The Importance of Rest (and I Mean REAL Rest)

Image description: A person is laying asleep on their stomach in a bed with a fluffy white comforter. To the right of the bed is a potted ZZ Plant in a tall green metal bucket. Photo by Andisheh A on Unsplash

We are all rest deprived.

And I don’t just mean that our sleep schedules are messed up.

I mean we don’t turn off our brains, we don’t play, we don’t take down time the way our brains and bodies need us to. Even when we relax with a movie or TV show, we are also scrolling social media or texting on our phones.

We are constantly pressuring and judging our own productivity, believing the collective lie that we have to be productive at all times or we aren’t empowering our true fullest potential.

We are always plugged in. We check email before bed and when we wake up.

In a society where productivity is paramount, rest is radical.

You cannot rest when enemies are nearby

Commonly in Role Playing Games (RPGs), whether video games or tabletop, your character can’t go to sleep if there are enemies nearby.

You cannot adequately rest when you are in danger.

And, in 2021, your body’s danger signals look a lot more like chronic stress than facing a saber tooth tiger outside your cave or a fight you have to survive.

The body’s stress response is meant to protect us and get us through life or death situations.

When the stress cycle is triggered, the body releases adrenaline and cortisol to enact the fight or flight response (which is more like fight, flight, freeze, or fawn). Once the threat passes, our body should go back to normal.

However, we’re living lives that have constant sensory inputs that are pulling our attention in a thousand directions. Even a ringing phone or a text notification causes a sense of urgency that pulls our attention away. On top of stressful lives, long work hours, and a general sense of impending doom and hopelessness ever-present on Twitter, we’re always on the edge of having something be our last straw for the day, the week, the month.

Long-term effects of stress on the human body include migraines, mental health disorders, heart problems and higher cholesterol, trouble breathing, skin conditions, hair loss, gastrointestinal problems, decreased immune function and cognitive ability, and increased risk of other illness and issues like Type 2 diabetes or even fertility problems.

Stress is bad for us. For our mental and physical health. For our families. For our dreams. Stress is killing us.

From survival to recovery

For those of us who have been in traumatic situations (an abusive childhood or relationship, eating disorder, sexual assault, loss of a loved one, ANYTHING traumatic), recovery isn’t possible until we are out and away from the situation where we were harmed.

To start recovering from the damage my parents did in my childhood, I had to cut off contact with them. (Not saying you have to go no-contact, but you do need to establish and stick to boundaries to maintain a healthy space for yourself to heal).

To recover from my abusive marriage, I had to get out and put not only distance but time between me and that situation.

To recover from my eating disorder, I had to stop dieting and exercise cold turkey and learn my body’s hunger cues from scratch.

To recover from burnout from a job that was taking and taking, I had to quit and take a solid month off doing anything with my brain. I didn’t write for myself for roughly six months.

When we are in survival mode, all we can concentrate on is getting through the conflict. Even if we are sleeping, eating, and playing while in the “good times” of those situations, the fact that we’re simmering in trauma and abuse in between means that we’re not really resting and recovering.

Whether we consciously know it or not, we’re always on guard for the next attack.

In Dungeons & Dragons and other RPGs, you have to rest after a fight, to regenerate your health and magic abilities.

It’s the same idea here, in real life, when the fight is your micromanaging boss or your controlling mom or Mitch McConnell’s Twitter feed.

In a state of constant, recurring trauma and stress, it’s nearly impossible to get the rest you need in order to recover your resources and level up. 

If you’ve left an abusive situation (whether by physically leaving or by placing boundaries that prevent the abusive person from contacting you), you won’t “get better” right away. It takes time to get to a point where your rest is truly restorative.

Tips to improve your sleep

Try these ideas to get better sleep and embrace a healthier relationship with rest and recovery.

  • Establish a bedtime routine with little-to-no screen time
  • We tend to sleep in 90-minute cycles, so aim for 7.5 or 9 hours of sleep (6 hours is the minimum and should not be routine)
  • Reduce afternoon caffeine consumption
  • Gentle stretching can help relax your body and put you in a restful headspace
  • Listening to a sleep meditation can help you relax by giving you something to focus on instead of your mind racing and filling in the void
  • Magnesium supplements can help you sleep better
  • Try a weighted blanket to reduce anxiety and lead to better sleep
  • Use supplemental melatonin sparingly, as your body can become dependent on it and stop making its own — if you use it, stop after a week or so and try letting your body readjust to making it
  • Keep a notebook by the bed so you can jot down any thoughts that are keeping you awake (my brain loves to have a bunch of new ideas at bedtime)
  • Try a range of white noise sounds
  • Allow yourself to have a weird sleep schedule (if your daily life allows) — sometimes waking up for a couple hours in the middle of the night is fine, if you’re able to take a nap later in the day
  • Schedule your rest and recreation time to avoid burnout
  • Address any body pain with your doctor (my fibro can give me restless, sore legs at night but medication makes this extremely rare now!)
  • Seriously try to avoid screens, the blue light messes with your natural sleep cycles
  • Set boundaries around when you are available via text and email, and set your phone to do-not-disturb during those times

Level up your rest

Now that you have tips and tricks to sleep better, let’s also dig into the reasons you don’t prioritize your rest. These reasons are probably locked away deep inside your mind, whispering lies that you’ve believed your entire life.

My messed up relationship with rest goes back to childhood. I didn’t learn that it was okay to be tired and listen to my body’s need for rest, because according to my mother, “If you have time to lean, you have time to clean.”

She didn’t really do downtime. Life was a series of chores, homework, and staying after school to avoid going home.

So somewhere deep inside of me, I believed for a long time that rest was only something I deserved once I had accomplished every single thing that needed to be done.

I believed I had to earn rest.

This is not true. You deserve rest whenever you need or want it. You do not have to earn it, burn out to be worthy of it, or ask permission for it.

Now I take naps rather than push through a task that will suffer from my lack of focus. I reschedule chores and don’t overdo my to-do list.

Work gets done better when I’m well rested and prepared.

Journal prompts for rest and recovery

If any of this resonated with you, you’re probably also in a rest deficit. Try exploring your beliefs around rest with these journal prompts.

  • As a child, were you able to play and rest freely, or did you have to do chores or meet other expectations first?
  • What do you do for pure, playful fun?
  • Do you feel that you have to earn rest? What activities do you do that make you worthy of rest?
  • How much sleep do you get per night, and how protective are you of those hours?
  • Do you have a bedtime ritual to relax and prepare for bed?
  • How is the quality of your sleep, and how does your sleep affect your day?
  • What does lazy mean to you? Do your beliefs about laziness keep you from resting?

Level up your recovery

I go into more detail about how to recover from stress and level up your boundaries in my course. You can reserve a spot for the next Level Up Your Boundaries course and find out more in March! Check out the course page for more details about how you can become your own hero and level up your communication, boundaries, and recovery from stress.

Published by Caitlin

Caitlin writes and coaches about trauma recovery, relationships, motivation and confidence, self-love, queer identity, and social justice. They are the author of The Gaslighting of the Millennial Generation. Find their work at caitlinlizfisher.com

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