Why is Proper Rest So Hard?

Apr 5, 2022 | Blog

I’m not very good at resting. I’m fairly certain I’ve been kidding myself that I’m just too active, too interested in the world, too fun to be someone who just sits around and takes it easy. But I’m not sure that’s true.

Recently I’ve been forced to stop. I suppose we all have. The restrictions of the last two years have meant we’ve all had a lot more time to stare at our walls and contemplate our navels, but does it really mean we’ve learnt how to rest?

At various stages of my life I’ve imagined that it wasn’t possible to be more tired. First when I was a secondary school teacher, then when I went part-time and did a Masters. When I had a baby, I wondered how I’d ever imagined that I was exhausted. But more recently, I’ve found more reason to be tired and, more importantly, a more urgent need to rest.

Having more green in your environment is apparently a good way to feel calm

I was diagnosed with melanoma back in November. Since then I’ve had an operation, a month of radiotherapy and I have immunotherapy every four weeks for 10 months. While I realise I am lucky to have less side effects than others, and a lot less than those who need chemotherapy, it’s still a lot. There are days I’m too dizzy to do much, days where I’m out of bed at 9am and back in at 1pm because I’m too tired. But they are rare. In the spaces between I still find myself filling the hours with writing, planning, walking, figuring out what the project thing is going to be. So why do I find it so difficult to sit still and properly rest?

I think part of it is my skewed sense of purpose. Having watched my mum do not only three part-time jobs but also all the household stuff while I was growing up, it’s not surprising that I internalised the idea that women are responsible for maintaining domestic and emotional harmony. And I’m not the only one. Invisible Women told me, among other things, that women globally take up 73% of all unpaid labour. Caring for relatives, cleaning, cooking, organising the meals, the letter for the school trip, the shopping, all of these things tend to fall on the female end in straight households.

With it, I think, comes a sense of responsibility. That if I’m not doing something productive, I should be doing something beneficial to others. The idea that I can be taking time just for myself can feel like I’m actively depriving my child, partner or family of emotional support and wellbeing. Am I the only one that finds it hard to be ‘selfish’ in this way?

Even when I have time that I’ve marked out as ‘mine,’ it often turns into some sort of self improvement task I’ve been putting off – I could listen to that French podcast that I’ve subscribed to, do some exercise, practise the piano. Apart from ‘have a bath,’ I’m not sure I know that many activities that are genuinely relaxing and make me feel nourished afterwards.

So what happens? I end up scrolling through Twitter or Buzzfeed, or finding some crap on Netflix to keep my eyes and brain somewhat occupied while my body sinks slowly into the sofa.

Sometimes the search for peace can be stressful!

But is that really resting? I certainly don’t feel either revitalised or calmed after these things.

Studies have shown that, in order to actually be replenished, you need to have reduced brain activity, not necessarily reduced movement (walking made the top 10 list of relaxing activities) and to release some of your sense of self control. So what exactly counts as rest, and how do I do more of it?

Seeing as rest has become far more important recently, I have been trying some things out. In order to make sure my arm doesn’t swell up (I had my lymph nodes under my armpit removed), I need to sit and do simple exercises. Staying still and counting, doing shoulder rolls and flexing my hands up and down does force me to sit still and, initially, was calming. What I struggle with is doing these things over and over again. I found some short meditations I enjoyed on Insight Timer and decided to do them every day. It was only 10 minutes, who can’t find that time?

But as soon as I added any of these restful activities to my schedule, something strange happened. They stopped being restful. Maybe it’s just me, but putting ‘go for a nice walk’ on my list just makes it look like I have even more to do. Adding ‘stretch/meditate’ on Thursday morning only makes me feel as though that morning is going to be even busier.

And it feels selfish. With the world in a state, the pandemic far from over and millions of people in a far worse situation than me, resting for 10mins with a good book feels incredibly indulgent. But rest has to be indulgent in order to be beneficial, right? It’s only when we have a true sense of taking care of ourselves that we have the emotional energy to do the same for others.

I would like to say that I’ve solved the problem and am so relaxed I’m almost horizontal, but I’m not quite there yet. Instead, I’m finding little things that seem to help overall.

Remembering that you need different things at different times has been very valuable

First, that there are different types of rest. Some days I need a complete sensory break in the evenings – especially those that have meant I’ve spent a long time writing in front of the screen all day. In the same way, simply allowing time to ‘be creative’ isn’t going to make that happen either. Walking in nature or chatting to a friend gives me a break from creating new things and makes it more likely I’ll be productive later.

Getting better at this has meant trying to notice what kind of tired I am. Sometimes seeing people is exactly what I need, while other times I’ll feel more replenished if I hide away for a while. I’m sure that this helps in lots of other ways too. I think I’m getting there, although I don’t always get it right!

The other thing is that I’m just scheduling in ‘something nice’ at a certain point in my day. I don’t specify what it is, I just know that, from 10-10:15, or from 2:30-3pm (depending on what else I have on that day), something is going to happen that is just for me. Blocking out the time rather than specifying an activity means it doesn’t feel like another ‘to-do’ item. It’s just a window of time.

Then, I can take a couple of minutes to think about what I want to do. I might feel like stretching my legs, or cosying up with a book, or sitting cross-legged and letting someone’s soothing voice make me feel better. I think it feels more relaxing because it feels like a treat, something I have genuinely chosen to do.

Resting is, it turns out, rather hard to do. Hopefully these small steps can help towards finding time to genuinely soothe my body and soul.

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