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The power of rest
Pass it on
Pass it on
I'm reading
The power of rest
Pass it on
Pass it on
I'm reading
The power of rest
Pass it on
Pass it on
Articles
9 October 2013

The power of rest

When we don’t allow for downtime in our lives, illness becomes the only way to stop and take a break.

Written by Thea O'Connor

Behind extraordinary ideas, there are extraordinary people. Dumbo Feather is a magazine about these people.

“We are tempted not to rest because we think we will produce more, but what we produce is less wonderful.” Michael Carmichael.

How did you feel when you woke up this morning? Refreshed or tired? If you felt tired, was it because you were sick? Or were you simply feeling the effects of living in a rest-resistant culture?

On a recent bus ride in Sydney I found myself sitting next to a business executive who told me how he’d panicked that morning when he woke up. On checking his phone he discovered that it had been off overnight. He was not on call for his workplace nor expected to be available at night.

As we talked I found myself staring at an advertisement inside the bus that took up the entire wall. “Use your downtime for news time” it read, promoting an app for news feeds. When did downtime become so dispensable I wonder? Even cause for panic?

Using ‘downtime for news time’ is one way to adjust to the intensification of our waking hours. Never stand still. Fill every possible moment with tweeting, texting and catch-up calls. Is cramming the best way to adapt to the rise in what is demanded of us? Maybe, to some extent, in some situations, but all the time?

We are still waiting to discover the extent of our tolerance for less sleep, more caffeine and high-speed, hyper-connected days. But as long as the operating systems of the human body and mind are based on rhythms and cycles, ebb and flow, there is no dispensing with downtime without eroding the very basis of life itself.

Rhythm is imprinted into the biological systems that sustain us: our body temperature, heartbeat, sleep-wake hormones, breathing or reproduction… These rhythms are composed of downtime as well as uptime. When we don’t allow for downtime in our lives, illness becomes the only way to stop and take a break.

I’m not being overly dramatic in saying that. Not taking regular holidays significantly increases the risk of dying from a heart attack according to a study of 12,000 men published in Psychosomatic Medicine, 2000. Australian surveys indicate that about a third of fulltime workers don’t stop for a lunch break and about 40 per cent don’t take all of their annual leave.

It’s obvious isn’t it? Why we don’t chill out more? We have so much to do and are way too busy. OK, but that’s not the whole story. China is an example of a country full of ‘busy’ workers, yet it’s commonplace for the industrious Chinese to nap daily.

Many inter-related forces drive our busyness, ranging from economic and cultural to psychological. Together they can leave us thinking it’s way too hard or way too scary to try and push back against rest-less ways.

It’s way too hard because it’s countercultural: Regular stopping was once embedded into our weekly, monthly and yearly calendars. I can remember when walking out of the office marked the end of the day’s work, when Sundays equalled rest days and Christmas holidays stretched on for weeks, even months. That’s rare these days.

Unless rest breaks are part of our culture, ‘authorised’ and modelled by community leaders, it takes strength to swim against the tide and justify the extra week’s holiday, not checking emails at home or taking a full hour for lunch. We are affected by a phenomenon called ‘entrainment’, where our own rhythms are subsumed by the rhythm of the larger system in which we exist.

It’s way too scary because we have too much invested in ‘doing’.  If we derive a good chunk of self-esteem from being a super worker, doing less could equal less praise; so how would I feel valued and important? I can remember taking many deep breaths before giving up my business in Melbourne to allow myself a long period of rest and renewal. During that time I realised just how much the Protestant work ethic, which equates sound character and personal worth with work, had infiltrated my psyche.

Slowing down and stopping can also be scary because when we do finally reconnect with our bodies, we realise just how exhausted we really are. It feels more familiar, even comfortable, to keep running on adrenaline, which only makes relaxation and quality sleep even more elusive.

If you are interested in making more space for rhythms of renewal in your life, you could start by examining the drivers behind your own rest-resistance. This helps us see that we do actually have a choice. Valuing downtime might be counter-cultural but you can create sub-cultures amongst family, friends and co-workers that consciously shape healthier norms.

Saying “no” and doing less might threaten the self-esteem we derive from ‘doing’ but we can learn new ways to value ourselves. And if we are too wired to rest, we can consult health professionals to help reset the nervous system.

Most importantly savour the The Curly Pyjama Letters from cartoonist Michael Leunig, which reads: “Learn to curl up and rest–feel your noble tiredness–learn about it and make a generous place for it in your life and enjoyment will surely follow”.

Thea O'Connor

Thea O’Connor is a health journalist, speaker, coach and naptivist. She takes a horizontal stand for making the mini-siesta a valued part of our working day! Read more at thea.com.au.

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