There’s an epidemic gripping the country that you may not have heard about. It’s fairly recent—a modern plague of sorts and is believed to affect millions. As many as one out of three people you see walking around may be afflicted, including you.
See if this description rings a bell: to the world you seem fully present—active, animated, engaged in life and work. But inside, physically and mentally, you feel a bone-deep fatigue, brought on by a combination of not enough sleep (who has time?) and the excessive stimulation, the relentlessly fast-forward pace of life.
This peculiar form of consciousness, being simultaneously tired and wired, has a name, coined by sleep and dream specialist Rubin Naiman, Ph.D.: we’re t’wired. It might be a catchy term, but it’s definitely not a healthy or fun state to be in.
There are two main reasons why people are t’wired, Naiman says. First, there’s a cultural pressure to be more productive, to move faster, to stay on top of your game—“faster equals smarter” is a quality we admire, Naiman observes.
The second reason is that we’re a sleep-disordered, over-caffeinated, wired bunch (emails! social media feeds! Netflix binges!). Between 50 and 70 million of Americans suffer from insomnia (actually, sleep and wakefulness disorders), brought about by physical and psychological hyperarousal, fueled by a loop of anxious thoughts and stress. “This physiological state causes racing brain waves, a rapid heart rate, overheated core body temperature, and [messes with] hormonal rhythms,” Naiman explains—none of which are conducive to getting a good night’s rest.
“And when you’re not fully rested,” Naiman says, “you’re unable to be fully awake.”
As well as keeping us tossing and turning, hyperarousal can also create a “turbocharged wakefulness” that wards off daytime crashes. This is why many exhausted people say they actually feel energized, rather than sleepy, during the day, unable to recognize how tired they truly are. The cycle continues when we lay our head down on the pillow but can’t fall asleep.
T’wired means our body and mind are being pulled in two directions at once. Our natural and complementary rhythms of activity and rest become thwarted and displaced. “It’s a state of wakefulness that’s no longer balanced out by adequate rest,” Naiman says. Unsurprisingly, over the long term, we pay the piper: research links insomnia and hyperarousal to depression, while chronic physical stress for prolonged periods also can contribute to a number of health problems.
So what exactly is true rest, and how do we get more of it? “We commonly confuse rest with recreation, as in catching a movie, going to hear music or reading a book,” Naiman says. “All of which are relaxing—refreshing, even—but they’re not the same thing.”
Rest isn’t simply the absence of activity; Naiman defines it as intentionally cultivating a state of serenity and calm, through daily practices like meditation, yoga, or breathing exercises, which slow down the body and mind. It’s about stepping on the brakes and coming to a full stop.
“[The antidote for being t’wired is] simply about bringing more restfulness into the day [and] learning how to cultivate calm energy,” Naiman says. “It’s like finding your way to the eye of the storm, getting connected with that quiet stillness, balancing the excitement of life. It’s a portable sense of rest that you want to be able to carry into your day, where you can be relaxed and excited at the same time.”
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.