REST and Why it’s Crucial to Emotional Health

We can all agree that our bodies need sleep, right? But what about REST? Do we know the difference… For our purposes let’s refer to rest using the definition of restful awareness. This includes the typical definition of rest: v. to cease work or movement in order to relax, refresh oneself, or recover strength. But adds the mind into the definition. Restful awareness calls for an alert and engaged mind. A mind that is present IN the experience of rest. Restful awareness is a stillness and relaxation of the body, combined with awareness and peace of the mind. In this post, where we refer to “rest,” this is the definition we’re using.

Rest is vital to our functioning as human beings. We can rest when the part of our nervous system that allows for relaxation is engaged. When this relaxation occurs, the brain has been notified that we can stop the stress responses that are happening, we can stop the production of cortisol and allow the rest and relaxation neurotransmitters to do their thing. Too many people are functioning in a stress-state constantly. Stress related health issues account for 70% of doctors visits. We NEED to rest, it’s vital to our physical health and mental well-being.

Part of the difficulty of resting is confusion over what a truly restful state is. ​Many people think they’ll rest when they’re asleep. [But even sleeping isn’t restful for the person who can’t rest when they’re awake.] <—- reread that if you need to.  Again, back to the brain… if the brain is in a constant stress-state during wake then, in many cases, it is losing or has lost connective pathways that would tell it to decrease or stop the stress responses (the production of cortisol etc). The stress response and release of cortisol can still be occurring even during sleep. The brain needs help repaving these pathways in order to allow you to rest when you’re awake AND asleep. The brain needs to hear the message “It’s ok, you can relax now.” For some people the brain hears this message instantly and the person can easily switch back and forth between doing and being. For someone who is in a constant stress-state, has experienced trauma or someone who has historically denied their need for rest, the brain has a harder time hearing this message. These people may need to work harder to send the message to the brain (more on that below).

Other ways people misinterpret rest are activities like binge watching TV, scrolling through social media/reading the news or working from ones computer. The body may be in a still state during these activities, so you think – I’m resting – but if the mindful awareness is not there, then you’re missing the benefits. If you’re still challenging your mind with work, worrying or completely checked out or numbed out, then you’re not in a truly restful state.

One way to check yourself is to take a moment to be mindful about what you’re doing. This means, as you’re sitting down to watch a movie, think “I am going to rest now” and ask yourself, “Is my mind at rest. Am I truly allowing myself to “be” instead of “do.” Watch the tendency to multi-task. If you’re watching a movie, watch a movie. If you’re taking a bath, be present for that experience, rather than dictating an email in your mind. Remember to keep an eye on what the mind is doing, even if the body is at rest. Is the mind busy? How can you quiet it. Is the mind checked out and numb? How can you bring it back to the present moment? One great way to address both of these issues is with the breath. As you are gearing up to rest, take a few deep, long, slow breaths in and out. Really focus on the breathing and connect both your mind and body in this present moment of restfulness. Another way might be to position your body in a way that promotes rest – legs up the wall is a good one. Another option might be using essential oils to try and help the brain hear the message that it’s okay to relax, some of our favorites for relaxation are lavender and chamomile.

Some time for reflection: When are you truly resting? What forms of rest are a part of your regular life? To what degree do you prioritize rest? How easily is your brain able to switch between a state of stress and a state of rest?