Racing heart. Sinking stomach. Overwhelming need to pace around. Am I about to go on an interview? Take a standardized test? Confront the object of my biggest phobia? Just waking up from a nightmare? No, I’m just sitting home on a Saturday, faced with hours of unorganized time. As someone who thrives on productivity and creative energy, I’ve always had trouble reaching and sustaining a state of mental or physical stillness. An hour and a half yoga class is one thing, but an entire day–or, dare I say, an entire lifestyle–that priorities rest and relaxation is likely to produce in me symptoms others experience during a panic attack. While keeping up with this go-go-go mentality has reaped many benefits throughout my life, I’m starting to question how beneficial it is in the long run. It seems that the day will eventually come where my battery burns out, and that crash will not be an easy one to recover from.
It’s not that I don’t think I deserve or need rest. My average week comprises nearly 50 hours working at the office, at least 10 more hours working at home at night and on the weekends, and 6 hours practicing yoga, so I can logically understand that the time when I don’t need to be somewhere can and should be spent doing things I love. It’s hard, though, to let go of a mindset where there is always something else that could be done, part of which has carried over from my days as a student. Guilt immediately sets in if I find myself reclining on my sofa with a non-work book and a cup of tea: I should be reading something else, or exercising, or cleaning my apartment, or making plans to see that friend who canceled on me last month. But wait, I’ve already put on my weekend to-do list all of those things–plus other neurotic details ranging from “polish nails” to “do laundry,” which by now are so routinized that I hardly need to write them down–such that all 48 precious hours are accounted for. Crossing things off the list is at once euphoric and demoralizing. Once one thing is done, I need to find something else to replace it.
Last weekend, I decided to test the limits of my endurance for unstructured time after my body started telling me to slow down: not only was I feeling tired and sluggish, but I’d sustained a minor yet annoying injury and knew the only treatment for it was RICE (Rest Ice Compression Elevation). If Rest is the first of this universally applicable prescription for the body, why couldn’t I apply it to my spirit? To my surprise, I didn’t combust when I took time to enjoy myself. Everything that needed to get done, did. Sleeping for eight, or even nine, hours a night did not turn me into a lazy homebody. I did not get fired from my job for not pushing myself to the extreme, but rather found myself happier and less ornery when tackling the following week’s big projects. It wasn’t easy, but I’m beginning to think of Rest and Relaxation as two new things to add to my to-do list: challenges for my task-hungry mind. As Virginia Woolf said, a woman who was anything but unproductive, “Yet it is in our idleness, in our dreams, that the submerged truth sometimes comes to the top.”
If you recognize some of these signs (anxiety, restlessness, inability to relax, or alternately fatigue and sluggishness), try these relaxation techniques to slow your mind and body down–and avoid a major burnout.
1. Block off just a small amount of time for relaxing: Like running or any other sustained activity, relaxing will become easier if you start small. If the idea of not doing anything productive gives you anxiety, give yourself just 15 minutes to fully relax. No thinking or talking about work–just doing what you find pleasurable for full 15 minutes. Afterwards, realize that nothing was missed from giving yourself a break. Build up your relaxation “endurance” by adding more minutes, and soon you’ll be able to let go of stress for longer stretches of time.
2. Relax at the same time everyday: Make a habit of your relaxation, much like brushing teeth or eating breakfast. Great times to have some “me” time is right after you wake up, and right before you go to bed.
3. Practice mindfulness: The relentless pace that has you feeling tightly wound up, 24/7, means you are constantly executing and formulating plans without taking a chance to observe. New cognitive theories suggest that how people rely on either their upper or lower brains has an effect on their experiences and decisions: the top brain forms and executes plans (making checklists, doing tasks) and the bottom brain perceives and interprets (noticing the scenery around you, your own breath, etc). It’s no brainer (pun intended) then that your upper brain is working overtime, and not always taking cues from your lower brain. By practicing mindfulness, you are literally putting your mind in balance.
Also by Jennifer: I Tried a Gluten-Free Diet
Photo: Wil Blanche via Flickr