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Why Is It Scary To Rest? (and Why We Must, Anyway)

When we’re afraid, it can feel scary to rest. When we’re anxious, it can seem impossible to relax.

But why?

The science behind it is this: we’re wired to survive. This means whenever we’re facing a challenge, our physiological systems automatically rev up to help us do what it takes to get ourselves to safety. Adrenaline production surges, along with myriad other autonomic responses throughout our body. The way our biology normally operates changes dramatically in the face of a perceived threat – which is great news! We’re wired for survival. We’re designed to operate optimally in the face of danger to help us escape the threat and find safety. These automatic responses have likely saved each of us more than once throughout our lives.

The trouble is, these survival responses are only intended to happen in short bursts – just long enough for us to escape whatever the danger may be. When the threat to our well-being continues and our survival responses last and last…they can take over our systems which can very quickly wreak havoc on us.

The truth is, even before the world was asked to pause in response to a fast-spreading virus, the modern human was already operating in a fairly constant state of survival mode. Stress has become our normal. Our systems were already locked in a state of survival response and we were already suffering for it. We were already operating on the edge of our body’s maximum capacity for survival – which is part of the reason we’re now so susceptible to complete physiological overwhelm and immune system duress.

Most of us are feeling the devastating impact of operating in survival mode after only a few days or weeks of responding to the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic. We’re feeling it mentally (overwhelm, anxiety, racing thoughts, panic), emotionally (grief, sadness, fear, rage), and physically (fatigue, aches and pains, exhaustion, tense), too. 

I’m writing this to implore you to stop in your tracks and consider adding well-being behaviors and self-care strategies into your life immediately. While it can seem like a luxury afforded only to those who are bored and stuck at home, these behaviors and practices are quickly becoming a necessity for our survival.

We must learn to rest and relax to support ourselves for the long-game response to this pandemic. We must practice rest and relaxation if we’re able to support ourselves and our communities during the shutdown of our norms and later as we begin rebuilding our communities and lives.

It doesn’t mean there won’t also be work to do, responsibilities to tend to, and yes – even fear to feel. Yet, prioritizing rest and relaxation in the face of this pandemic will allow us to continue contributing solutions to the problems that will arise, contributing energy to the work that will be asked of us, and giving ourselves the best probabilities to maintain a strong immune system response to the illness that is surging around us.

There are some tried and true methodologies to interrupt the autopilot survival mode responses our body and mind will naturally have in reaction to the stressful period we’re currently experiencing, but they must be practiced with great respect and intention.

Many well-meaning teachers are telling us to “just relax” or stating that “we always have a choice” when it comes to our attitudes and reactions to fear. The truth is, we DON’T actually always have a choice. Not initially, anyway. Much of the way our bodies and minds are reacting to the unknowns and very real fears of the current situation are patterns we’ve been practicing for a long time.

Many of our survival mode behaviors and physiological responses (most of us just generalize these things as “stress”) are actually survival mechanisms we’ve been cultivating and turning to for years – often, for most of our lives. We began learning and honing these survival mechanisms when we were little kids, turning to them when we experienced fear or pain. They’re built into the way we communicate, the way we think, the way we experience our own emotions, and even the way our bodies respond to our experiences.

So, go gently on yourself if relaxing or resting feels really hard, really foreign, or really vulnerable for you – it feels that way for a lot of us.

We live in a culture that isn’t well-versed at feeling discomfort, or emotional intelligence, or even personal ownership of our experiences. Most of us haven’t been modeled the importance of a lifestyle rooted in values of rest, well-being, or self-care. We’ve been taught to stay busy, to distract, numb and disconnect in the face of pain, and to work even harder when we feel afraid. Earlier this week, I found myself scrubbing the kitchen tile grout to the point of bleeding fingertips…only to realize I was stress cleaning. We’re all susceptible to our own behavior patterning. The first step is to notice it’s happening.

It’s important to start by acknowledging that learning to rest is new to you – and learning anything new takes some time to become more proficient, some devotion and willingness to actually practice, and frankly – it also requires we’re open to UNLEARNING some old ways of doing, thinking and being.

No one learns to ride a bike on their first try. No one becomes a skilled pianist after one lesson. And no one becomes proficient at rest and relaxation on a dime. We can, however, slowly cultivate the resources and skills to improve our abilities day by day and those tiny efforts can add up to a massive shift in our ability.

