The Power of Rest

The Power of Rest

Posted on Dec 1, 2022

Stefan Chmelik is co-founder of and inventor of the Sensate stress reduction system, which is based on his over three decades of clinical experience working with anxiety, stress and trauma. His mission is to positively impact the lives of 100 million people by 2025.


The Power of Rest

In a hectic world where we spend so much of our time running from place to place or feeling like we're being chased by messages, by emails, by work, by worries, rest is a revolutionary act.

At this time in particular as we pass through Autumn/Fall into winter, rest and peace is all around us, in nature at  least. The nights have become longer, days get darker sooner and leaves return to the earth, where they blanket the ground and provide homes for small animals and countless insects that are essential to life on Earth. During this time, life becomes dormant. It recuperates. It hibernates to replenish and be ready for the Spring ahead. This of course only really applies to the northern hemisphere in terms of seasonality, but the principle applies anywhere on the planet, you may just have to reverse the cycle.

If you're lucky enough to live in a climate where there are four seasons, or the eight directions as determined in many traditional indigenous cultures, then it's possible to see more easily the visual changes, the gateways between the seasons.

These natural changes, these gateways are opportunities for us to mark our own time and the external undeniable reminders that how we live our lives and use our energies should vary throughout the year. The issue we face, of course, is that technology has allowed us to deny or ignore these undeniable natural phenomena. We can now live somewhat immune to the changes in season to the fluctuations in weather through artificial light, heat and the ability to potentially work anywhere.

We mostly live in heated homes, cars and offices. Air conditioned dwellings where we can turn on a tap to get water. We have dryers for our clothes and our dishes. So things being wet is not really a concern anymore. We can use power to dry them.

All of this gives us the ability to live outside of seasonality, but there's a cost to this ability to deny nature, to live outside of natural changes in the environment.  The Industrial Revolution has led directly to our ‘always on’ culture. Let's make no mistake, these amazing technological changes have brought great benefit to human beings in many ways. We live in times where much of the world's population is more free from hunger, cold and disease than any culture before us. Most people in what we call the developed world are more comfortable than any generation previously.

But it's a truism that technology and labour saving devices don't actually save labour - they just make more labour possible. We work longer hours for more of the year than any population prior to us. It's been noted that medieval peasants worked shorter days than the average modern worker. Previously, the day was largely dictated by available light. More rest, therefore, was the inevitable outcome. As evenings became dark, not much was possible. So in one way we can say that we've been liberated and freed from the shackles of natural seasonality through the many marvelous inventions mankind has strived to create.

On the other hand, we should note that more labour is possible and therefore the economy demands more of us. Human beings are beginning to wake up to the corrosive impact of stress and overwhelm in their lives. We are beginning to question the value of overwork at the cost of our own wellbeing.

When work is all consuming we don't have the time or the space or the mental capacity to enjoy the fruits of these labours. It's ironic that a combination of chronic tiredness, or lack of motivation, and sleep deprivation are two of the most common phenomena that people talk about. These two apparently opposing outcomes are really part of the same package.

By being driven to be everly more productive, to create so that we can consume, we become more stressed and anxious in an already busy world. And sleep, and dreams, elude those of us who are too tired to rest because our fantastically developed brains tell us we can achieve more. The human brain is said to be the most complex structure in the universe, capable of astonishing feats, with hundreds of trillions of connections possible.

So whilst these astonishing human brains have been able to imagine and build ever more complex technologies, our bodies still remain rooted in more primordial times, and our nervous system, particularly our autonomic nervous system, still performs its vital function of scanning our environment to look for threats. This has enabled us to survive as a race into modern times but technology has now advanced far ahead of the pace of evolution. To cope with the busyness of modern life and the sheer volume of data that needs to be processed in an average day, our nervous system needs to engage survival mode, which is only useful as a short term strategy, and we will tend to feel overwhelmed, hypervigilant and therefore threatened.

