Person lying down with book on face. Is this how we imagine rest?

If you’ve got some time off work coming up in the next month or so, you might well be anticipating a good long rest.   

Waking without an alarm clock; spending time reading and relaxing; allowing yourself to unwind from the stresses of daily life. Sounds enticing!   

But does our idealised vision of “holiday” time underestimate the complexity of managing our energy? 

What do we mean by rest? 

Many of us tend to conflate “rest” with “not working”. Which isn’t strictly true. 

After all, in the description of being on holiday in the paragraph above, we failed to mention some other common features of the average modern vacation. Such as… 

  • Navigating travel, whether packed airports, long drives, or delayed trains…
  • “Catching up” on work – or other stress-inducing reading – whether it’s the state of the climate, idiots on social media, or articles about yet another existential threat to humanity…
  • Attempting to enjoy time spent with family, whilst mediating conflicts, managing expectations, and trying to keep everyone off their phones… 

On the other hand, you might also be able to recall experiences at work when you’ve felt energised, calm, and even, yes, rested.

Perhaps you were able to escape for a day of team connection and development, when you felt your bonds strengthen and trust grow. 

Maybe you’ve solved a challenge creatively, feeling confident you’d be able to come up with a new solution and really enjoying the process of doing it.

These “flow” states can feel a lot more like play than work!

So if rest isn’t “not work” – what is it?  

From a biological perspective, when we talk about “resting”, we’re usually describing a state in which the Paraysmpathetic Nervous System (PNS) is active. The PNS is sometimes referred to as our “rest and digest” system.  

It’s when our digestion functions optimally; when our immune system is boosted; when our heart rate, blood pressure and body temperature drop and we experience a feeling of relaxation.  

We’re able to connect with others, experience playfulness and creativity, and feel present and secure in what we’re experiencing.  

By contrast, when under stress our Sympathetic Nervous System tends to dominate. This is what you might have heard referred to as your “fight or flight” response. It’s when we’re on alert, and physically ready to respond.  

We start to feel an increase in blood pressure, heart rate and body temperature as blood is diverted from our abdomen, digestion slows, and we experience heightened alertness and awareness.  

Being in an activated SNS state is not necessarily a bad thing! Activities like exercise, anticipation or excitement, and anything requiring us to mobilise for action will involve the SNS to some degree.  

However, when we’re constantly in an SNS state, and rarely experience the shift into our PNS, there can be a significant impact on our physical and mental wellbeing.

Learning to balance, and move fluidly between these states, allows us to maximise our access to our different states of being. In other words – we’re at our most resourced when we’re able to draw on both our PNS and SNS capacities.  

What horses can teach us about rest 

 Horses are masters of shifting between these two states. In healthy, wild herds, they’re able to “toggle” rapidly between the two states – grazing peacefully, before shifting into an alert state in response to a predation threat or shift in the environment, and then returning to a rest or play state.  

Humans, on the other hand, can often find ourselves “stuck” in a state of alertness or arousal. Regardless of our daily activities, our modern world often promotes a level of SNS activation that can ultimately be detrimental to our wellbeing. 

For example, many of us are familiar with the experience of stress at work. With increasing pressure on the team, challenging deadlines, and multiple streams of information to react and respond to, our Sympathetic Nervous Systems can dominate.  

This might not feel unpleasant – that state of thinking quickly, rapidly generating solutions, and pivoting quickly in response to new information is often what makes our work feel rewarding, stimulating and creative. 

But how often do we then continue that SNS state? 

Perhaps a long day at work finishes with a session at the gym; busy family activity; or scrolling through social media feeds that inspire, alarm or enrage us. It’s no wonder that many of us struggle to calm our minds enough to sleep, or talk about finding it difficult to “switch off”. 

And that feeling of coming back from a break saying “I need a break”is a sign that we’re not necessarily resting as effectively as we could be – even in the time we’ve assigned for relaxation. 

How can we cultivate our ability to shift between states? 

As with any shift in our habitual ways of being, the first step towards change is often simply being aware of what’s happening.  

There may well be an opportunity here for you (and perhaps your team) to undertake some deeper exploration into understanding what thoughts and beliefs may be driving the tension and stress that leads to burnout.
Longer term work can give new shape to our behavioural response patterns, when meeting our busy and sometimes chaotic day to day lives. New sustainable habits take time to build, but can have an extraordinary effect on what you’re able to achieve in the long term.
And what about right now, as you’re reading this?

Well – if you’ve been craving some time off work, here’s an invitation to reflect on what exactly it is you’re looking for a change from.  

If you’ve been in a state of high activation for a while, might there be ways to tap into a different way of being and activate your PNS without needing to take drastic time away from your daily activities? We know the PNS allows us to be fully present. So, simply taking the time to connect to your surroundings and become aware of where you are can help reduce your reliance on your SNS.  

Here are some ideas for ways you could bring this presence into your day: 

  • Take a short break from your desk and get outside. Notice your surroundings. 
  • Spend time in nature. 
  • Do some simple breathing exercises. Breathing out for a little longer than you breathe in helps shift your body into a more relaxed state, signifying to your nervous system that you’re safe. 
  • Take a class in mindfulness, meditation or yoga. 
  • Set a regular timer to remind you to pay attention to your body – how you’re sitting, standing or moving. 

Rest and your leadership 

If you’re a leader of any kind, the way you approach rest has added significance. As we see when we observe horses, it’s the leader who sets the overall experience of the herd, signalling to them whether they’re in a state of safety, when it’s OK to rest, play and relax, or need to be alert and ready to respond. 

A leader who’s constantly in a state of high arousal creates a sense of tension and stress in those around them. Consider the creativity, connection and wellbeing that might be unleashed, were we all to cultivate a healthier relationship with rest.  

Who knows – when you master the art of building rest and relaxation into your day-to-day flow, your week of vacation might be a time to seek out the adrenaline that’s missing in your working life. 

Bungee-jumping trip, anyone

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