How to Identify Your Roadblocks to Rest — And Finally Get Some More of It

published Jun 27, 2022
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Someone relaxing on the sofa
Credit: Photo: Christopher Testani; Prop Styling: Carla Gonzalez Hart; Nails: Mamie Onishi; Pouf: Courtesy of Aelfie; Blanket: Courtesy of Happy Habitat

As a busy, working mother in a bustling city that never sleeps, I confess that so often I don’t get much of it either. I talk a good game and think I’m doing all the things to relax: have a glass of wine, scroll social media and watch my current screen obsession (sometimes all at the same time). But inevitably when I close my eyes, my mind refuses to quiet down because I haven’t truly decompressed. But given life’s demands, prioritizing downtime is often much easier said than done — the kind of downtime that allows your body a chance to recuperate from the day.

Wellness entrepreneur and public speaker Christina Rice does practice what she preaches. OmNoire, her wellness company, helps women of color embark on global wellness retreats and set up personal and professional guardrails to ensure their total well-being is always a top priority. Rice centers this messaging in her own life, right on down to the automatic response you receive if you email her, which reads, “Thanks for your message! We’re humans first over here and dedicate our lives to spending time with our loved ones and indulging in rest and creative passions. Please allow up to 24-48 hours (longer over holidays and weekends) for a response as I carefully work through my inbox, attend meetings, and tend to timely projects.”

This boundary is not only there so Rice can manage her business, but also so she can eliminate her own personal roadblock to rest — forgetting to take breaks. “I have been an entrepreneur since I was 21, so you’re talking about over 20 years, and I still struggle to this day with the concept of stepping away from the business,” says Rice, who’s based in Atlanta, Georgia. “Over time, I have been stricter with my boundaries for myself.”

Rice isn’t alone in needing to put herself in timeout so she can focus on her mental health and truly disconnect. According to the American Institute of Stress, 55 percent of Americans report having daily stress and 94 percent of workers report feeling chronic stress on their jobs. De-stressing can’t happen without time to rest your mind and body. However, doing so, for some, isn’t as simple — or as possible — as choosing to run off to a spa day, take a vacation or sleep more than eight hours. There are additional everyday factors preventing you from getting optimal rest, many of which have been normalized whether you realize it or not. (Raise your hand if you even feel guilty thinking about taking a break or a little time for yourself.)

Honestly, prioritizing rest in your busy life rarely feels possible when you’re juggling health or personal issues, jobs, family responsibilities and whatever else comes your way. But, like every journey, this one begins with a small step. Getting to good rest takes practice and with small, dedicated adjustments and commitments, some disruptive habits can slowly be changed over time. 

Because you don’t need more stress or worry in your life than what may already be present, remember there is no one-size-fits-all method for getting more rest. Here’s what some experts and self-care enthusiasts have to say about identifying and working toward eliminating common rest roadblocks. Find the one that feels most feasible for your lifestyle today and begin taking strides toward ultimately getting more of the rest you deserve.

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Stop de-prioritizing sleep.

When I was returning to work from maternity leave, a colleague said I should cherish the 45-minute commute as “me time” because once I got home, the busyness of home life would swap for my job’s demands. For nearly 10 years, she was right. I would be fully engaged with my office or my daughter, neglecting sleep at night to stay up to get things done once she went to bed. I’ve rarely had more than 5 hours of sleep since I became a mom.

“When we’re busy, sleep is one of the first things that’s compromised,” says Stephanie Stahl, a physician and assistant professor of Clinical Medicine at Indiana University. “It really seems to get pushed aside.” However, getting a minimum of seven hours of shut-eye should be at the top of everyone’s to-do list. Says Dr. Stahl, “Sleep is a physiologic need, we have to have it to survive. While rest is important, sleep as a completely different state is absolutely important and essential.” Getting there doesn’t happen overnight, especially for parents or those battling health conditions or illness that don’t allow for a good or comfortable nights’ sleep. Simply acknowledging that you are de-prioritizing rest, will help to make you more aware of moments or opportunities when you can pay more attention to your sleep patterns and how to make more time for yourself in bed.

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Be conscious of overworking yourself and set boundaries.

Mindy Kaling’s first book title, “Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns),” might be a reference to FOMO, but for me it’s a reminder of how much I worry about other things — work, domestic chores, family obligations — instead of what’s manageable in front of me. There is often a blurred line between work-related and personal responsibilities that keeps me in a constant state of doing something. “I think just mental chatter — the to-do lists that come up of everything you have to do during the day — and the work obligations are an obstacle to rest,” says New York based therapist Elisha Mudly, L.M.SW. “A lot of people are feeling a little bit enmeshed in their home/work environment and it’s a little bit harder to disengage from work.” 

Overworking, says Mudly, in many ways has become glorified and people are admired for burning the candle at both ends to get a job done, to no end. “It’s this thing that’s really elevated in our culture,” she explains. “We normalize not getting personal days, not taking mental health days. Those kind of archaic models of work are also obstacles because personal health and mental health days are still pretty new.”

