Why It’s So Hard to Just Rest and Why We Need to Do It

“If you don’t give your mind and body a break, you’ll break. Stop pushing yourself through pain and exhaustion and take care of your needs.” ~Lori Deschene

My autoimmune symptoms flared up again in November 2021. My doctor and I are still unsure which of my conditions—rheumatoid arthritis or fibromyalgia—was the culprit, or if they were acting in cahoots, but the overall achiness and debilitating fatigue were a solid indication that something was more active than usual.

I woke up tired, needed naps, and often ran out of spoons—a phrase familiar to many with chronic condition, based on a gorgeous essay called “The Spoon Theory” written by Christine Miserandino.

While I might not be able to pinpoint the cause, one thing was certain: my body wanted rest.

Are you aware of how difficult it can be to rest and relax?

That is exactly what I meant.

Knowing I had to rest didn’t give me the ability to do it immediately.

Multitasking is something I do when watching a TV show. Sometimes I’d try to postpone a nap, like a stubborn toddler. Instead of throwing myself on the floor in a tantrum, I was trying to “push through” so I could finish typing an email or move a load of laundry into the dryer.

I found it difficult to accept that my brain and body needed rest. To be able rest properly, I needed to repent.

We are all programmed to work in the west, and especially in the United States. We are told—and we tell ourselves—all of the things that we “should” be doing in order to be busy. Work in all its forms, from job tasks to errands to chores, is what we are “supposed” to do.

Since our youth we’re taught to be productive from a young age and to keep busy. We hear people say things like “I’ll rest when I’m dead” and “no rest for the weary.” We are exhorted to “pay our dues” and “put in the work.”

We were not able to hear the message about being busy or working hard. Most of us only received the messages through indirect means, such as watching people we know.

Our parents came home with grocery bags full, and we watched them put the groceries away while they cooked dinner. Or we were asked what we were doing and made to feel wrong if our answer to the question was a child’s honest “nothing.”

Long after dinner, once everything was cleaned up or tidied and it was “time to relax,” we watched our parents do additional work, both paid and unpaid. They could also be seen puttingtering about the house or ironing.

We have been told that we have to “work hard” in order to succeed. That “nothing good comes easy.” That we shouldn’t stop when we are tired, but only when we are “done.”

Not prioritizing resting and sitting down is not a priority. Some people choose to relax more often than others. This is because they need to be able to prove their worth. Earned the right to rest.

Rest doesn’t only mean sleep, although sleep is a large part of it. This includes being able to do nothing and sitting in comfort.

You could listen to music, watch TV, or meditate. You might also be working in silence on a puzzle, craft, or reading an article or book. You might also enjoy playing solitaire, looking out at the windows, journaling, and even looking out from your window.

It occurred to me in fall that my autoimmune flare was causing severe pain. I decided I needed more rest. I was so accustomed to overriding my body’s signals that I hadn’t realized how far I’d pushed myself.

My mind and my body felt almost like they were about to collapse when I tried tapping into them.

I waited to notice what was happening until I’d reached the point where I was unable to do many tasks in the day at all. One load of laundry or dinner might be the highlight of a banner day.

Because I was too focused on being busy, I found it difficult to assess the need for my busy-ness honestly. It was difficult to hear my body, let alone listen to it.

I’m 100 percent sure that if I kept pushing forward, I would have been unable to stop getting sicker.

It is easy to see now that I should never have allowed things to get to that state, but fatigue and pain and brain fog have a way of teaming up on you so that you can’t clearly assess much of anything. I knew that I needed to rest when I was near the brink of burnout and collapse.

My calendar was basically cleared for three weeks. My work schedule was cleared, I scheduled some blog posts, and then took time off.

At first, it was torture.

For one thing, my husband was still getting up and heading out into the world to teach tai chi and qigong classes, so he was modeling “proper” work behavior. For another, I discovered that I was incapable of “just resting.”

To understand my body and discover its needs, I needed to learn how to hear it again. 

My thoughts on rest had to be reprogrammed as an inherent right, not a reward for productivity.

Also, I had to figure out how to do it. Do it.

All of the activities I mentioned earlier were forms of rest. I took naps, did puzzles and sat quietly. It was extremely difficult.

To be able to focus on one task at the same time, I almost had to force myself. This was particularly difficult if I was doing something mechanically straightforward, like watching television. My inner monologue would kick up, chastising me for “just sitting there,” urging me to “be productive.”

In those moments when I decided that rest meant watching a movie on TV, I sometimes sat on my hands to make sure that I didn’t pick up my phone or a crossword puzzle or something else. To reduce temptation, I would often turn off my smartphone and leave it alone in another area.

Full disclosure: Even with taking affirmative steps to single-task, I didn’t always manage. Through reinforcement, I was able to see that the task at hand wasn’t impossible in an hour. It didn’t mean that I had to abandon rest and get to work immediately.

In many ways I had to retrain my nervous system so it could relax. Because it was so used being alert, it wasn’t easy to allow my nervous system to relax and take some rest.

When I began to plan for rest, I realized that my body started sending me signals. My brain and body became more accessible to me to understand how they are feeling and what they need.

This may sound dissociated but it is not. I never feel more integrated. In any given moment I have the ability to stop, pause and feel what is going on (mentally or physically) so that I can respond in kind and nurturing ways.

When I realize that I am losing focus on a project—perhaps while typing a blog post or planning a workshop—I no longer push through. Because of months of practice, instead I take a moment to check in with my body and brain. With practice I am able to quickly determine if I should take a break to stretch, walk, take a short walk outside, or stop for the day.

It is a concept that I have come to accept. Rest is an inborn right and not something you have to earn. It is no longer something that occurs only once I have pushed myself until the point of collapse. 

It turns out that the more rest I get and the more it is incorporated into my day, the more energy it gives me to accomplish everything I desire in life.

I find that I am more focused when I take breaks and time off during the day. If I incorporate rest into my day, I am able to work out in the morning and make good dinners.

I invite you to join me in adding actual breaks into your day, where you do nothing “productive” at all. No catching up on phone calls or emails or texts—just rest. I’d love to hear if and how it works for you.

Kelly Ramsdell

Kelly Ramsdell, founder and CEO at Actually-I-Can, Inc, helps people reclaim their lives and design them with alignment. Two ebooks have been written by her. These are twelve tips that will help you to sleep better  Your anxiety can be reduced to help people through these trying times.  Get them at http://actually-i-can.com, or follow on Insta (http://instagram.com/actually.can/), Facebook (http://facebook.com/actuallycan), or Twitter (http://twitter.com/actuallyican2).

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