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  • Writer's pictureJennifer Basilone

What Does It Mean to Truly Rest?

What Does It Mean to Really, Truly Rest?

What ‘counts’ as resting, and when are we simply swathing toxic productivity in soft pants and a robe? 

December 22, 2022

I confess that I didn’t give the topic of rest much thought prior to getting COVID-19 in January 2021, which was the first time in my life that rest was “prescribed” to me. After my positive PCR test, I dutifully got in bed with my box of tissues, cough medicine, pulse oximeter, and phone. A few days in, when my symptoms had started to improve, I got up to do a couple of basic chores, like unloading the dishwasher and bagging up some trash…and was very quickly wiped out. At that point, I realized that resting for recovery was going to involve a lot more laying around than I’d anticipated. So back to bed I went, where I scrolled, texted, and browsed like I normally would, without thinking twice about it. And I still felt like shit. 

In looking for info on how to feel better, I eventually came across soothing and helpful articles published by the Royal College of Occupational Therapists in the UK, which included this curious bit: “Continue to limit everyday ‘thinking’ activities, such as emails, planning shopping, making decisions, as these all use energy. Try to do them only for set times with regular rest in between.” It was the first time I had ever considered that resting for my health was not the same as, say, chilling on a Saturday. Discovering this was a genuine light-bulb moment; once I realized that reading articles, texting, and doing the crossword puzzle wasn’t serving me, I switched over to some truly mindless consumption—Real Housewives of New York—and gave my body the time and space it needed to heal. 

While rest can feel like one of those “I know it when I see it” concepts, I would argue that a lot of us don’t; we aren’t taking the time to ask ourselves what rest even means, or assessing whether it’s actually working as intended. In the same way that “fatigue” doesn’t strictly mean “I’m sleepy,” rest isn’t limited to “I’m physically in bed right now” or “I’m taking a nap” (though it can, of course, include both of those things). Since the pandemic began, I’ve witnessed several colleagues—across different workplaces, all of which offered PTO and had the kind of culture where using sick days was not a big deal—avoid taking time off to recover from COVID. Over time, it’s become increasingly clear to me that resting isn’t as easy as it sounds. 

But learning how to rest properly is important, and not just when it comes to COVID recovery; rest is a recommended treatment for nearly everything that wears your body down, from the common cold to burnout. It’s recently become a key form of self-care for me personally: After testing positive for mononucleosis in early September and dealing with months of persistent and ongoing fatigue, brain fog, and muscle aches, I’ve become even more aware of the ways in which rest is both extremely necessary and incredibly difficult. 

So, what does rest look and feel like, exactly? What “counts” as resting, and when are we simply swathing our toxic productivity in soft pants and a robe? And what might rest look like for the millions of people who don’t have access to a social safety net that will allow them to do it meaningfully and properly? 

What does it mean to really, truly, rest?

If you aren’t entirely sure what resting for your well-being actually means, you’re not alone: It is hard to define. “It’s going to depend on how that person feels and where they are in terms of getting back to their normal,” Jaime Seltzer, director of scientific and medical outreach at myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME) advocacy group #MEAction, tells SELF. 

“Rest looks and feels different for different people, and I don’t think there’s necessarily one particular explanation for what rest can look like,” Karen Conlon, LCSW, founder and clinical director of Cohesive Therapy NYC, tells SELF. “However, there could be a general consensus around what it could feel like. One might say, ‘When I feel rested, I don’t feel worried and my body doesn’t feel tense,’ or, ‘My body feels relaxed. When I am resting, my mind isn’t ruminating.’”

It’s important to consider both your body and your mind when it comes to rest. “Our minds and our bodies are connected, not just through physiology, but also through ways of communicating,” Conlon says. “I think that is so important for people to wrap their heads around and try to really accept: You can't really take care of one without taking care of the other. They’re always in communication, informing each other what condition one is in.” 

“Our brain activity, our neurological activity, is some of our most energetically demanding actually,” Seltzer says. “It isn’t just your muscles that do work. All of your organ systems do work, and your brain and your heart tend to demand a lot. So if you’re thinking very hard, you are definitely doing work.”

As I was working on this story, I came across a 2015 paper published in the journal Global Qualitative Nursing Research written by Margareta Asp, PhD, a professor in caring science at Mälardalen University in Sweden. In it, Dr. Asp makes the point that you can’t really understand rest without thinking about what it isn’t: “The essence of non-rest constitutes being strained between one’s limited resources and demanding expectations, which implies experiences of disharmony,” she writes. 

In other words, constantly running through the long list of things you want to get done or that you feel “should” be doing—because you’ve fully embraced #nodaysoff #hustle culture, or because you literally cannot miss work without losing the income you need to survive—is not the same as meaningfully resting, even if you’re sitting down or wearing your pajamas. “It does you very little good to be in bed while your mind is racing,” Conlon says. 