Of course, just up and quitting a job isn’t a realistic or practical option, but you can start by searching for little pockets of your day where you block out time slots when you don’t check or respond to work emails or think about what’s waiting on your plate at the office the next day. Creating no-work zones in your life will allow you to be more mindful of when your professional life may be bleeding into your personal time. And, if you do work for a company where paid time off is available to you, make a point of holding yourself accountable to using the time you’re given. Admittedly, I’ve had a vacation day (or three) to roll over before because I just never stopped to take off the time. And, something tells me, I’m not alone.

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Disengage from the day — your way.

For Rice, getting to a place where she could stop the digital distractions from life and work came with the simple use of her phone’s feature. “My Do Not Disturb is on from 9:00 p.m. to 10:00 a.m.,” she explains. “​​Even if I start work at 7 or 8 a.m., I still have that peaceful time in the morning, but from 9:00 p.m. to 10:00 a.m., that thing is set every night.” Recognizing that there’s no one right way to reclaim rest is key, especially when you’re off the clock. “Start experimenting with boundaries about ending the workday, or even thinking about how much you want to engage socially: figure out when it feels like too much or when you feel like you need alone time,” says Mudly. “What’s been useful for me is trying to tune in and ask myself, what kind of rest do I need right now? Like do I need a little Netflix, chips and chocolate? Or do I need to go for a walk and move my body, get my blood flow moving?”

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Instead of scrolling social media, relax with an app.

Whoever needs to hear this: scrolling through Instagram in bed isn’t resting. As Mudly puts it, our smartphones are one of the common “false comforts” of what brings us rest. “It’s so tempting to just pick up the phone and engage an hour before bed,” says Mudly. “But often screens can be overstimulating so that can sometimes prevent rest.” Thankfully there are other ways, including through apps, that can help your body begin to wind down. “Mindfulness meditation can be helpful just to get our mind to calm down and think about one thing. There are some good phone apps that can help out —  Headspace and Ten Percent Happy are good ones.” For those looking for a few more budget friendly options, Mudly says mental health apps like Shine, Lofty or Calm have tools that “help you regulate your anxiety levels, calm your nervous system down and self-soothe.”

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Rethink that glass of wine.

Like many people (myself included) having a glass of vino before bed is simply adulting. “I would work late, until nine, 10, o’clock up until it’s time to go to bed. Then I have that glass of wine and whatnot,” recalls Rice, who’s also a yogi. “But I stopped doing that a couple of months ago. My sleep has greatly improved and I can never go back.”

Even if you’re choosing to drink earlier in the day, the impact it could have on your sleep health remains the same. “There’s research out there that light afternoon alcohol intake, where the blood alcohol level is 0.00 percent at bedtime, still causes sleep problems,” explains Dr. Stahl. “It can make people feel a little bit more tired, so that gives people that perception that, ‘oh, it’s helping me go to sleep,’ but in reality, it ends up causing more awakenings over the course of the night and less total sleep time. And another problem with alcohol is it can worsen or contribute to other sleep disorders, like obstructive sleep apnea and restless leg syndrome.”

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Create a wind-down ritual.

On the most recent season of “Ted Lasso,” brutish Roy Kent drew his emotionally-wrought girlfriend Keeley Jones the most epic rose petal bath, complete with a “Roy Is Sorry for Not Understanding Keeley” playlist (which is available on Apple Music.) Little did Roy know, he was also helping to guarantee her a solid night of deep sleep. Relaxing soaks in the tub or stints in the shower aren’t just self-care treats, they can actually help your body prepare for bed. “A warm bath or shower taken a couple of hours before bedtime can improve our drive to go to sleep, because it drops our body temperature afterwards, and then sends those cues to our body that it’s ready to wind down and be ready for bed,” explains Stahl.

Myleik Teele, an entrepreneur and the founder of CurlBox, a subscription-based beauty product service, is a big advocate of a luxurious soak before bedtime — which is after she puts down her two young kids. It’s a hack she learned from a friend who challenged her to, each night, after her kids were in bed, just prioritize 45 minutes for herself. Now Teele uses that decompression time to indulge in a full self-care ritual complete with mood setting scents, music, and wait for it: steamed pajamas. “I started putting together my going-to-bed wardrobe,” explains Teele. “I have a section of my closet, that’s closest to the side of the tub, and it holds all of my favorite jammies hung up to slip on,” she says. “Now it’s this loving ritual, like just a big hug for all the stuff that I’ve done for the day.” Excuse me for a moment while I go start putting together my new, most-comfy bedtime wardrobe. 

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Remove obvious distractions from your bedroom.

When my partner and I decided to move in together, he was adamant about not having a TV in the bedroom. I balked at this initially because one of my nighttime rituals is falling asleep to a romantic comedy. However, it seems he was on to something. “We really want to use our bedroom for sleep and sleep only. That means not watching TV in bed, or reading in bed, or doing much other than trying to sleep, because you want your brain to think that, when you go into the bedroom, it’s a place to sleep, and sleep only,” explains Dr. Stahl. The room should also be as dark as possible, cooler as a reduction in bedroom temperature is ideal for better rest, and quiet. “Any kind of sound can disrupt our sleep.” Opting for room darkening window treatments for your bedroom is a simple solution that can instantly help you block out light and sound at bedtime.