Your well-being is your most valuable asset now and always! With time and devotion to practice, we know rest and relaxation will become more available to you. Here’s a few things you can do to start practicing rest and relaxation. You’ll get better at it. It’ll start to feel easier. And, you might even learn to love it with time!

FIVE WAYS TO PRACTICE REST AND RELAXATION (EVEN IF IT FEELS HARD):

1. Schedule it.

If our hyper-productive society has learned anything, it’s this: we’ve all got the same 24 hours in a day and we’ve got time for the things we most value. By scheduling time for rest and relaxation, you’re choosing to prioritize it. Consider creating a schedule or even a loose structure to follow each day. Choose one hour of your day and block it off for rest. It might be mid-morning, just after lunch, or even in the evening preceding bedtime (many people struggle the most with rest and relaxation in the evenings, so this would be a great way to support yourself).

2. Use a timer.

When doing anything new, sitting down to actually practice can feel overwhelming. Consider using a visual timer so you don’t spend your entire hour for relaxation checking the clock. We really love a free app called Insight Timer – you can set it up to chime with a relaxing singing bowl or gong to start your relaxation practice and again to complete it. Rather than having the jarring sounds built into your smart phone alerting you that your time is up at the end, be intentional about using a soothing notification to help you transition from your relaxation practice back into your day. Using a timer as a container for your resting practice will help make it tolerable to your mind that may not be accustomed or feel safe being still. Just remind yourself, you’re only doing this for an hour. If 60 minutes feels like too much, consider starting with 15 or 30 minutes and slowly work your way up to a full hour of rest.

3. Use a ritual.

A ritual is simply an action that makes something special or sacred and is often done the same way each time. Some of our favorite rituals for rest and relaxation include lighting incense or a safely contained candle or two, turning the lights down low, diffusing a soothing essential oil like lavender or jasmine, putting our devices on silent, turning off the tv, and closing the door. Just like nesting animals, we humans will feel a bit safer if we’re in a smaller, cozier space like a bedroom or even a bathroom (there are also less distractions visually if we tuck ourselves into a cozy spot). Put on your cozy socks, pull on your weighted blanket, slide under your covers, or slip into the comfort of a warm salt bath…the options are endless. Experiment with what works for you from curiousity. We can learn a lot about ourselves by simply noticing what does help us feel more calm, relaxed, and at ease.

4. Breathe.

Begin your rest and relaxation practice by taking a few slow deep breaths. Invite your belly to release any tension and soften so it can expand as you breathe in and slowly squeeze back in a you exhale. Let your mouth stay closed (if your nose isn’t stuffy) and breathe in and out through your nose. Allow your shoulders to stay soft and your rib cage to gently expand and contract with each full, slow breath. You may even keep the breathing practice going for the duration of your practice. Breathing (or pranayama) is a really important and profound practice to help your nervous system slowly regulate itself toward equilibrium. And equilibrium feels really, really good friends!

5. Make it enjoyable.

Your rest and relaxation practice doesn’t have to be forcing yourself to sit still for an hour. You might decide to literally rest and take a nap. But stillness might feel like a bit more than you can tolerate as you begin practicing. Maybe you turn on some soothing music. Maybe you turn on a lovely audio book that makes you feel inspired and supported. Or maybe you embrace the luxury of quiet in your space. Perhaps you spend the first few minutes journaling the thoughts in your mind so you can allow your mind to be in stillness for the rest of the hour. Perhaps you decide to go for a walk around your neighborhood or along your favorite trail and practice noticing your surroundings with all of your senses – there’s nothing like nature to help us relax. In fact, a practice called forest bathing is well-known to be quite medicinal! Some of you might decide to select a Gentle Yoga practice as your ritual for practicing rest and relaxation. Whatever you choose, commit to staying screen free (and COVID-19 news free) for the duration of your practice.

It takes great courage and intention to slow down, check in with yourself and choose to practice rest and relaxation. The benefits of the practice are endless and necessary always, but particularly in these times of worldwide suffering and fear and unknowns.

Thank you for choosing to come toward yourself with tender curiosity, grace, and a willingness to choose rest and relaxation for an hour of your day. This brave choice will impact your ability to sustainably continue tending to all that you’re carrying on your shoulders and in your heart.