In her paper, Dr. Asp attempts to pin down a unified vision of rest, and offers up this lovely definition: “The essence of rest is an experience of harmony concerning one’s feelings, actions, and motivation. This implies that there is a capacity for actions, which is carried out in accordance with a sensation of pleasure. Rest appears when one’s needs and longing correspond to the shape and character of the environment. Rest takes many different states, from calm, demand-free, and peaceful conditions to conditions where one is open and perceptive to pleasurable impressions. The essence of rest is characterized by a sense of confidence and trust in one’s own inviolable human dignity and in being loved.” 

To figure out what rest means for you, you have to check in with yourself a lot.

Defining rest for yourself requires listening to your body—a concept that gets thrown around a lot, but that can feel a little squishy. How can I not listen to my body? you might think. We’re together all day! But it’s something that a lot of us could stand to be more intentional about, particularly in the context of physical and emotional recovery. In Seltzer’s words, this starts with “sensing your body,” something that may require quite a bit of practice. “Everybody has different natural ability levels,” she says. “There are some people who are just extremely tuned in, and there are some people who are extremely tuned out. And I think there is a learning curve.” 

If you aren’t used to checking in with your body, you could start by setting a daily alarm on your phone that reminds you to assess a few key aspects of your health (e.g., your sleep quality, energy level, pain, appetite, and mood, among other factors) and then making a note (say, in a journal or a tracking app) of anything that seems outside of your norm. This can help you start to notice patterns and pick up on clues that you’re still doing too much. For example, if you find that whenever you start to increase your activity during your COVID or flu recovery, you start to experience a lot of body aches, that can be a sign that you’re not resting enough. “I think people want to get back to normal the moment that their body will allow them,” Seltzer says. “And that’s not necessarily a good idea.” 

If you’re into wearables (like the Fitbit or Apple Watch), Seltzer says that can be another good way to tune into what’s happening with your body, because they provide physiological data and make it easier to see changes over time. I’ve found my Apple Watch has been incredibly useful in figuring out what exacerbates my mono symptoms (especially once I added the Cardiogram app), and SELF’s Fitness Director Christa Sgobba had a similar experience when recovering from COVID earlier this year. At the time, she just so happened to be wearing a smartwatch on each wrist (because she was reviewing them for SELF articles), and was surprised by what she learned about rest.  

“The most striking thing I noticed was from the Garmin Venu 2, which gives stress readings throughout the day based on your heart rate variability (HRV),” she told me recently. “You get short blue bars when you’re calm or at rest, and tall to very tall orange bars when you’re stressed or very stressed. When I was still testing positive, I thought that I was doing enough to ‘rest’ by not exercising and working from bed. But my stress remained high while doing so—I was still getting orange bars.” 

“I remember one day I took the afternoon off to nap, and I FINALLY got some blue,” she continued. “It was really interesting to me because I felt like because I was physically lying down, in bed, and not doing anything physical, that I was resting. But because my mind was still going, I clearly wasn’t—which shows the importance of letting your mind turn off if you want your body to calm down.” 

That’s the thing: It’s not enough to pay attention. If your body is telling you to rest, it’s important to act on that information. “Way before you hit that point of no return, your body’s already been giving you signals that it needs something,” Conlon says. Unfortunately, this is often when people tend to disregard or downplay the signs, she says: “They will ignore it and say, ‘Oh, whatever. Yeah, yeah, I think I'm getting sick.’ No—you know you're getting sick.” 

“A lot of times people think, Oh, well let me just wait,” she continues. “Sometimes it’s difficult for people to listen to their bodies, because what their bodies are telling them, especially within the realm of rest, goes against what they think they should be doing.”  

So, what is your body telling you to do? Figuring that out will likely take some trial and error, but both Seltzer and Conlon say that doing way, way less than you normally would (and than you might think you can do) is a good place to start. “Cut what you’re doing by 99%,” Conlon says. That can feel really hard—and I say this from personal experience!—but when you’re sick or burned out, you just can’t expect life (or your body) to function like it normally would. That’s kind of the whole definition of going through a Bad Time; things are going to look different because things are different. The trash might pile up, or you might miss a deadline at work, or your kid might have to skip a birthday party because you’re not able to take them. This stuff happens, and it’s not a moral failing on your part if it does.  

If you’re struggling to do less, try to be super honest with yourself about how dire the potential consequences will actually be if you cancel plans and spend the day in bed. “There are some tangibles, like fear of job loss or responsibilities—childcare or an aging parent or a pet,” Conlon says. “There are just so many things that we can hold onto and say, ‘No, no, no, I really need to push through this.’” But, she says, there might also be a psychological aspect informed by your values and the way you've internalized certain cultural or societal norms. “If you grew up in an environment where rest was seen as something for lazy people, or if it was seen as something that was not productive, then the thought of rest can trigger anxiety,” she says. “You can see how trying to rest, even though your body is begging you for it, makes you want to crawl out of your skin.” 

