The key to being more successful – a long soak in the bath: Frazzled women rejoice because rest is the new superpower, reveals Professor Claudia Hammond
- Professor Claudia Hammond talks about the importance of rest and relaxation
- She calls rest a ‘superpower’ which can re-invigorate you and help with tasks
- READ MORE: Yoga can help men last more than THREE times longer in bed, study suggests
As I raced to meet a looming deadline, I felt frantic about the amount of work I still needed to do. But with less than an hour left, what could I do other than drag the words out of my frazzled writer’s brain and push through?
Well, actually, I did something counterintuitive. I closed my laptop, made myself a cup of tea, headed out into the garden with it and pottered.
As I breathed in the fresh spring air, briefly distracted from all thoughts of work, I felt my heart rate slow and my body relax. The stress I’d felt a few minutes earlier fell away.
Those ten minutes of rest were like a reset that gave me back my concentration.
Far from making me miss my deadline, I felt so re-invigorated that I went back to my screen and completed my task with time to spare. Such is the power of rest. I’d even go so far as to say that it’s a superpower.
This is about consciously doing the activities that you find relaxing and restorative — things that are separate from work and life’s responsibilities. Stock image used
When we rest, we set our brains free and our minds start to wander. This allows neural activity to increase in a combination of areas of the brain known as the default mode network, which can boost creativity and wellbeing.
Often, when we’re up against it, choosing to take a break makes us more productive, because our brain is no longer on that stressful, emergency footing.
The mental clarity we regain means we end up spending less time getting more done.
I’m not talking about simply taking off for a nap.
Sleep is important, but feeling rested is different.
This is about consciously doing the activities that you find relaxing and restorative — things that are separate from work and life’s responsibilities and that rid you of the feeling that life is one long slog.
I hadn’t thought much about rest until 2016 when I was invited to be part of a small group — including another psychologist, a poet, a neuroscientist and a geographer — doing a residency at the London-based Wellcome Collection, which explores health and human experience. The subject we chose was rest, as we felt it gets neglected.
We went on, as part of a team led by Durham University, to conduct the world’s largest study on the topic by creating an online survey called The Rest Test.
Claudia Hammond, pictured, says: ‘It’s why now, when I pop into the garden to do some deadheading, I know I’m protecting my mental health’
This is about consciously doing the activities that you find relaxing and restorative. Stock image used
A 2009 study comparing yoga with reading found that blood pressure and stress dropped the same amount after 30 minutes of reading as they did after the same amount of yoga. Stock image used
NOW CREATE YOUR OWN REST RECIPE
WHAT WORKS FOR YOU?
Consider which activities feel restful for you while speaking to your personal needs. It’s also important to consider the timing. Different restful activities will work better in different situations. If you are physically exhausted, then it is fine to flop in front of the TV. But if your mind is weary with work and worry, taking a walk outside might improve your mood more.
- Does reading distract you from your worries?
- Can crashing in front of the television for an hour help your thoughts wander?
- Can taking a long soak in the bath (a room where it’s OK to lock everyone else out) give you some precious time alone?
- Does a rigorous gym session exhaust your body so that you can then switch off stressful thoughts in your mind?
INCORPORATE RESTFUL MOMENTS INTO YOUR LIFE
Look to see whether any of the unavoidable jobs in life could be done more restfully. We’ve become accustomed to rushing in order to fit in as much as possible, and try to do everything with maximum efficiency. But we don’t have to . . .
- Instead of driving to the shops, stroll there on foot sometimes or walking the long route through the park. It may take an extra ten minutes but could boost your wellbeing for the rest of the day.
- It’s usually not essential that you check your emails the moment you sit down on the train. You could look out of the window into people’s back gardens, wondering about their lives.
- Take the opportunity when you can to do all the things you weren’t supposed to do at school. Daydream. Stare into space. Doodle. Just give your brain a rest.
There are some people who really are busy. For a start, there are those who have to care for someone, whether it be children, parents or a partner, on top of everything else in their lives.
