A longstanding tradition in our house has been Friday Movie Night. We look forward to it the whole week! But things don’t always go as planned… 

Some Fridays we’ll sit down after a long week of work, fire up Netflix and start flicking through the endless list of films. 

“How about that one, that won the Oscar for Best Picture a few years ago…?”

“No, looks a bit heavy, I don’t feel like that tonight.” 

We keep flicking. 

“How about that? It got great reviews when it came out?”

“It’s got subtitles, I can’t do subtitles right now.” 

We keep flicking. And flicking and flicking until one of us turns to the other: 

Love Island?”

“Yeah, go on then…”

 Nothing against Love Island, it’s just an example of the type of thing that we’ll sometimes put on the telly as a kind of visual and auditory wallpaper while we listlessly dab away at our phones, gently zoning out until it is time to go to bed. 

We’re not unique. All over the world, at the end of a draining work week, people slump down onto their sofas saying: “I’m exhausted, time to relax”. 

But here’s the question: are you relaxing, or are you collapsing?

Overwork and collapse

August is the time of year when most companies would be slowing down a little as (Northern Hemisphere) employees take their summer vacations. But in the year of COVID many people’s holiday plans have been disrupted – overseas travel is either impossible or ill-advised, budgets are restricted for many. All the same, the opportunity is still there for a nice ‘staycation’ – a planned period of time to slow down, to truly relax and recharge… 

But we’ve heard from many people that now working from home has become the norm, the boundary between work life and home life has started to blur unhelpfully. Rather than enjoy the potential benefits of being at closer quarters with our loved ones and not having to commute, many seem to be working longer hours and taking less vacation. 

For some reason many of us are stuck in a cycle of overwork and collapse. What is it that stops us from investing in really good quality rest and relaxation? 

In April 2019 we talked about ‘the myth of pace and productivity’ and speculated about the borderline-addictive relationship many of us have with work: 

“Capitalism thrives in an environment where people subconsciously link their productivity to their sense of self-worth – as long as you are productive you are OK. As a result, many of us find ourselves locked in a perpetual cycle of self-imposed busy-ness…” 

But, in fairness, it is not just our jobs that call on our time and energy, compelling us to keep on going when our bodies are telling us to slow down. Many of us have families too – a partner, children, or – more than ever in these days when older people are particularly at risk and needing support – parents or elderly relatives. And we have homes to maintain, and friends to check in with, and general life admin, and the idea of having a massage or reading a book or going for a long walk may sound very nice but those dishes aren’t going to wash themselves! 

It’s a lot. 

So, full of anxious energy to get stuff done and meet our commitments to the various people in our lives, we keep on grafting….

The pressure to relax

Some we have spoken to say they barely know how to relax anymore. Even if they do manage to find themselves on a beach somewhere, cocktail in hand, their minds are still buzzing – full of all the stuff they should have done before they went on leave, all the stuff they will have to do when they get back… 

And maybe that’s part of the problem. Perhaps we have unhelpfully conflated the ideas of vacation and rest. I mean, what is less conducive to relaxation than a feeling that there are just a few weeks a year in which we have to do all of our recovery – a few weeks when the pressure is on to really relax. Go on! Relax! This is your one shot to relax!

In fact, this relates to another thinking trap that we perpetually fall into – the idea of work and rest being somehow in opposition to one another, rather than complementary. It’s this kind of binary thinking that encourages us to go flat out all week on the promise of rest at the weekend, or to go flat out for three months on the promise of a week on the beach. 

Of course we should take our holiday allowance, but resting can’t be something we just do once or twice a year – to really be sustainable it needs to become a habit, not something separate from our working lives but an intrinsic part of it.

The body bears the burden

For most of us it is mental rather than physical exhaustion that leaves us feeling like we need to collapse every Friday night. It’s not our bodies that need a rest, it is our minds – our constantly thinking, planning, strategizing, ruminating, speculating minds. 

But if we don’t give our minds a break it is our bodies that will pay the price. It’s well known that sustained stress is associated with countless potentially serious health issues – ulcers and gastrointestinal problems, hypertension and coronary heart disease. Our minds might tell us that deferring rest until work is done is virtuous and efficient, but the truth is that it’s killing us. 

You’re more than just your mind…

And yet, it might just be our bodies that could offer us some escape from the relentless thinking machine of the mind. Ask many people about the moments that they feel most sense of ease – when they feel themselves to be released from the endless flurry of thoughts and are really in the present – they say things like when they are exercising, or cooking, or gardening. All activities that invite you to connect with the five senses – the feeling of your muscles working, the smell of the ingredients as they blend in the pan, the sensation of the soil between your fingers. 

We are more than just our minds. We are not just heads on sticks. The flow of information between body and brain goes both ways. Only by listening to the signals that our bodies are sending us can we begin to tune in to what we need – when we need to eat, when we need to move, when we need to rest. 

And it’s by shifting attention towards the body and away from the thinking mind that we may be able to find a more sustainable rhythm of rest and relaxation. 

The five senses are an access point for moments of mindful recovery in any moment. In the middle of a hectic day you can choose to sit for five minutes and simply tune into your breathing. You can pause before just downing the next cup of coffee and actually experience it – feel the warmth of the mug, smell the coffee, sip it slowly and taste it with every part of your tongue. As you walk from one location to the next, allow your attention to shift from your thoughts to the feeling of your feet as they make contact with the floor, with your muscles as the propel you along. 

If we allow ourselves these small moments of recovery over the course of the day then we may end the day with enough energy to actually relax properly! To engage with some kind of active recovery rather than just zoning out. To exercise if that is what helps you feel good. To read a book if that is what gives that feeling of escape.

Maybe even to choose a film on Friday Movie Night and watch it from beginning to end.

Sorry Love Island…

How will you make rest and recovery a part of your life, rather than an optional extra? What is your body telling you about what you need?

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