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The secret to stress relief: Why rest isn't a waste of time

BY Thijs Launspach

2nd Nov 2023 Wellbeing

3 min read

The secret to stress relief: Why rest isn't a waste of time
Stress is a modern epidemic, but among all the stress management strategies out there we are forgetting one essential remedy—taking time for rest
For a long time, psychology was based on a clear division between body and mind.
Psychologists focused almost exclusively on what went on between our ears. The body was not their responsibility. That was the domain of medical doctors, physiotherapists and gym instructors.
Recently, however, there has been a growing realisation within psychology circles that the body and mind are deeply intertwined with each other, far more than anyone ever imagined.

How your physical health affects the mind

Stressed man sat on bed suffering from poor's night's sleep
The most recent insights have revealed that our mental health is determined to a large extent by our physical condition and there have been some remarkable discoveries in that regard.
We now know from studies that people make better decisions when they have an urge to pee (although no one seems to know exactly why).
And scans have shown that our brain processes "psychological" pain—such as the kind that arises out of social exclusion—the same way it does physical pain. In fact, you can even take an aspirin for that kind of pain.
"Our brain processes 'psychological' pain the same way it does physical pain"
The absence of a clear division between body and mind is also apparent in the case of stress. You suffer more from stress when you are feeling run down or are suffering from a flu. If you have a bad night’s sleep, everything is more stressful the next day.
While you are more prone to stress when you are feeling poorly, the flip side is that you can combat it by looking after your body.
It is now common knowledge that physical exercise (in addition to therapy) helps to alleviate depression. A healthy sleeping pattern also offers protection against all kinds of psychological disorders, and a healthy diet is known to reduce stress. 

Rethinking the value of rest

This is all good news. When you decide to do something about your stress levels it doesn’t necessarily mean you have to turn your whole life upside down—quit your job, file for divorce, move to another country.
Usually the first step is to take better care of your body, as this can lead to mental relief as well. 
Moments of rest and relaxation ought to occupy a more prominent place in our lives. These important moments should not be regarded as a kind of "breather" in between jobs but as a natural and fundamental part of our way of life.
Rest is actually crucial to our wellbeing and is good for both body and mind. We all need at least a little time to think, to reflect on life and even just to be bored. All of which is impossible as long as we continue running flat out on the treadmill. 
"Getting enough rest is not just something we should do when we are exhausted"
We need to relearn the art of rest, especially in these hectic times. I like to imagine that in a few years from now it will be entirely acceptable to say, "Given how hard I worked last week on our project, this week I am going to take a day off."
Getting enough rest is not just something we should do when we are exhausted. We need to see it as crucial time that we use to build up our reserves.
At school, the mantra should not only be that you have to do your very best every day, but also that you can only perform at your peak when you are adequately rested. It is only when we fully embrace rest that we will be able to take a stand against stress and burnout

The difference between active rest and passive rest

Woman resting on sofa with book and cup of tea
So, ask yourself: how do you spend your free time? Do you fill it with as much or as little activity as you can? Consider the difference between "active" and "passive" free time.
Active free time is spent on things like hobbies, sport, friends and family. These are the hours in which you do things that are not related to your work but still provide you with energy and satisfaction.
At the other end of the spectrum is passive free time: reading, watching TV, resting. Passive free time is actually the time you use to recover and build up your energy reserves again.
"Passive free time is actually the time you use to recover"
Ideally you get to enjoy both active and passive free time—one to divert your attention from work and the other to regroup and recover. If your free time is almost always of the active kind, your life will be incredibly energetic but you will never have enough time to recover. 
Your free time is meant for relaxation and recovery, and that is impossible when you have too much on your plate.
A more relaxed life starts in your mind and requires you to think differently about certain things. You first have to realise you’re allowed to make choices. And when you also realise you can say "no" and know how to do that effectively, you will be well on your way. 
Thijs Launspach is a psychologist, TEDX and keynote speaker and author of Crazy Busy: Keeping Sane in a Stressful World
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