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Explore the 7 Types of Rest:

Physical Rest  •  Mental Rest  •  Emotional Rest  •  Social Rest  •  Sensory Rest  •  Creative Rest  •  Spiritual Rest

It’s common for Americans to wear busyness as a badge of honor. Maybe staying occupied allows us to avoid emotions we would rather not face. Or we’re trying to cope with very real economic pressures. Possibly we’ve been stereotyped as lazy and feel driven to work twice as hard as everyone else to avoid those judgments.

Whatever the reason, many of us can’t remember the last time we truly rested. And if we can, we might be afraid to tell anyone. Resting seems so … indulgent.

All this fear and avoidance of rest may be a genuine threat to our health. Amelia Nagoski, DMA, coauthor with her twin sister, Emily, of Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle, knows firsthand what a lack of rest can do to the body. Her breakneck schedule as a doctoral student and musical conductor — as she put it, her “immersion in the ­misogynist culture of classical music and academia” — sent her to the hospital with severe abdominal pain. Twice.

When doctors told her the pain was stress-related, she felt both dismissed and confused — at least until Emily, a health-behavior researcher, explained how the effects of stress and burnout on the body were as real as any other threats to her health.

After that, Nagoski made rest her mission.

“You can’t have health unless you are well-rested,” she says. “Basically, it’s like, Get rest or the rest is going to get you. If your body has to make you feel like garbage in order to force you to rest, it’s going to do that.”

Yet, beyond going to bed earlier, many of us have no idea how to rest — or what feels most restorative to us. But rest is a skill we can learn.

Rest as Medicine

Far from being a waste of time, rest is free preventive healthcare. According to the National Institutes of Health, lack of sleep (one type of rest) can lead to a range of problems, including heart disease, kidney disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, stroke, and depression.

Exhaustion also appears to wreak havoc on digestion. A recent study found that sleep disturbance is linked to irritable bowel syndrome; ­researchers suspect this is because poor sleep can exacerbate hypersensitivity in the gut. (Research shows that sleep significantly influences metabolism, appetite, and weight management. Learn more at “How Does Sleep Influence Weight Gain?“)

Yet the belief that we don’t deserve rest can be hard to shake.

“We’re under the influence of our extractive, overworked culture, so when we pause to rest, it often feels like we’re being disobedient,” says breathwork expert Ashley Neese, author of Permission to Rest. “We have internalized so much of these frameworks that we feel wrong or worthless when we slow down.”

Rest also leaves room for uncomfortable emotions to surface. “It often takes us right into painful feelings of grief, shame, and rage,” she notes.

This happened to Neese. After years of recommending that her breathwork clients get more rest, she finally realized that she didn’t know how to do it herself. “I came to rest as many people do — ­depleted and exhausted — but I couldn’t find access points to it.”

Over time, Neese began to better understand her difficulties. “Because of trauma that I had experienced, it didn’t feel safe to rest. It didn’t feel safe to slow down.”

Neese needed professional therapeutic help before she could relax enough to rest. She then developed a practice to help her­self feel what she’d been avoiding. “Until we can meet ourselves in the discomfort that surfaces when we rest, we will continue resisting the medicine we desperately need,” she explains.

7 Types of Rest

Sleep isn’t the only type of rest we need — other parts of us crave some downtime too. Saundra Dalton-Smith, MD, explores seven types of rest in her book Sacred Rest: Recover Your Life, Renew Your Energy, Restore Your Sanity. Understanding that there are different categories of rest helped Dalton-Smith, a physician and parent, recover from a period of profound exhaustion in her own life. She also learned she could be deficient in one type of rest while being fine in others. (Identify your own rest deficits with the quiz.)

These are the seven types of rest.

1) Physical Rest

This is the type of rest most of us can identify, even if we don’t always practice it.

“If you use your physical body throughout the day, you need physical rest,” writes ­Dalton-Smith in Sacred Rest. Athletes in training typically schedule rest days for certain muscle groups, but being on your feet for work, wrangling toddlers, and doing house- and yardwork are also physical labor — and rest is required to recover from those, too.