For busy people such as these, I realise how annoying being told that ‘you’ve also got to factor in periods of rest’ could be.
This is where micro-breaks could make a huge difference.
Research has found that a break needn’t be lengthy to have an impact.
A micro-break could involve simply leaning back in your chair with your eyes closed for a few seconds, or a purer form of doing nothing such as staring out of the window.
A South Korean study provides us with some tips on what works best. Office workers kept diaries from lunchtime onwards for ten days.
First, they noted down how they were feeling and their expectations for the afternoon’s work. Later, they recorded any momentary breaks they took during the afternoon; and lastly, how they felt at the end of the day.
Staring out of the window, stretching, having a hot drink, or listening to music worked better than reading or going online. The study revealed that it was on the most demanding days of all that these tiny breaks had the greatest impact on people’s moods.
I launched it on my BBC Radio 4 show, All In The Mind, and 18,000 people took part.
The activities considered to be the most restful were reading, spending time in nature, being alone, listening to music and doing nothing in particular.
I found the results so fascinating I wrote a book about it, The Art Of Rest: How To Find Respite In The Modern Age.
I discovered that at the heart of getting good rest is an understanding that what works for one person, might be hell for another.
For example, I love gardening. It’s a combination of skill and luck — you can take the best advice, but you never quite know how it will all work out.
Other people, however, think of gardening as ‘outdoor housework’, and so it’s a stressful chore. You have to work out what it is that makes you feel truly rested.
Most people find reading relaxing — it was the most popular restful activity in our study.
A 2009 study comparing yoga with reading found that blood pressure and stress dropped the same amount after 30 minutes of reading as they did after the same amount of yoga.
Mental tiredness, not just from a lack of sleep but a lack of restorative activity, too, can seriously impact our cognitive abilities. A task that seems easy when you’re refreshed is more difficult when you’re fatigued. It leads to memory lapses, a blunting of emotions, a lack of concentration and impaired judgment.
And the more rested we are, the more likely that we will be able to cope if something unexpected happens.
And yet we tend to dangle rest as some future reward. I know I used to. The more exhausted I was, the guiltier I felt about pausing. But that’s an upside-down way of looking at things. You’d have thought that in this age of self-care, we’d all be looking to incorporate more rest into our daily lives. What stops us is the stock we place on being busy — something I’m as guilty of as the next person.
The other day, I bumped into a friend who asked me how I was doing. ‘Busy,’ I replied. ‘A bit too busy actually.’ She responded by cheerfully telling me that she was feeling similarly stretched.
Declaring how frenetic life is, and how much we have to juggle, is a way of signalling that we have purpose and are in demand. It’s the perennial humble brag, and often we’re not even aware we’re doing it.
We grow up learning that working hard is good; laziness is bad.
Think about it: children receive praise on their school reports for being hard-working, and having a strong work ethic is considered an important attribute in adulthood. But when did you last hear someone being praised for being good at regularly pressing pause?
Admitting you are rested feels like confessing to being lazy. But when we wear our busyness as a badge of honour, it can mean guilt gets attached to rest.
I’m not saying lying around doing nothing all day is any good for us. Think about how tough prison inmates find being locked up in their cells with nothing to do. Enforced rest makes you feel restless. What matters are the rhythms of rest and activity in our lives. Balance is key.
But we do need to re-frame rest to get the best from it. The Durham University study asked participants about the words they associate with rest, and as well as words such as calm and relaxing, words including guilty and indulgent came up.
As a 2014 German study called The Guilty Couch Potato found, the guiltier we feel about the rest we get, the less refreshed it makes us feel. We have to let go of that, so we can enjoy the rest we do get.
It’s why now, when I pop into the garden to do some deadheading, I know I’m protecting my mental health — and so I do it without feeling guilty.
Like sleep, rest is not a luxury. If we are to flourish, it is an essential.
As told to RACHEL HALLIWELL
- Claudia Hammond presents All In The Mind on Radio 4 and is the author of several psychology books. Her latest, The Keys To Kindness: How To Be Kinder To Yourself, Others And The World, is out now.
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