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15 Strategies for Mental, Physical, and Emotional Rest

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In part, Newton’s First Law of Motion states that a body at rest will remain at rest. It contains a lesson that human beings often forget: the need to stay at rest. Instead, conventional wisdom lauds those who are always find something to do, who get by with less than 8 hours of sleep, and who never take a vacation. Moreover, one of the stereotypes of most marginalized groups is that they are “lazy”—even low-income workers who work two or three jobs to survive are castigated for laziness. 

People who complain that they just need a moment’s rest are considered weak, and the expression “no rest for the weary” is most often offered in jest. In couples, the person who works outside the home often feels that the end of their workday signals their time to rest; whereas the person who works at home must continue to cook, take care of children and elders, and finish the housework long after the end of the “workday” and long after “retirement.”

Only recently have educators recognized the need for adolescents to rest, leading to a movement to change school starting times. Women have borne the brunt of a family’s struggle to find child and elder care; during the pandemic, nearly 4 times as many women left the workforce compared to men, and layoffs hardest hit women in restaurants, retail, and health care. Yet, the belief continues that women voluntarily rest from their careers.

There is, indeed, no rest for the weary. So what can you do to ensure that you have the rest you need?

TIP: If a member of your home or work team is prone to mistakes, underproductive, emotionally unpredictable, fuzzy-headed, or complaining about being tired, they need rest. Make sure you are one of the people they can turn to for emotional support, help with physical tasks, and ideas to aid their recovery.

Mental Rest

The Pearls Before Swine cartoonist, Shaun Pastis, has one of his characters state that “relaxing is what life wants you to do to catch you by surprise.” You may fear to rest for a moment because life will pass you like a bullet train: you will miss an opportunity, obligation, or one critical piece of information. Yet, persistent mental alertness is draining. 

Mental exhaustion (or burnout) is often the result of stress, with high cortisol levels that interfere with sleep, nutrition, and immunity. Constant decision-making, overcommitment, perfectionism, and lack of sleep lead to poor mental and physical functioning, including irritability and stress. Yet, if we stop, we feel anxious.

Mental exhaustion also results from the flow of information we receive from all our devices. In a survey of 1,700 international workers by LexisNexis, 60% of those queried admitted that they spent half their time receiving and managing information—not using it to do their jobs, but simply acquiring it. We receive too much information and not enough time to deal with it.

To give yourself mental rest:

  • Say “no.” Turn down new commitments, no matter how deserving, and pull away from as many as possible of your present commitments. When you are mentally stressed, you may be able to do everything, but you will do everything poorly.
  • Take time. Rest does not happen in an hour. If you are suffering from mental stress, you need a long enough break to shed the remnants of guilt and actually enjoy your freedom to read, walk, spend time with friends, craft, journal, or meditate. Whether that means resting for an hour every day or full time for a week, you must be able to count on your time of rest.
  • Accept help. You may not have the luxury of a lengthy withdrawal from those things that led to your mental exhaustion, but take advantage of the help available, such as respite care for a loved one. Be assertive about expressing your needs.
  • Consider alternatives. Your family will not suffer disaster if you opt for a few days of take-out dinner and expect help with chores. The organizations where you volunteer thrived before you joined—they’ll thrive during your absence, too. 
  • Don’t go back. Your mental exhaustion is a sign that you were doing too much. If you stop but then return to exactly the same schedule, you are returning to mental exhaustion.

TIP: Physical and mental exhaustion go hand-in-hand. The more exertion a physical task takes, the more mental fatigue results—the more mental fatigue, the poorer the performance.


Physical Rest

Physical exhaustion equals fatigue. The symptoms of fatigue may be similar to tiredness symptoms—trouble sleeping, difficulty in staying focused or awake, and compromised energy and strength—but they last longer. According to researchers, about 20% of US citizens have experienced fatigue that interferes with their daily life. 

When fatigue lasts just a day or two or is related to a passing situation (moving house, recovering from the flu), it is not worrisome. Fatigue that lasts for weeks, however, is very worrisome.

Fatigue may complicate and be caused by physical ailments such as insomnia, heart disease, and severe headache, as well as mental health issues such as depression, moodiness, and burnout. Mental exhaustion is often a prelude to physical exhaustion. Some other signs of fatigue are a reliance on comfort or junk food, an inability to complete your normal exercise routine, and fuzzy thinking. 

Rest is essential to prevent and recover from fatigue. If you feel fatigued:

  • See your primary care doctor. Many treatable diseases cause fatigue, and you do not want to ignore an underlying illness. Also, some medications cause fatigue; your doctor may be able to adjust dosages to alleviate the problem.
  • Change your habits. If you are regularly trying to get by on less than 7 hours of sleep, travel excessively through different time zones, or overuse alcohol or drugs, you are courting fatigue. As with mental fatigue, you need to accept help and change your schedule to allow yourself time to recuperate physically.
  • Fuel your physical and mental resilience. Moderate exercise, stopping an activity when you are tired and before burnout, and building a support network will help you to protect and restore your resilience and prevent fatigue.
  • Hydrate and eat balanced meals. Dehydration increases the feeling of fatigue. Junk food gives you a temporary boost in serotonin (the calming hormone), but it increases insulin production and ultimately causes a crash. Hydration also increases your sense of taste, making it more likely you will enjoy those balanced meals.
  • Practice body awareness. You will be better able to judge your physical state and reduce stress if you know how your body is reacting, know how to attain physical comfort, and move your body easily.

TIP: Don’t buy into the myth that skipping sleep makes you more productive or that long hours will guarantee your rise to the top. In fact, skipping sleep adversely affects your productivity, attention span, creativity, and leadership.


Emotional Rest

We need emotional rest to regain our perspective, including our core values and our priorities. If we are always emotionally chasing the next crisis, we lose sight of why we are doing what we do. Taking time to be grateful, forgive, and simply experience without judgment allows us to grow emotionally and exercise our emotional intelligence. 

Social rest is often a component of emotional rest. You may be naturally extrovert or introvert; you may prefer small gatherings to large gatherings; you form relationships quickly or slowly. Wherever you fall on the spectrum of social interaction,  you need occasional rest from other people to connect to your own emotions, even if every social interaction is positive, gratifying, and supportive.

When you need emotional rest:

  • Practice visualization to see a future that is less fraught and a past where you can forgive yourself and others.
  • Practice SMaRT relaxation techniques such as meditation and focused breathing. Relaxation that slows us down does not involve screens or other people and brings us back to our own six senses is emotionally restful.
  • Speak to a mental health professional, coach, mentor, or friend who is willing to listen, provide support, and alleviate your emotional burden.
  • Remove yourself from stressful situations. Take a walk, listen to soothing music, read a book, and find quiet moments during the day to be by yourself.
  • Laugh.

TIP: If it is possible, eliminating the stressor is the fastest way to gain emotional rest. You may need to change jobs, take a break from caregiving, or stop trying to fix other people’s problems and refer them to a professional instead.

Key Takeaways

Rest has a different quality than relaxation: you can relax with a change in activity, but rest demands stepping away, stepping back, and just stopping. In this sense, relaxation is additive; rest is subtractive. When you rest mentally, physically, and emotionally, you stop the inflow of information, take the time to become aware of your own body and senses, and rediscover calm. 

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