According to Dalton-Smith, these are signs of a physical-rest deficit:

  • You lack the necessary energy to complete the physical tasks on your to-do list.
  • Your immune system is lackluster, and you catch frequent colds and illnesses.
  • You rely on substances such as alcohol or comfort foods to help you slow down.

Naps are an excellent source of physical rest when you’re short on sleep, as well as a powerful way to reclaim your own time. Tricia Hersey, author of Rest Is Resistance: A Manifesto and The Nap Ministry’s Rest Deck: 50 Practices to Resist Grind Culture, founded her organization, The Nap Ministry, after years of feeling ground down by work and school.

Hersey’s rest practice began with 15-­minute catnaps on campus while she was attending seminary. “I implemented sky-gazing moments in between classes that involved sitting down outside and staring at the sky. To be in nature, breathing slowly, while I was sometimes navigating my day on four hours of sleep from the night before was life-shifting.”

2) Mental Rest

Our minds need rest as much as our bodies. When we’re exhausted, “our mental background noise is often infused with negativity,” explains Dalton-Smith. This ambient negativity can be deeply draining.

These are signs of a mental-rest deficit:

  • You avoid certain activities because you fear you will make an error.
  • You feel like you’re in a mental fog.
  • You’re irritable and snappish.

If you’re in need of mental rest, Nagoski says, “do something that switches gears.” Say you’re doing computer work that involves high-level cognitive processing. Your brain will get tired — all that thinking uses a lot of energy. She suggests going outside for a walk or a run or doing some yoga. “Something that uses your body, but not your brain quite as much.”

3) Emotional Rest

Nagoski explains how “human-giver syndrome” can run down our emotional batteries. If you’re someone who never says no, who shows up for everyone, and who rarely considers your own needs before jumping in to help, you probably have it — and you likely need an emotional break.

Here are some signs you might be suffering from an emotional-rest deficit:

  • You beat yourself up about the slightest mistake.
  • You feel depressed or angry when you think about your life.
  • You worry excessively.

Neese recommends using “the one-minute rest” when you feel yourself reacting emotionally to a situation — which is usually what we do when we forget to observe boundaries.

“Take one minute, seated or standing, to bring awareness to where you are,” she says. Notice the colors, textures, shapes, and sounds around you. This helps bring you back to the present moment, where it’s easier to have boundaries and say no if you need to.

To get some deeper emotional rest, Dalton-Smith recommends, evaluate your relationships and spend less time with people who leave you feeling drained. She also suggests noticing and releasing the habit of comparing yourself with others.

4) Social Rest

Despite how it sounds, the need for social rest doesn’t necessarily mean solitude. It’s about taking a break from people who wear you out — and spending more time with people who lift your spirits.

“Social rest is about making space for those relationships that revive you,” explains Dalton-Smith. “When you are with a friend … who makes you feel as if you could tell them anything, you’re experiencing social rest.”

She suggests you may be deficient in social rest if you are experiencing any of these:

To make space for social rest, identify the people who make you feel good, energized, and inspired. It may be a friend who always makes you laugh but also listens thoughtfully when you’re going through a hard time; or it might be a group of like-minded folks who champion a cause you believe in. You’ll know who they are by how you feel after you see them.

5) Sensory Rest

Our senses are bombarded every day — the coworker who wears a lot of perfume, bright white office lights, ­endless computer screens. “When you overload the senses, you overload the mind,” explains Dalton-Smith. “Your body and emotions will respond adversely.”

These are some signs of sensory overstimulation:

  • You’re jarred by loud sounds.
  • You dislike being hugged or touched.
  • Big, sensory events like concerts or fireworks are a misery.

To rest your senses, ­Dalton-Smith suggests taking the inputs one at a time. Start by considering something you do or encounter daily, like dealing with loud noise from street construction or staring at a computer screen for hours. Then iden­tify “restful alternatives to undo the effect of that specific constant stimulation.” This could be as simple as giving your eyes a break by looking out a window or taking a walk to escape the sound of construction.