It's not hard to see that any organism which feels threatened, stressed and anxious finds it hard to rest. Rest feels dangerous when our threat response detectors are subconsciously telling us that the very world around us is dangerous. So within this context, reclaiming our rest becomes a radical act of rebellion, a resistance against the overwhelming forces of achievement that strive to make us want to work harder and produce more.

Reclaiming our rest is an absolutely vital part of regaining our balance, our work-life balance, our wellbeing and our mental health. It's understood that sleep deprivation is a form of torture. It's accepted that lack of sufficient sleep leads to both long and short term consequences. Short term difficulty functioning optimally in our day to day lives. And so many of us are so chronically sleep deprived that we may have no idea what it would actually be like to be fully rested. So the only normal we have to compare to is the abnormal.

Long term, longevity scientists have shown that insufficient sleep reduces telomere length, reduces the body's ability to recover from disease and makes us more prone to catching or developing the chronic inflammatory diseases which are the cause of most people's decline in health in the developed world. So whilst we may no longer die in the same numbers from hunger or infectious diseases or exposure to cold, most people are now made ill by preventable chronic inflammatory diseases including autoimmune disease, diseases of the cardiovascular system, diseases of cell mutation. It's been shown that at night, our brains clean themselves, and when they can't do this, the likelihood of chronic neurodegenerative disease increases and we're seeing that in an increase in decline in mental functions such as dementia.

Insufficient rest also makes us bad people. If we're tired, we tend to be grumpy and anxious and bad tempered and moody. We're less likely to want to be a good friend or good child or a good parent or a helpful committed member of our community, whatever that means in your case.

We will be much less likely to have the energy or the enthusiasm to develop the deeper parts of ourselves, our creative, artistic or altruistic sides, and we're much more likely to seek short term rewards and stimulants which we justify by saying we deserve because we've worked so hard. This cycle of hard work, tiredness and reward locks us in an addictive vicious circle, a circle that spirals downwards.

On the other hand there's an increasing movement towards valuing rest both as an essential human need and the larger scale benefits that this can generate for both the individual and the planet. Many companies are experimenting with shorter working weeks, maybe four day weeks. And although this has been met with much resistance, the research indicates that people are as productive if not more so in a shorter week than they are overworking in a longer one.

The value of meaning and purpose in our lives is increasingly recognised. Many people now understand that the work they do, the time we spend in our lives doing what we call work, should be something that has intrinsic value. Something which is rewarding to others and therefore to ourselves. We need this time outside of our daily work to be better humans, to develop our own inner selves to face and tackle our own inner shadows and to be able to contribute to a world less full of fear and more full of wonder and humanity.

We can only do this by acknowledging our own needs and by fulfilling our own self-care through resting. We know that human beings need seven to nine hours of actual sleep every night. We can't really ‘catch up’ on sleep, can't sleep less during the week and then stay in bed much of the weekend as it doesn't really work that way. Sleep that has been lost has been lost.

The simple hard truth is the only way to get more sleep is to do less. All of us decide what is going to give. We can't have it all and we make a choice, whether we know it or not, between sacrificing work, family, ourselves or our health.

My offering to you is that quality is more important than quantity, and I appreciate that it is a huge challenge to face. The more overwhelmed, hypervigilant and stressed we are, the harder it is to be still and silent, and it is in that sacred space that we rest, recuperate and regenerate.

Imagine an animal that has been chased and is sitting in hypervigilance, eyes darting from side to side, panting and hyperventilating to keep blood flowing to the extremities away from the organs so that it can fight or flight. A state of hyperarousal where one is frozen is neither still nor silent.

Here is the central problem. The more stressed we feel the more real rest will elude us.

We try to make up for this by treating ourselves, overindulging to numb ourselves or pursuing activities which we think of as relaxing, but which can actually be quite activating, like TV or scrolling through our devices. I've noticed in my clinical work that for many people the simple act of ‘doing nothing’ makes them feel anxious, guilty and stressed.

