bad at rest

It’s kind of funny how unbelievably bad I am at resting. I talk a good talk about how rest is important and should be valued as much as productivity. I have learnt about the nervous system, recovery, illness and the immune system. I understand how capitalism teaches us we should strive to be bigger, better, faster which I don’t think helps us as humans. However, I might know all of this but I don’t feel it down to my bones. On the day of writing this, a really annoying and uncomfortable recurrent illness is back, and I know I need to rest.

When I am absolutely wiped out with illness, like when I have a migraine which takes out a whole day with sickness, lost vision, impaired cognitive functioning, depressed mood and a violent headache. I lie in a dark room, propped up with pillows because putting too much pressure on my head adds to the pain, listening to a podcast so I eventually doze off and get some relief. On those days, I’m not doing anything else.

The problem comes with the between-times. Maybe when I start feeling a bit better. Or when I am unwell but I can override the ill feelings and carry on. Today, after deciding it was better to rest and get better, I quickly thought “oh great, a day at home resting, I can get so much done!” In part this is probably to override the guilt or stress of cancelling plans or missing work.

If anyone else said this to me, I’d tell them that rest is productive and valuable and important and it’s difficult because it’s counter-cultural which makes it hard and even more important. But still, when I was particularly unwell with covid for a month in November, followed by a nice pick n mix of other illnesses, I did some work every day. It was a distraction and I enjoyed it. But I also think part of me couldn’t bear to spend that much time without getting things done from my to do list and feeling like I was really doing something useful.

The thing is, I don’t really know how to rest. I imagine it looks like being horizontal and watching TV or having luxuriously long naps. Things I definitely like doing. But doing this doesn’t necessarily make me feel that great. Sometimes my heart will race with anxiety as I watch something that isn’t that tense, or whilst I’m lying in bed trying to nap.

I recently did a year-long experiment, working with a coach to look at stress and recovery whilst wearing a Heart Rate Variability (HRV) tracker and keeping a diary. In this context, stress doesn’t = negative feelings/emotions, we might be in a period of stress on the body whilst doing something we’re loving. The idea of working with it is to learn what kinds of activities and routines help the body recover adequately. There were a lot of obvious results, like standing on a busy train would come up red as a time of stress. But some activities I would have assumed to be restful and part of recovery also came up red; painting/drawing, sometimes even lying down and sleeping.

Really, I think the problem is that I don’t want to feel the feelings that come with not keeping busy. I find it much easier to rest if I am with someone else (needs to be the right person!) This makes sense to me, as we humans are built for connection and coregulation of our nervous systems is so important (and undervalued in our western culture). I also wore the HRV tracker during a weekend spent with other embodiment practitioners and there were periods of time where I went into recovery mode with the group, which amazed me as I generally think of groups as more tiring than being alone.

So what am I trying today? Well I did manage to turn my thoughts into another fucking task by writing this, but I did it snuggled down on the bed next to my dog. I’ve decided to have a sofa day. I will pay attention to how my body feels and whether there are little things I can do to adjust and feel a bit better or more comfortable. I can do things if I really want to do them but as soon as I notice any trying or striving energy I will stop, pause, notice how I feel and what might feel better, and adjust.

Illustrations from the bed books of me, jdwoof aka Jo Wood. To see more of my work, head to my instagram here.