Since my heart procedure 2 weeks ago, it feels like I’ve done nothing but sleep. I know I should be thankful my poor, exhausted body is finally letting me rest, but I’m struggling with the notion that I’m just “being lazy” and the thoughts that I “should” be doing more. But where do these negative perceptions about rest come from?
Challenging negative perceptions about rest.
Yes, like many others, I find the concept of rest challenging. I have always equated rest to laziness – probably because it’s a message we are bombarded with from an early age. We are frequently told, to be a valuable member of society, we must work hard and push ourselves. We must utilise every minute of the day in the pursuit of reaching our goals. High achievers are praised, while more creative souls or dreamers are seen as lazy.
Our society equates success to monetary wealth and possessions, rather than peace, happiness and good health. Our education system does not equip our children with the tools needed to cope with the stressful lives we all lead. Emphasis is not placed on mental and physical wellbeing. Instead the focus is on working hard, achieving high grades and preparing our children for a lifetime of hard graft in their chosen careers. Of course these are all important, but surely there needs to be some balance?
The world around us has been designed to keep us busy, to keep us from getting bored. But this also stops us from obtaining the crucial rest that our bodies and minds need to survive and thrive. It also prevents us from making meaningful “real life” connections that are essential for our wellbeing.
I know from personal experience that if I don’t get the rest my body needs, my health suffers. When I choose to ignore the signals being sent by my body, and I instead ‘push through’, my health deteriorates quite rapidly. But rest is also very hard for me. My brain never switches off, it is constantly thinking about all the things I “should” be doing and all the millions of things I would rather doing at that moment. I often find I have to physically force myself to rest, although a more constructive term would be “concentrated rest”. Rest requires discipline, something I often lack.
What is rest?
Rest means different things to different people, but in essence it’s taking a break from our busy lives to focus on our wellbeing. It may be physically resting or taking a break from the mental strains in our lives, and of course, it can be both. It may take the form of meditation, or reading a book, or listening to music. Some people find watching their favourite TV programme gives them time to recharge, or it could be engaging in our favourite hobbies.
For those of us living with chronic illness, it may mean switching off completely from all distractions and lying quietly in a darkened room. Whatever form rest takes, it is vital for our physical and mental health. But how do we get passed the notion that we are being lazy?
I decided, the key to challenging my preconceived notions towards rest, was to educate myself. Why is rest so important? What happens within our bodies when we rest and sleep? Why is it so vital for our wellbeing?
Reasons why rest is essential.
Rest is essential for our wellbeing and it can positively impact on our health in many ways. So, rather than see rest as an inconvenience or a waste of time, try to concentrate on the “good” you are doing for your body and mind.
1. Repair, Restore and Recharge. Having a chronic illness is exhausting, resting gives our bodies time to repair. We often underestimate the importance of rest and the difference a few minutes of calm can make in restoring balance back into our bodies. Rest renews our energy levels and allows us to press the reset button, so we can continue with our day.
“Sometimes the most urgent and vital thing you can possibly do is take a complete rest”
2. A healthier body. Rest is as essential to our physical health as the water we drink and the air we breathe. Rest has been shown to improve cardiovascular health, and lower blood pressure and cortisol levels.
When we suffer with chronic, physical or mental ill-health, the importance of rest is multiplied tenfold, and our health deteriorates if we neglect it.
3. Less stress. Concentrated rest confronts stress in two ways. First, it reduces the demands of the situation we are currently in; we have no demands on us as long as we have the ability to mentally let go of unfinished tasks. (this is the part I find hard) . Secondly, rest reduces stress by increasing our resources, particularly energy.
Resting gives me much needed perspective and time away from the stress I experience daily. I often get so overwhelmed by my “to-do lists” and my “should-be-doing lists” that I feel suffocated. It’s so easy to let this stress consume me, but resting can break this cycle.
4. Opportunity for reflection. Sometimes it is hard to see the forest through the trees. Concentrated rest allows us to take a step back, to evaluate our lives and to identify our priorities.
For years I lived my life by keeping myself physically and mentally busy 24/7. I then wondered why I suffered so badly with insomnia. My mind and body were so active at night because I didn’t give myself time for rest and reflection during the day.
The importance of Sleep.
When struggling with ill health you may also find yourself sleeping more (day and night). This can sometimes wrongly be perceived as wasted time. We feel we are sleeping our lives away. But our bodies need sleep to stay alive, it is vital to our survival.
Sleep allows our bodies to repair themselves and our brains to consolidate our memories and process information. Poor sleep is linked to physical problems such as a weakened immune system and mental health problems such as anxiety and depression.
When you sleep, your body heals and repairs itself at a cellular level. Your brain signals the release of hormones encouraging tissue growth. Your heart and blood vessels are healed and repaired. Your body also stores up energy for the next day’s activities.
Sleep is essential to building your body’s natural defense system. As you sleep, your body makes more white blood cells, the foot soldiers of your immune system. Your brain forms new pathways to aid in memory and learning. Your body needs sufficient sleep to accomplish these things. It’s amazing to think this all happens while we sleep. The human body is truly a wonderful thing.
What if your body doesn’t respond to rest and sleep the same way a “healthy” body does?
I know some of you will be reading this and thinking; “But my body doesn’t respond to rest as it should. I can sleep for hours and wake up just as tired”. This may be the case, but so much is still going on “behind the scenes” that we are not aware of. We may not respond in exactly the same way, but rest is vital and without it our health deteriorates. When you live with a chronic illness it’s even more important to prioritise rest and sleep, and to appreciate the role they play in our mental and physical wellbeing.
It wasn’t until I experienced first-hand the detrimental effect sleep deprivation had on my overall health, that I truly recognised the importance of sleep. A few years ago, I spent 6 weeks unable to sleep, and the dramatic deterioration in my health was scary. So, even though you may not find sleep restorative, our bodies are still hard at work carrying out functions that are vital for our survival.
Rest is not always a choice – our bodies sometimes just stop functioning and “crash”. But if we can preempt this by practicing concentrated rest we may be able to prevent or reduce the severity of these “crashes”. I know it can be frustrating, and we often feel like we our fighting against our own bodies, but please know, by resting, you are doing the best you can for yourself – you are not being lazy.
If, like me, you struggle to switch your brain off to give your body and mind time to rest, a form of meditation may be a useful tool. Meditation is a simple and effective way to steady the mind, give clarity to your thoughts and help you to manage stress. This could be in the form of a structured ‘body scan’ or a guided meditation using an app, or simply practising breathing techniques. It’s the most effective method I have found for calming my overactive brain enough to allow myself to rest.
Rest isn’t a luxury – it’s a necessity.
The cause of my recent health scare, which landed me in hospital with heart problems, was most likely stress. It has been a huge wake up call for me. It has made me realise I need to look after myself more, listen to my body and prioritise rest and relaxation within my life. It is so easy to see rest as an afterthought or an inconvenience – it gets in the way of us doing the things we need or want to do. But rest is a essential part of our lives, without it our physical health and mental wellbeing suffer.
So the next time you beat yourself up for having a “rest day” remind yourself you are giving your body and mind time to heal. Try not to worry about all the things on your to do list and concentrate on what you need right now. Think of rest as the medicine your body needs to repair itself, and most importantly – be kind to yourself. Take care x
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