Your nervous system is comprised of two divisions. The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) controls the body's "fight or flight" response. It acts as the gas pedal when you experience a stressful event, triggering a cascade of stress hormones which make your heart beat faster to push blood to your muscles and other vital organs. The parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) is responsible for the body’s “rest and digest” function.
Unfortunately, in periods of chronic stress it can be difficult to activate this “relaxation response”. When resting and digesting don’t happen there can be serious health consequences. In the short term there can be challenges such as digestive difficulties, headaches and muscle tension. Prolonged distress without rest increases the risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, diabetes, depression and anxiety.
There are many types of rest. Sleep is the ultimate form but sleep alone will not lead to wellness. Your favourite form of rest could be sitting by the fire with the cat in winter or lying in the sun with the dog in summer. It could be taking a bath, reading or sitting in a spa or sauna.
Top tip 1 is to create a personal toolbox of rest activities for the times when you need mental wellness first aid. Be aware of the type of rest available to you when you’re overloaded. List your favourite rest activities in order of ease of organization. Starting with the simple can give you the emotional energy to tackle the more complex. Swapping 10 minutes of scrolling for 10 minutes of reading may give you the energy to run a bath or phone a friend.
Top tip 2 is to prioritize rest into your schedule. Find daily opportunities to enjoy restful activities that are not sleep. When you get overloaded it’s easy to waste the time you might be able to use for rest. Many regular activities such as mindless social media scrolling masquerade as rest but they’re just a response to exhaustion. Plan the type of rest you’d actually enjoy, for example set aside some unstructured time each day with no scheduled activities where you can do whatever you feel like.
If your foundation habits are in order you’ll be naturally set up to manage stress. Functional movement, hydration, sleep and nutrition all give you resilience to physical and emotional demands. However, even if you’re nailing every area that doesn’t mean your body and brain have infinite capacity. Rest is an important contributor to your health and wellbeing.
This article provides general health and wellbeing information. It is not intended to be medical or nutritional advice specific to you. Please consult an appropriate healthcare professional, such as your GP, a registered dietitian or nutritionist for any specific concerns.