, next time you’re tempted to check your phone because you have a few spare moments (on the train, in the supermarket queue, when your friend goes to the loo in a restaurant) try sitting and staring so you can give rest and digest a chance. In short, dream on, it turns out to be good for you!
Starting the day
What you do at the start of the day sets up how you are going to ‘be’ that day. Making time and space for yourself first thing in the morning is difficult for many of us – and yet it’s so important. It can shift us from being in a reactive mindset to being in a proactive one so, if you can, try getting up an hour earlier in order to wake up and engage your mind, body and spirit. You could take 20-minutes to meditate, 20-minutes to move your body (Yoga, Tai Chi, skipping or just dancing in the living room to your favourite music). If you can, add another 20 minutes to read something inspiring, journal or to set and intention. Decide on priorities for the day before the world starts crashing in with its needs and demands.
Take a breath
If you’re anything like me, you may find there are moments in the day when you are either breathing in a really shallow way or even holding your breath. Deep, slow breathing is an incredibly effectively way of tricking your body back into the ‘rest and digest’ state. A few weeks of deep, mindful breathing can have a positive impact on a person’s overall health. Try this one: it’s called the 4-7-8 breath. The technique is simple: breath in through the nose for 4, hold for 7 and exhale forcefully through the mouth for 8. If the events of the day are starting to stress you out, stop and do 3 or 4 rounds of 4-7-8 breathing, and then get on with your day.
Schedule in downtime
Schedule in downtime like you schedule in appointments, and make sure it’s a priority as opposed to a luxury. If you don’t schedule it in, it won’t happen. There’s no need to feel guilty, the power of rest will help you to become more productive and purposeful in the other parts of your life – and may even help you live longer!
Find your flow
“Time slows down. Self-vanishes. Action and awareness merge.”
– Steven Kotler, cofounder of the Flow Genome Project.
You know that state when you lose all track of time and wonder where the last few hours went? Some people call it ‘Flow’. The state of Flow, originally coined by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, is the state when we are “completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Times flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz.”
So where do you find your Flow? Painting, gardening, writing, running, cooking, nuclear physics? Whatever does it for you, schedule it in. The hit of pleasure we get from doing what we love filters out and gives us strength to deal with everything else life throws at us.
Life is short, yes. So instead of chasing the clock, let’s consider the quality of our lives. Because we wouldn’t want to live to a hundred if we were miserable and stressed all the time. We want to enjoy the lives- and the time- we’ve got.
Let’s slow down, show ourselves some compassion and give ourselves and each other, the space and time to be here.
What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.
No time to stand beneath the boughs
And stare as long as sheep or cows.
No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.
No time to see, in broad daylight,
Streams full of stars, like skies at night.
No time to turn at Beauty’s glance,
And watch her feet, how they can dance.
No time to wait till her mouth can
Enrich that smile her eyes began.
A poor life this if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.
Leisure by WH Davies
From Songs Of Joy and Others (1911)