Rest is best - we know this not only from decades of scientific enquiry, but from our lived experience every day. Neuroscientist and sleep specialist Matthew Walker sums up the importance of sleep as “the single most effective thing we can do to reset our brain and body health each day” in his global bestseller Why We Sleep.
Unfortunately, this cure-all has become elusive or problematic for growing numbers. A study published in June 2020 found that 63% of the UK public reported their sleep had been worse since lockdown was announced in March. Half of those surveyed said their sleep was more disturbed than usual - which is often caused by stress and can itself increase stress levels. Many of us exist in a perpetual state of tired but wired, reliant on coffee and cakes for an energy boost during the day, and sleep aids at night when we struggle to switch off.
Unlike our devices, which can be powered off at the touch of a button, or power cycled when their systems become overloaded, it can take some effort to bring ourselves down from 60 to 0. Designed to protect us from danger, the effects of the human stress response are often felt in the body and mind hours after it was set off, meaning you are trying to rest when the many of your internal systems are in the midst of a stress cycle.
Here’s where the concept of intelligent rest comes in. To break this cycle of stress and unrest, we can support our brain and our body to downregulate - to wind down and relax, even in a conscious and awakened state.
Below are three intelligent rest techniques for you to explore.
Learning to identify, then consciously relax, parts of the body that are carrying stress and tension, can powerfully signal to the rest of your being that it is safe to switch off. This technique involves contrasting tension and relaxation in the body’s major muscle groups for 15 and 30 seconds respectively, starting at the forehead and working your way down to the feet.
If the thoughts or silence in your mind are too loud or overwhelming, turning to specific sounds as an anchor for your attention can communicate to the brain that you are no longer in danger and can take time to rest.
Researchers from the Brighton and Sussex Medical School found that listening to nature sounds - gentle birdsong, or a breeze blowing through the trees - paralleled an increase in rest-digest nervous system activity as well as brain connectivity reflecting an outward-directed focus of attention (the opposite state reflects individuals going through anxiety and PTSD). Recordings are just as effective when you are unable to do this out in nature.
The use of specific instruments can also bring about a state change, in lower brain wave frequencies such as Alpha and Theta that reflect a state of mental and physical calm. This study showed that a sound bath with Tibetan singing bowls decreased tension, anger and fatigue among its participants.
Join a sound bath online or in-person to experience these restorative frequencies.
This simple breathing exercise focuses your mind while lengthening your exhale in relation to your inhale, increasing heart rate variability and blood oxygen levels while you rest. Additional benefits include greater resilience to stress as well as an improvement in cardio fitness.
Breathe slowly through your nose, expanding your lower ribs outwards for a count of four. Then exhale through your nose for a count of four, relaxing your lower ribs as you breathe out. With time, increase the number of rounds as well as the time spent on each count, keeping the four to six ratio.
If the concept of intelligent rest is new to you, consider one of these simple techniques to try out the practice. Connect to what parts of you are still activated when you need some rest or to settle your stress response.
These can be done throughout the day, or as part of your sleep routine in the evenings, to improve your mental wellbeing.
Original source: What is intelligent rest and how to prioritise it