A few months back, I found myself feeling chronically exhausted and overwhelmed. With guilt, I explained to my therapist just how little I was enjoying the day to day of my life as a mom and a freelance writer. I had worked hard to change my career and my lifestyle to allow me to be home more with my children, something I had wanted ever since I discovered I was expecting our first child.
After all of the work it took to reorganize my life so I could quit my job and become a stay-at-home mom, I felt embarrassed and ashamed to admit I had major concerns I had made the wrong choice. Each day, I was falling into bed at night completely depleted of energy. When the morning rolled around, typically after being up with each of my children at least once, I was lacking motivation and dreaded facing the responsibilities of the upcoming day. Some days were better than others, but many days I felt I was living in a fog of depression.
It felt like I was seeing my therapist for a pep talk. I expected a “buck up” or a “stop complaining.” Of course, my therapist said neither of those things. Instead she dove right in with questions, and quickly diagnosed where the problem of my burnout originated.
She pointed out that I was doing a good job juggling a lot of responsibility but I was doing a terrible job at getting rest.
Even though I had been intentional about getting to bed at a reasonable time and committing to down time at the end of my day, she was concerned about the way I was trying to recharge. For me, most days ended in front of the television or scrolling through social media. I was definitely relaxing, but was I recharging? I was too physically and emotionally depleted to do anything more than sink into my couch at the end of the day.
Dr. Lindsay Bira, a licensed clinical health psychologist, offered helpful insights into what constitutes “good rest”. She explained what sets apart some relaxation as beneficial to our minds and bodies.
“There are different needs that our body has,” she explained, “When we look at watching the TV, surfing the internet, or looking at our phones, we are not necessarily working with our nervous system to condition our body to feel better.” That is because these types of rest are passive. While we are distracted by these activities, our body relaxes and we don’t really notice or control our body’s response. This is compared to more intentional forms of relaxation including meditation, diaphragmatic breathing, or progressive muscle relaxation.
Good rest is rest that allows us to gain a level of control over the part of our nervous system responsible for the relaxation of our body, the parasympathetic nervous system. Passive rest, such as watching TV or even taking a nap doesn’t give us the advantage of teaching ourselves to activate this part of our nervous system on cue.
“If we practice these active relaxation strategies over time, we actually condition our bodies to relax on demand,” Dr. Bira explained.
Of course, the benefits of active rest extend beyond learning to chill out during a stressful moment. There are lasting, long-term benefits to regular practice of the strategies suggested by Bira including lowered heart rate, reduced stress levels, and a decreased risk for developing stress-related health problems later on in our life.
For me, learning to engaging in active rest has meant dealing head-on with my mommy burnout instead of hoping it would simply disappear on its own. Of course, you will still find me on the couch watching TV with my husband from time to time, but you can also find me escaping for a few moments of quiet meditation or guided breathing at random points throughout my day and returning to my life as a more refreshed and more present person.
The author of this post is an editorial contributor to Headspace. These are their views, experiences and results and theirs alone. This contributor was paid for their writing.