Rest and relaxation tips for optimal well-being

Rest and relaxation

Why we struggle to rest

In our increasingly fast-paced world, taking a holiday can feel like a luxury we simply can’t afford, and unwinding after work can be a challenge. But what if I told you that constantly being “on” is not just unsustainable, but detrimental to your health? The truth is, relaxation isn’t a reward for productivity; it’s a fundamental human need. Yet, many of us struggle to truly relax, plagued by nagging guilt or an inability to quieten the ever-churning gears of our minds.

Work intensification, juggling competing job demands, ‘always on’ technology and remote working all contribute to us finding it harder to disconnect and unwind. 

This article explores the surprising difficulty of relaxation in our achievement-oriented society. We’ll look at the science behind why resting feels so hard, and share some practical tips to help you overcome these mental hurdles and finally reclaim your right to rest.

The relaxation paradox: Why we fight against our needs

Imagine this: you’re finally on your well-deserved holiday, but instead of enjoying the experience, your mind keeps fixating on overflowing inboxes and looming deadlines. Or you settle down to read or watch some Netflix, only to be plagued by guilt about your ever-growing to-do list. These scenarios are all too familiar, highlighting a strange paradox – the difficulty of relaxation.

Erin Westgate, a psychology professor at the University of Florida, conducted a study that perfectly illustrates this. Participants were tasked with simply sitting and thinking for a few minutes. Surprisingly, many found the experience so uncomfortable they opted to receive mild electric shocks instead! This aversion to “doing nothing” points to a disconnect between our natural state and our conditioned busyness. Most of us aren’t accustomed to simply being present without translating thoughts into actions, leading to a state of “cognitive intensity” that hinders relaxation.

This discomfort with stillness is further compounded by societal pressures. Our culture glorifies productivity and busyness. We receive countless messages throughout life about being busy and productive. I’m thinking of Benjamin Franklin’s famous quote: “Don’t put off until tomorrow what you can do today.” This constant pressure to achieve breeds “relaxation anxiety” and “relaxation sensitivity,” terms coined by researchers to describe the discomfort and unease some experience when they slow down.

Celeste Headlee, author of “Do Nothing: How to Break Away from Overworking, Overdoing, and Underliving” argues that our societal values around work are deeply ingrained. We’ve been conditioned to believe that rest is somehow morally inferior to productivity. This ingrained guilt makes it hard to truly disconnect and enjoy leisure time.


The science of relaxation: How to activate your off switch

The good news is relaxation isn’t about forcing yourself into a state of zen meditation. Scientifically, relaxation simply means activating your parasympathetic nervous system – the one responsible for calming bodily functions like digestion and breathing. This is the opposite of the sympathetic nervous system, which governs your fight-or-flight response.

The key to unlocking relaxation lies in activities that promote this physiological shift. Here’s the beauty of it: relaxation doesn’t have to be passive. Activities you enjoy, like gardening, cooking, or reading to your children, can all be effective relaxation tools.

The crucial element is single focus. When you’re fully engaged in an activity you find enjoyable, intrusive thoughts and distractions melt away. For those who find traditional meditation challenging, activity-based relaxation offers a fantastic alternative.

Here are some additional tips to help you activate your relaxation mode:
  • Give yourself permission: When it comes to problems with relaxing, we can be our worse enemy by allowing our inner dialogue to incessantly remind us we have so many better and more important things to do than relax. Remind yourself that rest is an investment. If it helps, consider agreeing with yourself a time and stick to it. That might be 5 minutes, 30 minutes or an hour. You decide.
  • Deep breathing exercises: Taking slow, deep breaths activates the parasympathetic nervous system, signalling your body to relax. There are various breathing exercises you can try, so find one that works for you. The following article gives a good overview of several popular forms of breathing practices – Abdominal Breathing
  • Progressive muscle relaxation: This technique involves tensing and releasing different muscle groups throughout your body, promoting a sense of physical calm that can ease mental tension.
  • Embrace the power of journaling: If simply sitting with your thoughts is overwhelming, try journaling. The act of physically writing down your worries can be a cathartic release, reducing cognitive load and promoting relaxation.
Breathwork for relaxation

Setting boundaries: Protecting your relaxation sanctuary

Even if you embrace relaxation techniques, achieving true rest and recovery requires setting boundaries. When work bleeds into your personal life – checking emails during lunch or catching up on calls in the evening – violates your relaxation time.

Establish clear working hours and stick to them. Think of it like a store closing for the night – you wouldn’t feel obligated to serve customers after hours, so why feel compelled to answer work calls during your downtime? Here are some boundary-setting strategies you might find useful:

  • Physically write down your working hours: Having a visual reminder can help you stay focused during your designated work time and resist the urge to check in after hours.
  • Communicate your boundaries: Let colleagues, friends, and family know your working hours and that you won’t be available outside of those times. Enlist their support by asking them to hold you accountable.
  • Use technology: Add your working hours to your email signature. This can be especially useful for those who work part-time or set working hours. Another thing you can do is set up an autoresponder on your email account that notifies senders you’re unavailable outside of work hours. Consider setting reminders on your phone of your working start and end times. Enabling the “do not disturb” mode on your phone and computer during your personal time is also a good way to stop digital intrusions.

Reframing rest: It's not about laziness, It's about well-being

Rest isn’t a sign of weakness or laziness; it’s a vital pillar of well-being. Chronic stress wreaks havoc on our physical and mental health, increasing the risk of chronic diseases, anxiety, and depression. While adequate rest strengthens our immune system, boosts creativity, and improves our ability to focus.

Here’s the bottom line: Getting better at resting is vitally important; it’s an investment in your health and happiness.

Start small and be kind to yourself

The key to mastering relaxation is to start small and be patient with yourself. Don’t attempt a week-long meditation retreat right off the bat. Instead, incorporate short relaxation moments into your daily routine.

Consider using your morning shower as a dedicated relaxation space. Focus on the sensation of the water on your skin, the sound of the running water, and the warmth enveloping you. These small moments of mindfulness can have a cumulative effect, gradually training your brain to unwind.

Remember, relaxation is a skill, and like any skill, it takes practice. There will be days when focusing on relaxation feels difficult. Don’t beat yourself up – simply acknowledge the challenge and try again tomorrow.

If relaxation feels impossible, it might be time to seek professional help

If relaxation feels utterly foreign and attempts to unwind consistently lead to frustration, it might be time to seek professional help. A specially trained coach or therapist can help you identify and address any challenges contributing to your difficulty with relaxation. Techniques like cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can equip you with tools to manage stress and anxiety, making relaxation a more achievable goal.

Remember, prioritizing rest isn’t a sign of weakness; it’s a sign of strength and self-care. By overcoming the mental barriers to relaxation and incorporating these tips into your daily routine, you can reclaim your right to rest and unlock a new level of well-being and productivity.

If you’d like to get some coaching and support to achieve a better work-life balance, get in touch for a free no obligation call to discuss how coaching can help.

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