There’s a stigma against rest.

Rest is seen as lazy, unproductive, and weak. In a culture that prizes 60 hour work weeks as a sign of productivity, we can often see tiredness and overwhelm as obstacles in our path. When we feel tired, stressed, or overwhelmed, we reach for a cup of coffee to pull ourselves back on track.

Yet if not listened to, our need for rest will ring louder and louder.

Our bodies have natural limits, and when we deny them, it sounds an alarm louder and louder. Ignored anxiety can quickly turn to panic. Ignored tiredness can quickly turn into a cold.

So why is it so hard to listen? And how can you get the rest you need?

What Can Prevent Us From Resting

All kinds of things get in the way of us getting the rest we need.

  1. Guilt. Sometimes our minds get ahead of us. We ignore signals to rest because we feel bad about stopping. We’re concerned others will think we’re lazy or not doing enough.
  2. Productivity. American culture values doing over being, working over rest. We often believe we are more productive when we “do” more tasks.
  3. Anxiety. We’re sometimes reluctant to rest because of some fear. Worrying about deadlines or the amount of work before us can keep us from taking a moment to rest. 
  4. Pleasure. Sometimes we find our pleasure in being needed, so we keep working. We ignore our body’s signals because the payload of having others depend upon us is greater than the benefits we receive from rest.

You’ve Been Resting Wrong

When we get overwhelmed or feel overworked, our first thought is: “I need a break”. We sigh and push back from the desk, and flip out our phones. The assumed idea is if we simply stop doing what we’re doing we will end up feeling better. The problem is, this half-true assumption leads to some pseudo-restful behaviors that leave us unsatisfied.

Things we do to rest that aren’t really restful:

  • Watching TV
  • Checking our phones
  • Social Media
  • Eating
  • Switching tasks

The problem is, these things almost never give us the rest we’re looking for. Yes, they can be a way to pull back from work, but we’re usually left with the same tightness in our chests (anxiety), feel bad for wasting time (guilt), and get back to work (productivity). It’s like we pushed the pause button on our anxiety, only to pick back up right where we left off.

A New Way to Think about ‘Rest’

So why aren’t these things restful? Because the idea that resting means “taking a break” doesn’t hold up neurologically. When we become overwhelmed, anxious, or tired, our bodies aren’t simply telling us “stop doing this task”. So let’s take a look at a term that might better describe what it is we’re wanting when we need rest:

Passive processing.

Your mind has two different modes of activity. In fact, there is no time at which your brain is simply stagnant or turned off. We are always engaged in some kind of processing, and understanding what those are will help us understand what you’re needing when you want to rest.

  • Active processing. This is task mode. Your mind is actively engaged in solving or understanding a certain task. 
  • Passive processing. This is reflection mode. In this mode your mind is actively pulling together and making sense of your experiences. You’re reflecting, understanding, and making meaning.

You mind is always in one of these two modes. Even when we sleep, our minds are working as hard, if not more-so, than when we are awake. We are always either engaged in a task, or reflecting on a task.

Even when we sleep, our minds are working as hard, if not more so, than when we are awake. We are always either engaged in a task, or reflecting on a task.

The best and most refreshing kind of rest happens when we allow our minds to ease into passive processing. It’s only when we do this that we are fully ready to engage in the task at hand. 

Picture a person lifting weights. They do a hard set, then pause to rest. The rest is not simply inaction. There are all kinds of transactions happening within the muscle that help it flush out and repair, getting the muscle ready for the next task. We are designed to experience a natural ebb and flow between task and reflection.

The question then becomes, “How can I rest better?” The better we are at passive processing, the more refreshed and able we are to engage in active processing.

5 Ways to “Passively Process” and Get the Rest You Need

  1. Don’t check your media. This needs to be said first. Often our times of vital passive processing are taken by the impulse to check our phones, Facebook, Instagram, or blogs. This keeps our minds engaged in active processing, and away from the passive processing we need.
  2. Take a breath. Sounds simple, right? Take a step back from what you’re doing, and take 30 seconds to simply breathe. This kind of move is not simply “doing nothing”, it’s allowing your mind to engage in vital passive processing that will help you be ready to reengage later.
  3. Exercise. Aerobic exercise is just as healthy for your mind as it is your body. Being away from a desk or other tasks, you may find your mind is able to wander to what’s important to you, passively making meaning of your recent thoughts and experiences. 
  4. Friends. Talk with a friend. Go out to coffee. Let your thoughts wander as you ask about each other’s week and how they are doing. Notice what changes for you. These reflective conversations help us make meaning and consolidate our experience.
  5. Art. Creating art is a great way to intentionally process and make meaning. Adult coloring books seem to tap into our deep need for passive processing. Allow yourself to get lost in the art. Art is less about the final product, and more about the experience of self-expression.
  6. Therapy. You guessed it. Being a psychotherapist, I strongly believe in the role of psychotherapy in helping us experience a present, connected, and whole life. Therapy is often purely a passive process, helping you to pause and reflect upon what is happening in your life. Even as I write this blog, I’m still surprised at how much talking well with another person can change things. I encourage you to give it a try.

In a culture heavy with active processing, we need a little nudge to give us permission to rest – truly rest. Not unlike our lungs or heart, our brains are built to breathe in and out: times we are engaged in a task, and times we simply reflect and consolidate our experience. Don’t sell yourself short – it’s okay to take a breath in.

Connor McClenahan, PsyD
Connor McClenahan, PsyD

I help lawyers and other professionals overcome difficult emotional patterns.