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Real Rest

Updated: Jul 21, 2023

A few months ago, I read Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle, by Emily and Amelia Nagoski. The book summarizes the research on the causes of modern stress, particularly for women, and proposes tools to navigate both the stressors and the stress responses they trigger. It’s a rich and readable resource for all genders.

Personally, the biggest take-away for me was the importance of building mental rest into my day. I already knew about the many health benefits of getting enough sleep. What I didn’t know is that our minds need an additional 2 hours of rest daily, to renew itself while we are awake.

This means letting our minds wander, and taking a break from focusing on a specific mental task. Neuroscientists describe this as engaging the default mode network in the brain. This network enables us to free associate, daydream, and take stock in an organic way. When we step away from task-oriented thinking, our minds get a chance to rest and renew itself. Moving into default mode also activates our creative thinking, since it puts us in a zone to combine ideas that may not go together in our more analytical state of mind.

7 Ways to Move into Default Mode and Rest your Mind

1. Exercise. Walk, dance, or move your body without other stimulation that forces you to focus on a task, like a movie, a podcast, or a fitness instructor. 2. Listen to music that allows your mind to drift. The best music for wandering varies by individual, but instrumental music tends to be a good option.

Still from A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)

3. Get Outside. Spend time in the woods, on a mountain, near water — or anywhere outdoors where you feel more connected to nature. 4. Prepare and Eat Meals without Distraction. Focusing 100% on your food at mealtime is an important way to stay present, even if you’re eating alone. Resist the urge to multitask during meals.

Daufuskie Island, South Carolina

5. Sink into a Repetitive Task like cleaning, gardening, driving, knitting - again, without other stimulation that requires single-minded attention.

Knitting by Chu Kyung, 1938

6. Visit with a trusted friend where you’re both comfortable being yourselves and letting the conversation go where it may. 7. Play music or do some art, just for fun. Art-making can be hard work, like when you’re trying to learn a song or practice a skill. To use the arts to go into default mode, it’s important to explore, experiment, and just play, with no expectations about the result.

Summertime art party

Watching movies, sports and TV shows, listening to podcasts and reading, though often relaxing, don't send your mind into default mode, even if you’re chosen stress-relieving content. These might help you unwind, but your mind is still engaged in a task: following a story line and scanning for themes.

The Nagoskis emphasize that the conditions that provide us with mental rest vary by individual. The key is in knowing what works for you, and how to make the time for it. Not an easy task, with family, work, and social responsibilities, and within a culture that urges us to be productive every waking moment. But a well-rested mind will help us recover from mental exhaustion. It will help us be more relaxed, more energized, more creative, and less stressed out, internally and with others. Moving into default mode, even for a little while, is something we can do everyday to improve our wellbeing.

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