You can also build some more deliberate sensory rest into your daily routine. Commit to avoiding screens for the first and last hour of each day. Get some noise-canceling headphones to wear at the office. Take a daily or weekly walk in nature and listen to the birds.

6) Creative Rest

This may sound like you’re going to take an art or music class, but Dalton-Smith notes that those are ­examples of creative work. Creative rest involves giving your mind a deliberate break to allow your creativity to regenerate. Anyone whose daily tasks involve “thinking outside the box,” she explains, will be subject to this type of burnout.

You might need creative rest if you’re experiencing these signs:

  • You regularly talk yourself out of self-care.
  • You feel selfish when you think about doing something for yourself.
  • You question the value of your work and feel underappreciated for your contributions.

Creative rest opportunities are all around us. Dalton-Smith suggests building small sabbaticals — even as brief as a half-hour — into your daily life. During these little windows of freedom, you can do whatever you like: Sip coffee in a new café and stare out the window, spend an afternoon in a museum, go people-watching in a park. Think of it as letting your mind wander off leash for a while. It can get ideas flowing again.

Meanwhile, if you’re midproject and starting to flag, she recommends a creative rest practice called “flow-break rhythm.” “Our bodies and minds have a natural rhythm for optimal performance,” she explains. “For most, those rhythms are in 90-minute to two-hour increments.”

Dalton-Smith suggests “flowing” daily activities in these time blocks, followed by 20 minutes of a scheduled rest break. Keep practicing until you get in the habit of flow-break-repeat.

7) Spiritual Rest

Rest is powerful, even subversive. This is especially true, Hersey advises, if you belong to a marginalized group that has traditionally been expected to feel less pain and work harder. These unspoken expectations can lead to a feeling of alienation from your own body, such that you might not even know you need rest. Or if you do, you don’t want to admit it.

“When we do listen to our bodies and take rest, many feel extreme guilt and shame,” Hersey notes. Still, she says, identifying that the very idea of laziness was born of a damaged and damaging system can make it easier to reject — and in turn, easier to embrace your own sacred nature.

According to Dalton-Smith, these are signs of a spiritual-rest deficit:

  • You feel a decreased sense of accomplishment.
  • You feel helpless.
  • You feel numb and apathetic.

Spiritual rest offers a way to calm your body and mind by connecting to a higher power. For Dalton-Smith, that power is God. Prayer or meditation can be excellent forms of spiritual rest if you have a religious background.

Others might find spiritual rest by connecting to another kind of higher power, such as nature. “Nature bathing is a practice you can do in any natural environment that feels restorative to you,” says Neese. This could be a 20-minute stroll through a botanical garden or a long hike somewhere farther afield.

Spiritual rest is anything that reminds you that you are part of the world, and that the world is a part of you. This helps you ­accept that you are an important and ­inextricable element of the universe — but that you are not responsible for everything. You can take a break.

Remind Your Self to Rest

We can take deliberate steps to build an environment that supports both focus and downtime.

“One way to give ourselves a fighting chance against the ever-present ecosystem of interruption in our lives is to use … decision architecture,” writes breathwork expert and author Ashley Neese in her book Permission to Rest. Often used by web designers, decision architecture considers the environment and context in which users make decisions.

This includes the decision to rest. “We can create the conditions for rest in our environments by setting them up to remind us of our deeper intentions,” explains Neese. This makes us less dependent on willpower, which is a limited resource. “Intention alone is always going to fall flat because you’re relying on willpower alone.”

To build a supportive environment for rest in her own home, Neese does things like leaving her cork blocks out on her studio floor. This cues her brain to practice breathwork and restoration each day. You could try leaving a meditation pillow out in plain view, charging your phone in a corner of the kitchen after dinner (and leaving it there until morning), or keeping a pair of walking shoes in your car to remind yourself to stop at the park or nature preserve and take a stroll. (For more, see “What Is Behavior Design?: Understanding How Our Environment Shapes Our Behavior” to learn how your living environment can support — or sabotage — your health-improvement efforts.)

This article originally appeared as “Time to Rest ” in the May/June 2024 issue of Experience Life.

Jessie Sholl

Jessie Sholl is an Experience Life contributing editor.

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