Rest Is a Radical Act — And We Need It Now More Than Ever

published May 17, 2021
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Welcome to Restival Season, Apartment Therapy’s series about slowing down, sleeping more, and relaxing however you can — no fancy wristbands needed.

When was the last time you scheduled an appointment to rest into your calendar? If the answer is “never,” you’re probably not alone. In today’s fast-paced, “hustle”-obsessed culture, it’s easy to forget how important it is to simply let go, unwind, and relax your body and brain. In fact, it’s not just important—it can also be a radical act in the face of a society that often prioritizes the “grind” above all else.

A March 2021 study from Indeed found that worker burnout is on the rise since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic last year, with more than half of the respondents reporting feeling exhausted and burnt out — and more than two-thirds noting that the feeling has only gotten worse this past year. The study also concluded that people who work virtually are more likely to experience symptoms of burnout, as it can be challenging to fully unplug and maintain work-life balance when your home is also your office.

Caroline Dooner, author of “The F*ck It Diet”, knows that burnout has a tricky way of sneaking up on us before we even know it’s there. “I think a lot of us are burnt out and don’t even realize we are burnt out,” she tells Apartment Therapy. “Deliberate, unconditional rest is really the only remedy for burnout.” 

But, as Dooner notes, people usually try to combat exhaustion with anything but good old-fashioned rest. “We usually think there is some sort of life hack to feel less burnt out: more exercise, different food, a self-help book, willpower, or holding ourselves accountable.” All of these strategies are great ideas, but without saturated, sustained rest, the physical symptoms of burnout — feeling confused, tired, and scattered, to name a few — aren’t going anywhere. 

So…what exactly is rest? Does scrolling through TikTok count as rest? What about binge-watching The Circle?  

The truth is that the word “rest” will have a different definition for everyone, and that’s OK. For Janice Gassam Asare, Ph.D., a DEI consultant, professor, and writer [full disclosure: Dr. Gassam Asare is Apartment Therapy Media’s DEI consultant], rest sometimes means “not doing a damn thing” — but it also can be engaging in an activity that brings joy. “When I think of rest, I envision letting go of the desire to constantly be in what I would call performance mode,” Gassam Asare explains. “Oftentimes, there is a war between what we love to do and what we have to do to survive. I love love love to write. I love to speak. But sometimes I don’t feel like doing either. Rest for me means not feeling the need to perform and produce, for the sake of performing and producing.”

And it’s important to note that rest can be as mental as it is physical. It doesn’t just have to mean lying down or sleeping — especially if you’re feeling guilty for doing so. As Dooner explains, an essential part of rest is simply allowing yourself to do it

“If we vow to spend more time not working, but still feel guilty and stressed while we aren’t working, that isn’t rest!” Dooner says, noting that we should strive to allow frequent moments of peace within our daily lives. “That stress and guilt are going to run down our bodies too!”

Why do people feel so guilty for resting? 

Somewhere along the way, people started prioritizing “productivity” over rest, forgetting that rest is productive, too. And in a capitalist society that emphasizes tangible output, it’s all too common to get tricked into thinking that taking time for yourself is lazy or unproductive, when in fact, it’s the exact opposite.

“Many of us feel this constant pressure to always be in grind mode but it’s important for us to shift that perspective and re-imagine a world that doesn’t equate our worth with how much we are performing or producing,” explains Gassam Asare, adding that the pandemic has put an extra strain on many folks’ mental health, which makes rest even more important than normal. “We are living through the biggest and most unprecedented event of our generation. I think productivity also means inserting time for rest and relaxation.”

Jessi Gold, MD, MS, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at Washington University in St. Louis, points out that this type of “productivity” guilt is common within caretakers and parents. “We sometimes talk horribly to ourselves when we feel guilty,” she explains. “We’ll say things like ‘I’m a bad mom,’ or ‘I’m a bad person.’ It can be helpful to pause and hear that talk and think about how to reframe it, or what you might say to someone else. After all, you are part of the equation, and you can only be a good caretaker, or a good mother if you take care of yourself too.”

