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The importance of real rest

Updated: Feb 1, 2023

It wasn’t so long ago that we thought of rest as something that is sacred. By rest, I mean real rest. The kind that means you sit with yourself, with nothing else to do but re-charge. Not the kind we pretend is rest today, where we are scrolling through our phones, half watching TV, being kept alert by the blue light and our never-ending to-do lists.

Only 50 years ago we took holidays from work like clockwork and the ego-stimulating idea that we were too important to not be contactable during this time, didn’t seem to exist. The holidays themselves were weeks long and they were slow, low key affairs. They were often taken in the same place so that there was no time spent on initiation. They centred around family, food and leisurely activities such as swimming. The whole idea was to switch off and re-charge after all the hard work of that year - there was an intuitive understanding that this is what our bodies needed to stay well.

Holidays seem to have become entirely different from their original purpose. We treat them as opportunities for experience. We want to experience new cultures and cuisines, go on expeditions to see wild animals or to take part in adrenaline sports. We like to have multiple shorter holidays, which plane connections have made possible for us, often even squeezing a trip abroad into a weekend. In my opinion, the word ‘break’ has no place in the weekend mini-break. From the hours of travel, to the frantic sight seeing and eating out, I usually return from these trips more tired than when I left.

50 years ago we also observed the day of Sabbath - a day for rest and worship. Which in Christianity, the religion I grew up with, happened on a Sunday and for some religions occurs on a Saturday. Each week, people would stay at home, only leaving to congregate with their community at a place of worship. For the first few years of my own life nothing was open on a Sunday. Whilst I didn’t go to Church when I was growing up, we did do the same thing as a family every week - we enjoyed time together at home, congregating around the kitchen table to eat a roast lunch. Sometimes my parents would invite family or friends to join us. Today though, we have so many options. Sunday has become just another day that we can go shopping, go out drinking, go to museums or theme parks. A day to do things. Not forgetting of course that all this demand means that millions of people now work on Saturdays and Sundays.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I know that this consumerism is a large driver of today’s economy and those who work weekends need their jobs to provide for themselves and their families, just like the rest of us. I also consider myself to have been incredibly privileged to have experienced the holidays I have taken. They have been exciting, inspiring and mind opening.

But what is all of this restlessness doing to us?

I’m coming to understand that our grandparents and those that went before them were rather wise when it came to health, including on their intuition for real rest. As I’ve written about before in my blog Stress: The silent threat to our health, our bodies need to be in the ‘rest and digest' state most of the time in order for them to function properly. In this state the body can operate its digestive, reproductive and memory systems normally. It is also able to fight infection, stave off cancer cells and dampen inflammation. As Lissa Rankin says of the rest and digest state in her book Mind Over Medicine, “the parasympathetic nervous system takes over and the body returns to homeostasis. Only in this rested, relaxed state can the body repair itself.”

However today, our body's stress or ‘fight and flight’ response tends to be switched on frequently. It is triggered as a result of the daily stressors associated with modern life such as loneliness, work pressure and 24/7 contact. So it seems to me that we face a dichotomy - many of us find ourselves unable to relax, high on adrenalin and scared of being bored, yet our bodies need rest more than ever before.

In addition to the physiological consequences of restlessness, we are also less creative and productive. As pointed out in this Business Insider article, “the parts of your brain that drive creativity are actually most active when you don’t have to focus”. When we allow our bodies to relax, our subconscious is developing insight and ideas. So whilst society tells us we must keep working at a frenetic pace in order to keep the economy turning, just be mindful that we would probably all be much more useful if we prioritised proper time off.

If you are feeling like you might be devoid of time to recover and re-charge, perhaps think about putting down some boundaries around your non-working time, and consider this description of real rest from

“Rest does not imply complete idleness but does require a situation where one does not have to do anything”

Here are some ways you can bring this practice into your life:

  • Next time you go on holiday, leave the tick-list of sights to see at home. Just turn up and decide what you want to do each day, depending on how you’re feeling.

  • Plan a holiday for 2 or 3 weeks rather than 1 - we often underestimate the amount of time we need to recover and re-charge.

  • Try having a social media detox on holiday, and always switch off your work emails!

  • Keep a few days free from social engagements or commitments every week, and use these days to do whatever it is that helps you switch off after work. If it’s being around good friends that helps you relax, just make sure it’s not something you feel compelled to do.

  • Go for a long walk in nature - it’s scientifically proven to switch on the body's relaxation response as I discuss in my blog: The healing power of nature.

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