There are few things that feel better than being well-rested.
Imagine your best mornings. Your eyes flutter open to a cool room filled with natural light. You don’t feel groggy or anxious about the day ahead. You don’t reach for your phone. Instead, you decide a glass of water and a little bit of stretching is what your body needs. Morning routines seem to hit a little bit better when you’ve had a full eight hours of interrupted rest.
We all know how important it is to slow down every once in a while and focus on resting up, but have you ever wondered why? Rest, of course, isn’t all about sleep, but it’s a good place to start.
“Sleep services all aspects of our body in one way or another: molecular, energy balance, as well as intellectual function, alertness and mood,” explains Dr. Merrill Mitler, a sleep expert and neuroscientist at the National Institute of Health.
Not only is your brain not functioning at its best when you feel worn down, neither is your body. There’s research to indicate that a lack of sleep can increase risks for heart disease, infections, obesity, and a range of other health problems. This is because the body works while you sleep to release hormones that repair cells and control how the body uses energy.
For many, the recommended seven to eight hours of sleep each night is easier said than done. More than 2 million Americans suffer from sleep interference, mostly sleep apnea and insomnia. Even factors such as blue screens and the temperature of a room can affect how restful your sleep is, which is why experts like Mitler recommend that people avoid a variety of stimulants while winding down in the evening. This can include watching television, scrolling social media, drinking caffeine, and some medications.
Rest and reducing stress
High levels of stress and low levels of rest can easily become a vicious cycle, but researchers have long sought to find the correlation between the two.
In 2020, researchers in the UK wrote that “...By overcoming the energy deficits accumulated during wakefulness and by preparing the organism for the next wake-related energy expenditure, sleep may further support fundamental mechanisms such as brain waste clearance via the glymphatic system or daily stress resistance.”
They’re basically explaining that sleep acts as a sort of stress reset for the brain. While your stressors might not disappear overnight, your brain will be better prepared to handle them the next day. Resting allows the brain to be better at problem solving and critical thinking – both things that are vital to dealing with stressful situations.
To maximize sleep’s impact on the brain, experts emphasize good sleep hygiene:
- Be consistent: No matter how hectic life gets, try to keep a routine. Plan to go to bed around the same time each night and wake up around the same time each morning. This helps a cycle that the brain can rely on for good rest.
- Set the mood: Turn off lights, set the temperature lower, and avoid stimulants. Creating an environment where good sleep is possible is an important first step, so consider your bedroom a sacred place free of blue light and stress.
- Know your triggers: Some things are bound to hinder sleep, like a late-afternoon latte, too much sugar before bedtime, or reading stressful news. Know when to cut them off and focus on more relaxing things.
Rest beyond sleep
Not all rest is nine hours of uninterrupted shut eye. In fact, giving yourself micro-breaks have been proven to be an effective way to curb stress and rejuvenate the body.
At least one researcher points to seven kinds of rest. They are:
- Physical rest
- Mental rest
- Social rest
- Spiritual rest
- Sensory rest
- Emotional rest
- Creative rest
Each has their own place in life, says Dr. Saundra Dalton-Smith, who wrote “Sacred Rest: Recover Your Life, Renew Your Energy, Restore Your Sanity” and works to help others identify the kind of rest they need. She says when she first started studying and developing the list she was in dire need of all seven.
“The restoration process has to be something you can do at almost any time without a lot of limitations. You don’t have to take a three-month sabbatical or some kind of big carved-out period of time,” she explains. “You need a strategy of small things you can do today to start feeling better. I’d rather you do small amounts of restoration through your week than nothing, because then at least you’re pouring a little bit back into those buckets that are getting depleted and not letting them go all the way to burnout.”
Just as you would for a sleep routine, it’s important to work in daily habits for other types of rest. Maybe it’s taking a step back from a big creative project or limiting some interactions to avoid sensory overload. For the most part, it’s a lesson in mindfulness and listening to what the body needs.
Researchers have even shown that some activities we often associate with rest, like meditation and deep breathing, are good ways to calm the mind and help relax the body.
Scientists know that the sympathetic nervous system, which is activated by what we perceive as imminent dangers, affects adrenal glands, cortisol levels, and hormone balances within the body.
Taking a few minutes to rest in the midst of all the stress can really make a difference.
“Breathing deeply, with a slow and steady inhalation to exhalation ratio, signals our parasympathetic nervous system to calm the body down,” says yoga instructor and health leader Nicole Mahabir. “Long, deep breaths can also manage our stress responses to help decrease anxiety, fear, racing thoughts, a rapid heartbeat and shallow chest breathing. These responses can directly impact our physical, mental and emotional health, and longevity.”
Rest can look different for everybody, even when there’s science and research to back it up. That’s why it’s so important to take time to focus on yourself and discover what works best.
Maybe it’s a mental health day every few months to really disconnect from frequent stress, or maybe it’s making the most out of your nightly recharge. Either way, it’s vital for your mental and physical health to focus on resting.
Written by Kara Mason.