For workers in fields where hustle-culture is rampant, rest isn’t always easy to claim — but it’s a crucial part of self-care.

Hustle culture is everywhere, and often masquerades as inspiration or motivation. But the idea that we need to be constantly working or chasing some kind of ideal is toxic, explains Brianne Patrice, Executive Director of Sad Girls Club, a non-profit organization working to de-stigmatize the conversation around mental health. “We are taught that if we’re not clocking 16-18 hour days, or meeting things with this immediate sense of urgency then we’re not ‘working hard enough’ or that we don’t want it ‘badly enough’ and that’s just not true,” Patrice adds. “Rest is an integral part of your boundary work.”

But it’s not always that simple to put into practice. As writer and engineer Nicole Ting phrases it, “I struggle to turn my mind off,” adding that working remotely has made it extra-challenging to maintain boundaries between her career and personal life. A strategy she’s found helpful is making sure she doesn’t check her work email after logging off, along with deliberately scheduling joyful activities into her calendar. “I’ve been unlearning the shame that I often feel when I stop to take a step back and breathe.”

Cortne Bonilla, an Editor at Vox Creative/NY Mag, has also made efforts to carve boundaries between her work and personal life in order to silence the pressures of hustle culture. She keeps her phone on silent after a certain time in the evening, as her career requires her to be very “online” throughout the day. “Jobs can make you feel like a content machine, and it’s just not sustainable. You don’t write well or do work you’re proud of in a frenzy.” In addition to unplugging, Bonilla prioritizes exercise “because that’s how I cherish myself for the day,” adding that she’ll also designate one day a weekend for relaxing, light chores, and latte-drinking.

For Keah Brown, a journalist, author, and screenwriter, boundaries are the essential tool to maintaining a healthy relationship with rest. “I’ve become burned out a few times and my body forced me to settle down each time,” she tells Apartment Therapy. “I am working on learning that not everything is as urgent as it seems so people can wait for responses and it doesn’t make me less professional if they have to wait an hour or two while I rest my bones.”

As the pandemic moves into a new phase this summer, rest matters more than ever.

With vaccinations on the rise, you might be feeling the pressure to get out and be social, or to make up for lost time. But it’s important to remember that the past year has taken an emotional toll on many people, and it’s crucial to prioritize self-care just as much as catching up with friends. “We assume that just because we were stuck at home, we should be emerging from this year fully rested,” Dooner says, noting that, on the contrary, this year has been uniquely exhausting. “We were stressed, we were isolated, we had to shift the way we worked and parented and shopped and socialized, and we will probably need ways to heal from that.”

Gold suggests that people pace themselves with social gatherings, perhaps starting with low-anxiety or low-stress commitments. “The main thing I would say in all of this is really to listen to yourself,” she explains. 

Patrice agrees, noting that people are not obligated to attend events for every invitation they receive. “Allow no one to guilt you into doing anything, not even yourself,” she says, emphasizing that it’s OK to decline some of those brunches and get-togethers. “Stay mindful of what you are comfortable with and of what your capacity is. Stick to your boundaries. Let your nos be your no. And your yeses be your yes.”

None of this is to say that there aren’t lessons to be learned from the past year. As Gassam Asare notes, the pandemic has put a lot of things in perspective for many folks, and demonstrated the importance of slowing down and prioritizing health. “The old way of doing things was not working at all,” she says. “The world, and particularly folks in the U.S., were so overworked, sleep-deprived, and just exhausted overall. I miss the social outings and not having to wear masks, but not as much as my desire to embrace our new normal where we accustom ourselves to taking breaks and pauses versus always feeling compelled to be ‘on.’” 

She adds that while there has been so much heartbreak in the past year, there’s been a lot to learn, too. “I recognize the blessings and encourage us to still set boundaries and understand how it’s almost like we are getting a second chance.”