5 Types of Rest (That Aren’t Sleep)


5 Types of Rest (That Aren’t Sleep)


Rest doesn’t always have to look like more sleep. When we listen to the body’s needs and triggers, we can better understand what true restfulness looks like.

It’s easy to be busy in our modern world, which puts so much value on productivity. Many of us believe somewhere deep inside that we are human doings, not human beings. That if we rest, take a break, or don’t work for a while, we lose our right to exist.

And yet rest is important medicine. Our bodies are capable of healing so many ailments and injuries without much more intervention than rest. Additionally, stress is implicated in something like 90 percent of acute and chronic illnesses.

So, what does it actually mean to rest? And if we’re so used to being busy and stressed, how do we do it?

Obviously, rest can mean sleeping more. But when we are chronically stressed, our sleep can be disturbed, or we may simply fall into a restless unconsciousness overnight that doesn’t leave us feeling refreshed in the morning. Sleep may not be the kind of rest we actually need.

In order to understand rest, we need to understand a little bit about how the nervous system works. When our sympathetic nervous system is in control, the body devotes lots of energy to our brains and our limbs, making sure we are ready to face the task ahead—whether it’s the stress of an engaging work project or the stress of running away from a tiger.

The parasympathetic nervous system controls all the unconscious functions in our bodies, including digestion, hormonal balance, and immune system function. When we are watching a fun show with a loved one, taking a slow walk in nature, enjoying a gentle yoga class, or reading a book, our bodies are controlled by the parasympathetic nervous system.

A healthy nervous system can easily and flexibly move from one state to another depending on what the body is experiencing. In a chronically stressed world where many of us have experienced trauma, we often struggle to move into that restful parasympathetic state. We may be watching a show with a loved one, for example, and pop up halfway through because we are stressed about doing the laundry. We might lie down in savasana after a calming yoga class and be unable to stop thinking about that seemingly stupid thing we said to someone earlier. Our bodies are often unwilling to step out of the sympathetic mode and let us really rest.

So, what do we do about it? We must develop a rhythm of being in the parasympathetic rest mode so that our bodies can heal. Here are five ways to try.

Gentle Yoga or Qi Gong

Gentle yoga classes are intended to invite soft movement into the body while keeping the heart rate relatively low. Qi qong can work similarly, allowing your body to move in gentle intentional ways that can trigger the parasympathetic rest response.

When I was really stressed, I needed a dynamic Vinyasa yoga class. My mind was so busy that it benefited me to focus on where I was going to put my foot next. I tricked my brain into settling down over time. Now that my rest practice is more advanced, I can tolerate Restorative yoga, a style of yoga that asks students to rest for long periods of time in deeply comfortable positions. For some people, this practice activates deep, healthy rest right away, but I needed to practice just being in my mind before I could actually calm down enough to rest in quiet.

Taking a Break from New Information

Part of the reason that so many people are stressed is the sheer amount of information we are constantly receiving from the news and social media. We rarely have enough time to let our brains integrate all that information.

Rewatching a show you’ve seen before, reading a book you know well, journaling, or playing simple games like crosswords can be a way of gently occupying your mind without needing to process any new information. This can be really helpful, especially for a stressed nervous system.

Walking in Nature

There’s something about walking in nature that is incredibly calming and helps reset the nervous system. Even just a short walk in a local park can help you let go of what’s on your mind and feel better. This is partly because walking is a form of alternating bilateral stimulation: You’re moving the two halves of your body in alternating, rhythmic ways, which stimulates both brain hemispheres. Add a little fresh air and some screen-free time, and your body will be feeling calmer in no time.

Scheduling Time Without Timelines

If you, like me, have a habit of overscheduling yourself, you may need to book timeline-free days into your calendar. Don’t meet anyone at a certain time and don’t attend any classes; just do what you feel like doing on your own time. A day without needing to look at a clock can be incredibly calming for the nervous system. You may also want to schedule breaks or evenings with nothing planned so that you can attend to the needs and whims of your body rather than trying to do anything productive.

Learning Your Triggers and Honoring Them

As you go through your day-to-day life, notice the moments when you feel especially stressed. Notice when your heart rate goes up, your palms sweat, or your shoulders tense up. Some people are triggered by a particular physical stimulus. For others, triggers might include crowds, excessive coffee, or aggressive or loud people. For me, I was most triggered when I had to run for the bus!

When we can identify the specific triggers that get our sympathetic nervous system going, we can learn to gently adjust our daily routines to avoid those triggers, hopefully leaving us feeling calmer and more connected to ourselves.

Enjoy your rest!

Try these three tips to sneak more rest into your day.


Yoga and mindfulness can be tools to living a richer, more meaningful life. Explore with Julie...
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5 Types of Rest That Arent Sleep

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