After two really challenging years of bushfires, the COVID-19 pandemic and everything associated with these events, many of us are feeling exhausted, and are looking forward to a rest over the holiday period.
However, depending on how stressed you are, it might take you a little bit of time to transition to a place where you feel comfortable resting. This is because your alarm system - the fight-or-flight part of your nervous system - has responded to uncertainty and unfamiliarity by releasing stress hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol. Whilst the stress response is excellent for getting us out of dangerous situations, and helps us to function and complete essential tasks when overwhelmed, we can become very fatigued if we are in a highly stressed state for an extended period.
If your alarm system has been really activated, you might find you are too wired to go straight into full Zen-relaxation mode, and forcing yourself to rest might even feel uncomfortable. If this is the case, be kind to yourself and give yourself some time to transition from stress to rest. Besides, getting cranky about not being able to rest will only increase your stress hormones.
One way to approach rest is to think of it as being on a spectrum, ranging from active to passive. If highly stressed, you might find it easier to engage in more active types of rest before you can try more passive types of rest. For example, you might find it helpful to take your dog for a walk, or clean out your cupboards while listening to your favourite podcast (active rest), before you are comfortable lying on the lounge without moving for hours, binge-watching your favourite series (passive rest). You might also find it easier to oscillate between both active and passive rest by catching up on your holiday tasks and then napping (but for no more than 40 minutes as it can disrupt your sleep at night).
Also, when transitioning from stress to rest, you might find it difficult to disengage from the things that have been stressing you out. For example, you might feel the compulsion to keep checking your work emails, or looking at social or other media out of habit. The problem is, each time you engage with the things that stress you out, your body releases more cortisol and adrenaline.
Setting boundaries on how frequently you engage in these behaviours might help. For example, only checking your work emails at lunchtime enables you to control when and how frequently you activate your stress hormones. For others, the only strategy is to put their devices away, or go to a location where there is no internet or phone coverage (sorry boss, I can't check my emails next week or be contacted by phone as I have no coverage).
Another thing to consider is whether you need physical, emotional, spiritual, cognitive or relational rest. It is hard to disentangle these when you are really tired, but you might find different types of rest are more beneficial than others. For example, if your brain is tired, it might help by reducing your cognitive load and doing things that help your brain to zone out. If your spirit feels tired, you might want to engage with rituals and activities that nurture it, or you might want to hang out with people who are relaxed (if you can find them), rather than people who are also stressed.
It should be noted though, that when you do finally have the time to rest after a long period of stress, you might notice some emotions showing up. You might feel sadness, grief, disappointment, relief, anger, gratitude or guilt about things that have happened in the past two years. If these emotions come, you can acknowledge them and allow them in. Emotions are inward experiences of outward events, and they will come and go like waves on the sand. However, if your emotions are distressing or overwhelming, talk to a trusted friend, family member or healthcare professional to get the support you need. The volunteers at Lifeline (13 11 14) and other support lines are always happy to listen and provide support if you need it.
Finally, engaging in things you enjoy can help reduce stress and help you to rest. What helps you to relax? Many people like being in nature, exercising, engaging with others, creative activities, listening to music, helping others, having a laugh and patting a pet. When we engage in pleasurable activities, our nervous system releases feel-good hormones including dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin (the bonding hormone), which helps us to feel calm, safe and rested.
What a couple of years it has been. Despite the challenges, we have adapted to the new norm and developed our resilience. May we all find rest this holiday period and take the time to reduce our stress and recharge our batteries so we can face whatever the new year will bring.
- Dr Jo Lane is a clinical psychologist and research fellow at the Australian National University's College of Health and Medicine.