The Forgotten Art of Rest and Convalescence

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Do you suffer from fatigue, exhaustion, even extreme exhaustion? I come across many people who are burning out, stressed, anxious, and don’t know how to heal and stop themselves from feeling so overwhelmed, so fatigued. It has become completely normal to be excessively busy, and to define ourselves, and our self worth, through what we do. Many people are experiencing a screeching halt where their body says no more, and they become too fatigued to keep pushing through any more. We need to relearn the art of appropriate rest, and life-rest balance. 

It is often a major life event- a death, a relationship breakup, moving house- that can be the trigger for a breakdown. The exhaustion can take many forms- unable to sleep, difficulty getting out of bed in the morning, general fatigue even to the point of collapse, panic attacks and a sense of crisis, or just a general loss of interest in all the projects that seemed so interesting before, and a difficulty forcing oneself to follow through.  Anxiety often seems to go hand in hand, and the more exhausted we feel, the more our mind focuses on narrow details, spins with thoughts of catastrophe, and we lose perspective and keep going rather than stopping. 

This is probably familiar to many of you, and it is to me too. This last winter I was so excited to be working on my business and with clients, and I would leap out of bed in the morning and jump on the computer, until I noticed more and more days when I was emotionally melting down, spinning out with unreasonable stress, or I would have terrible back pain, or I just wouldn’t sleep at all and the next day would be a wreck. It took quite a bit of time, and some gentle admonishment from my husband, before I realised...I was actually pushing myself too hard, and my body needed to rest more. It didn’t fit my image of myself, but when I finally allowed myself to rest adequately, I realised there was a lot of grief that wanted to be felt, and I had been overriding it, not giving it any space. 

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When chronic fatigue, or adrenal burnout happens, your body will not let you do what you were doing before. What we have forgotten how to do in our culture is deeply rest, and to space activity and rest appropriately. When we are ill, we take the minimum amount of time off, then we dive back into our busy life as soon as we are able, instead of taking time to convalesce, to recuperate fully. Resting does not satisfy that urge, the ongoing sense of pressure to tick off the items on the to do list, and it doesn’t get the house clean, earn money or feed the kids. How do we fit rest into a busy schedule anyway? It is non-productive time, therefore it is frequently undervalued. 

In rest, our parasympathetic nervous system is dominant. It is our natural default and in between activities, we should naturally be resting. It gives us time and space to listen to our inner knowing, to check in with ourselves. Look at animals and how they rest so effortlessly. When we need to be active, to go and hunt woolly mammoths, or go to work, or give a talk, or work on big projects, or anything which takes energy and adrenalin, we move into our sympathetic nervous system, which is where our fight or flight impulse also comes in. The problem we are seeing is that people spend so long in their sympathetic that they can’t relax, or they get to the point where they have been stressed for so long, that they collapse into their parasympathetic, and become unable to activate their sympathetic any more. That is adrenal burnout. 

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Our lives need space for us to thrive. It is the space in the room that gives the room its functionality, more than the furniture, yet we tend to focus only on the furniture and forget the space. Our adrenals are switched on and we don’t know how to turn them off, we even forget it doesn't have to be like this. 

Rest, recuperation, space between activities, and wind down time, are all absolutely essential parts of our day. They can be scheduled in....but only if they are consciously valued. Rest is actually a skill than can be learned, and it doesn’t necessarily come naturally. Without rest, empty time, like a field laying fallow, it is impossible to be truly creative or productive, although we can think we are because we are so continually busy. 

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Here are some ideas: 

  • Primarily, give yourself permission to rest, and create an intention to rest as much as YOUR body needs. 
  • Schedule in adequate rest, and value it as as important as the activities that you do. 
  • Take the last hour before bed to do something nourishing like have a bath, read a book, meditate, listen to music, or better still, play some music. Make it non- computer, TV or smartphone based. Perhaps write in a diary so that when its time for sleep, you have slowed down, processed your day, and your sleep can be deeper and more refreshing. 
  • Sleep in if you can, at least on some days. Some of us wake early with adrenals switched ON and a sleep in, when it can happen, can be nourishing. So is a slower, more mindful start to the day, when possible. 
  • If at all possible, have an afternoon rest time. If you have young children, they can be trained to have a rest time too, such as to read a book in their rooms. If you work in an office, you might be able to take 20 minutes of your lunch break to literally lie down with your eyes closed somewhere. Or when you get home, take some time to rest before making dinner, so that your evening is more relaxed. We consider taking prescription medicines to be normal to help us to just keep going, but if “rest” is part of a prescription, it is often ignored. 
  • A morning routine can include meditation time, walking in nature or yoga. Simple walking  is incredibly beneficial to our brain and overall wellbeing. A meditation practice, or yoga, can change your life. 
  • Take rest days from work now and then. Mental health days, or days to be creative, or non productive days, will make your work days so much more productive and creative. 
  • When you get sick, take some extra time to really get well before returning to your normal schedule. This is the lost art of convalescence, where people would be sent to the seaside or mountains for the fresh air and healthier lifestyle, while they convalesced from illness. They might be there for weeks or months, to recover from some illnesses, and for many people today with adrenal burnout or other chronic illnesses, this much convalescence is actually needed. 
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If you have adrenal burnout, you will not be able to return to your former schedule for very long before crashing again. You simply have to change your lifestyle. It may involve changing jobs, letting go of an extra job, or letting go of perfectionism around the housework. It may mean, for some, letting go of work altogether for a while, if at all possible. 

Rest time is how we get back in touch with ourselves. It is how we get in touch with what is really important for our life. It is also physically important for the nervous system, the endocrine system, the digestive system, the brain, the muscles....to rest regularly, between activities. They just don’t function well without regular rest. We can push them so far..then they do snap. It is much better to build into your lifestyle the time to rest, slow down, and stop, even though there is fear that things won’t get done....than wait till it is forced on you.