Written by Emily O’Brein
We’ve all experienced so many changes over the past few weeks, and with those changes an added layer of stress. Working parents have adapted to homeschooling, essential workers have been burdened by the risks their work carries while others have found themselves suddenly without a job, families and friends have been unable to share one another’s company, and so many of us have faced fear for our own health and the health of those we love. In one way or another, we’ve all been squeezed by our current circumstances. But while currently our stress levels may be heightened, the reality is that many of us are chronically plagued by stress.
Our modern world increasingly demands more out of us in the name of success, glorifying busyness and promoting the hustle. Our drive and our dreams are admirable, and have often brought about great results; however, our efforts aren’t always sustainable. Our bodies and minds bear the brunt of this fast-paced culture, we are constantly stimulated and forced into living from our sympathetic nervous system—meaning our body’s fight or flight response is rarely dormant. In the short term, this response is protective for us, allowing us to respond to danger. But the long-term effects of chronic stress and an over stimulated sympathetic nervous system are detrimental to our physical and mental health.
So what are we to do about it? While we’re unable to completely change this reality of the busy world we live in, we do get to choose how we respond to it and how we make space to receive the gift of rest. We’re so often afraid to stop and take time to rest in fear of missing out or looking lazy or weak. But if we are to live in our fast-paced world in a sustainable and healthy way, rest needs to be a priority. Not just rest in the sense of taking more vacations, or getting a good night of sleep—although time away to reset and quality sleep are important as well. When I say rest, I’m referring to intentional time to pause and allow ourselves to slow down, time to let our parasympathetic nervous system kick in and restore our bodies to equilibrium. This is often referred to as our ‘rest and digest’ mode, and when activated, our heart rate and blood pressure decrease while our body’s digestion and ability to recuperate increase. When our parasympathetic nervous system kicks in, it allows our overactive sympathetic nervous system response to switch off, inviting us to move out of an anxious and stressed space into a space of restoring our body and mind. Our breath becomes, full, slow, and deep. Our body can repair and restore. And we are able to feel more alive and present, more capable of handling the challenges and stress that life brings.
As we face these uncertain and stressful times, now more than ever we need to cultivate sustainable rhythms of rest to carry us through this difficult season and beyond. While our culture has become quite skilled at disconnecting from our stress, through exercise, Netflix binges, alcohol, and even “zoning out” on the internet, this disconnecting is not the same as resting and resolving our stress (a.k.a. turning on our parasympathic nervous system response). To rest well in a way that is restorative for our bodies and minds, we have to make intentional space to practice rest. And just as it takes time to learn how to swim, ride a bike, do a handstand, or make a perfect latte, it can take time to learn how to rest well. A simple way to start practicing rest, is incorporating slow moments into your day where you intentionally slow down, pause, and practice presence. For the average person it takes around 15 minutes to settle into the place of relaxation where our cortisol (stress hormone) levels start to decrease, our breathing and heart rate slows, and our body’s relaxation response (activation of the parasympathetic nervous system) kicks in.
If slowing down sounds challenging to you and your current lifestyle, making time for 15 minutes of rest in your day can be a great place to start. First, it can help to identify what factors or triggers prevent you from being at ease and taking time to rest. By identifying what disrupts your ease you can intentionally create space to rest and control your reaction to those triggers. This could look like turning your phone on silent or putting it in another room during your time of resting, jotting down the to-do list running through your mind so you can focus on resting, or choosing to relocate to another space that allows you to be more at ease (e.g. moving from your desk to your backyard). Second, ask yourself what actions or activities bring you a sense of ease and help you reconnect to yourself. Maybe for you this is being in nature, meditation, prayer, or journaling. Asking yourself these two questions can be a great way to help you find a practice of rest that feels restorative for you. If deciphering that feels daunting, here are some great places to start:
· -15 minutes of sitting or walking without distraction. Notice your breath and your surroundings. If you’re in a location where you can do so safely, try taking your shoes off and noticing the feeling of the ground beneath you as you walk.
· -15 minutes of a Restorative yoga pose, (like supported savasana or a comfortable seated position).
Notice your breath and the sensation of where your body contacts the mat/floor. Allow tension to melt with each exhale.
· –15 minutes of journaling. An easy prompt to start journaling with is simply writing about the things you are grateful for that day (no thing is too big or small).
Don’t think you have 15 minutes? Start with 5. During that time challenge yourself to experience those moments of rest with yourself presently and wholeheartedly, eliminating as much distraction as possible. Remember, it takes time to cultivate a practice and it’s okay to start small. As you consistently make space for rest in your daily rhythms you will notice that it becomes more natural. If you’re looking to move beyond those 15 minute practices, you can try adding Yin and Restorative yoga classes into your practice. Not only are these practices a great balance to the more Yang styles of yoga such as Vinyasa, but they also promote our body’s relaxation response and are a great way to practice rest.
I hope that in the midst of this crazy time full of so much uncertainty, loss, and stress that these moments of rest feel like little gifts during your day. Times to be restored and filled up, to become more at ease, more grateful, more present and more capable of extending kindness. As Mark Buchanan says, “Most of the things we need to be most fully alive never come in busyness. They grow in rest”, and I hope that you experience that growth in rest during this season.
Have you given daily relaxation a try? How do you like to practice rest? I’d love to hear about your experience, so feel free to leave a comment below.