We can only break this cycle slowly. We can't leap outside our self-imposed comfort zones because then we will simply feel overwhelmed, uncomfortable, we will experience symptoms and want to hurry back into our comfort zones to feel more safe, even though this place that we go back to is actually anything but safe in reality. So we have to experiment with and gently flow a little bit outside our comfort zones. Just step a metaphorical toe into things that make us feel a little uncomfortable. Things like not turning on screens after a certain time, reducing distraction and self-numbing through food and treats, substances and behaviors, so that we can actually just be with ourselves and less distracted from our own feelings.

As we introduce rest and come towards the end of our day we can start to get into bed at a more reasonable time. This is certainly my biggest personal challenge! And it's about the time we go to bed that's the critical factor. Getting up late is not the answer. Getting up early is an important self-care ritual.

Perhaps we can see that it's unreasonable to expect ourselves to be able to rest, to go from 100 to zero when during our day we're running from place to place, and things to thing, from stimulant to stimulant, from screen to screen and then suddenly decide to turn off and try and switch off. Of course our brains and bodies will remain alert for some time after this!

So part of radical rest is the radical acknowledgement of commitment to self-care. This means taking breaks and resting during the day, putting aside guilt and shame, ideas which have been put upon us to make us more productive, not for our benefit, but for the benefit of others. Many of us are no better off than the serf or peasant toiling at backbreaking work in the field with most of the profits of that labour going to a Lord of the Manor.

This is a call to lay down our tools for moments during the day and with the full knowledge that by doing so, not only will you be more productive overall, but you will also be attending to vital self-care, reducing the corrosive impact of stress in your life and improving your mental and physical wellbeing. Many of us are sitting at desks all day. We should get up every hour and walk around and stretch and look out the window. Take our attention outside of ourselves, outside of our immediate environment to the sky, to nature, to trees. Move, breathe and drink some water. And return revitalised to our tasks. A number of times daily, we should just simply close our eyes for a few minutes. Lie back and just allow silence and stillness to envelop us in its self-soothing ways. Maybe use headphones if that's necessary and helpful for you. You can once or twice a day lie down and have 10, 20, 30 minutes of power nap. While this doesn't produce the brain cleaning and cell regeneration effects of a night of sleep, it will allow the nervous system to calm down and to reset. It's like taking the kettle off the boil. Commitment to resting is a commitment to your own self-care.

Reclaiming your rest is a radical act of self-care because to truly be of value in our own lives or the lives of others we must care for ourselves first. In the northern hemisphere this time coincides with the holiday period, which of course is not coincidental at all as this is the time when nature also returns to rest.

In more recent times, this has become a time of increased activity rather than rest. More running from place to place to tick off boxes of things that we feel we are meant to do. So this year, this Winter, this December and January, this new year, I'm inviting you to try differently. I'm inviting you to consider doing less and focusing instead on the things which are most important to you, and most rewarding for your community. That could be a community of one or two or of 100. Focus on spending time with the people or places that are most important to you, that regenerate you and which give you meaning and purpose in your life, including your bedroom!

Notice the change of seasons and embrace them rather than deny or hide from them. Spend time outside, allow yourself to feel cold and then the delicious sensuality of becoming warm again. Allow yourself to feel hungry sometimes in the knowledge that you'll be feasting soon.

And allow yourself freedom from guilt, overcompensation and shame in what you give to others.

What people value and appreciate is the gift that they know was well thought through, which will often be permission for self-care to someone else.

So let's allow ourselves a silent night. Make the gift to ourselves and others the gift of rest, recuperation and recovery.

I already know that many people coming to the end of this article will be thinking, “so where's the tips?”. We've become so used to short term thinking and the soundbite ‘10 things I can do to feel better at Christmas’.

Instead, my intention is to engender in our minds and hearts the idea behind rest as a radical act of self-care and self-love, an act which is the greatest gift you can give to yourself or others.

Allow these feelings to grow and then the way in which you can achieve the path to greater self-care will become clear.

I love you. Rest well.


With full acknowledgment to Dr Tricia Hersey and Rest is Resistance

Photos by Aaron Burden and Liz Vo on Unsplash