It can also be helpful to accept, from the start, that rest can be…monotonous. Yes, you might have the energy to listen to a podcast or read an article when you have the flu, but you also might know, in your heart, that you’re not really resting when you are scrolling on your phone or trying to consume new or complicated information. “We all have different levels of things that are cognitively chill,” Seltzer says. Maybe watching a movie you’ve seen a dozen times isn’t going to be particularly taxing, but starting a new-to-you show like Severance is going to be too much. Is that reality incredibly annoying? Yes! But remember that you’re unwell—by definition, it’s not going to be a fun time. 

People who are sick, in particular, “have to learn to be bored,” Seltzer says. “Sometimes you’re just staring at the ceiling.” If that’s where you are, she suggests closing your eyes and telling yourself a story: “Your thoughts are going to be moving anyway, so you might as well think about something pleasant.” 

How to rest when it feels impossible

Of course, not everyone has the option to rest the way they probably should for their health—and that’s also not a personal or moral failure. “We have built a society where it’s nearly impossible to rest,” Seltzer says. “Rest is anti-capitalistic.” When nearly a quarter of civilian workers in the US are shut out of paid sick leave, it’s hard to deny the fucked-up reality that rest remains a luxury for millions of people. And it’s not just the shameful lack of universal paid sick leave (and Medicare for All, and affordable childcare, and and and) that makes rest impossible for some folks; it’s also the pervasive, insidious idea that people who are ill and can’t work—either temporarily or long-term—are disposable. 

“Because we live in an ableist society, we’ve been taught that becoming disabled is the end of the world,” Seltzer says. “What will you do if you can’t work? Who will care about you? Who will you be if you’re not your job or your family role? [But] People have value regardless of what they can accomplish on the behalf of others.” 

If you truly need to go to work or take care of household responsibilities, one approach might be to break up tasks and to-dos in order to give yourself some time to rest between each step. “People are like, ‘Okay, but I still have to do the laundry and I still have to cook my meals. What am I going to do?’” Seltzer says. “You’d be surprised how much you can get done when you get it done in small chunks.” So if you absolutely can’t call in sick to work, maybe you try to move slower during your shift and sit down periodically, or you cancel your day-off plans so you can spend some time on the couch recovering from all those hours on your feet. If you need to prepare some food, maybe you buy groceries on Monday, chop vegetables on Tuesday, and make the meal on a Wednesday versus doing everything in a single afternoon. 

But, really, anything is better than nothing. “You don’t have to go to extremes,” Conlon says. “You can start with little things. Go ahead, do some work—but do a little bit and then go rest a bit. Give yourself some time to rest and re-energize. If you don’t, you are going to run it ragged and then ultimately it’s going to stop working in your favor.” If you’re dealing with long COVID or another condition that brings about long-lasting fatigue, you might benefit from an approach called “pacing,” which is often practiced by folks with chronic fatigue syndrome (also called ME/CFS). 

If you’re attempting a task and find that you’re struggling with it, give yourself permission to just pause. “It’s okay to go for a walk and then sit on the sidewalk for five minutes and wait for your blood pressure to come back down to normal, wait for your heart to stop pounding, and then get up and either go on if you feel like you’re totally recovered, or walk back,” Seltzer says. “There’s nothing that says that you have to do things the way you’ve always done them.”

It’s important to ask for help and embrace vulnerability

As I was researching this topic, it became increasingly clear to me that part of what makes resting so difficult is how vulnerable it can make you feel. To admit that you need to rest is to accept that something is wrong—say, that an illness is meaningfully affecting you, and that you’re not as invincible or in control as you might want to believe that you are. Especially for people who struggle with perfectionism, “that vulnerability piece actually feels like weakness,” Conlon says. “That vulnerability in asking for help is, I think, often very much tied to, Well, what does this say about me?” But when you’re sick or burned out or exhausted, you simply can’t go it alone forever. 

That means being honest (with yourself, for starters) about the fact that you’re struggling and asking for help from friends, family, neighbors, and coworkers. You may also want to look into mutual aid groups in your area to see if one could assist you with things like getting groceries or running errands. Dr. Asp says that trusting others to help take care of you is a key aspect of meaningful rest. “As an adult, you have responsibility for a lot of things and projects,” she tells SELF. “To feel that responsibility all the time without a break can create exhaustion.”  

Another factor to consider: “Given any particular task, are you the only one who can do it?” Seltzer says. “If that has been your mode—If I want it done, I have to do it myself—you’re going to have to either teach other members of your household to do the thing, or accept that the thing is not going to be done the way that you want it,” Seltzer says. “Because you don’t have a choice: You have to rest or you’re not going to be able to do anything else in the near future.” 

Admitting that you don’t have a choice can be really unnerving, but Conlon says acceptance is a huge part of this journey. “Sometimes you do have to accept it, and that’s not the answer that people want to hear,” she says. In my experience, being vulnerable and giving oneself over to the frustrating reality of a given situation is a prerequisite for true self-care. Seltzer also agrees. “This isn’t something that you can push through,” she says. “This is one of those knots where the harder you pull, the tighter it gets.” 

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