In last month’s post, We are what we repeatedly do, I talked a little bit about habits - what they represent, and how to begin creating positive, life giving habits. Here’s what I said:
“If you’re looking to create positive habits in your life, a good place to start is with the fundamentals. Keep it simple. In fact, keep it stupid simple. We all know we need food, water, movement and sleep. Embracing our basic needs as humans is a great way to start reconnecting with our humanness and engaging in our lives.”
I didn’t intend for the list of fundamental needs to be exhaustive, but I left out two big ones: work and its symbiotic counterpart, rest. Work without rest yields stress and burnout. And rest without work can result in a lack of purpose and drive.
Work doesn’t necessarily mean a job, but rather purpose. Humans are created for work that brings purpose in life. And a strong sense of purpose actually out-predicts many physical health factors, including age. One study found that discovering a sense of purpose at any age increased lifespan. Work is good. Work is necessary.
However, in the culture we’ve created here in the U.S. we are over worked. And often times it’s by choice. Being busy means having purpose, right? In reality, we are working ourselves right out of a purpose and right into sickness.
Working full time in a physically demanding job while completely gutting and rehabbing a house, and getting pregnant in the midst of it all (think seven months pregnant and carrying drywall), conditioned me for a busy, fast paced, physically draining life. For several years, rest meant squeezing in an hour or two each week of downtime, during which I usually just stressed out about my to-do list. Anxiety took root. And now that I’m a stay-at-home mom living in the rehabbed house that once dictated my time, I’m finding it difficult to slow down and reconnect with my ultimate purpose. I seriously feel like a chicken with my head cut off some days, jumping aimlessly from project to project. I lived a fast-paced life with minimal rest for an extended period of time and now I’m stuck in overdrive. And I’m betting that you can relate.
Dr. Suzanne Koven practices internal medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston and says the following in her blog post Busy is the new sick:
…” I've observed an epidemic of sorts: patient after patient suffering from the same condition. The symptoms of this condition include fatigue, irritability, insomnia, anxiety, headaches, heartburn, bowel disturbances, back pain, and weight gain. There are no blood tests or X-rays diagnostic of this condition, and yet it's easy to recognize. The condition is excessive busyness.” She goes on to say, “The pervasiveness of busyness is such that we may not even notice it anymore.”
Busyness is ingrained in our culture to the point that we don’t even realize that stress and overworking ourselves may be the leading cause of poor health. Sickness doesn’t always require medicine, or even a major diet change. Sometimes the anecdote for illness is simply rest. Over the years, I have focused on my diet to address chronic pain, headaches, digestive issues, fatigue, and anxiety. And I genuinely feel better. But I know my diet will never result in complete relief. Stress, anxiety, and busyness are the major symptoms I need to address – and without rest healing simply isn’t possible.
So, it may seem counter intuitive, but the number one thing you can do to improve your health is nothing. By nothing, I mean resting of course. Stop. Be still. Simply exist. Find a way to surrender your worries and accept where you are in life. Find a way to start reaching out to embrace your true purpose in life, which for me means figuring out what it looks like to be an image bearer of God.
Here’s the catch. For most of us, doing nothing is really hard. Once you’re accustomed to moving fast through life, slowing down feels painful, almost impossible, and scary. Slowing down brings reality into focus. Stress and busyness can serve almost as a shield against feeling too much. It’s easier in a way to be stressed out and busy than it is to be lonely or call into question our worldview. True rest requires addressing feelings of obligation and guilt. It requires facing our fears of perhaps loneliness, death, or a lack of identity and purpose. If any of these feelings are looming over our heads unaddressed, we can't achieve genuine rest.
Don’t despair. Rest requires practice. And honestly, I haven’t figured it out yet. Most of the time when I try to rest I feel like a five year old. My mind drifts and bounces around from one thing to another and I can’t focus for more than a minute or two on being still. But a minute or two is a start. Letting go of all obligation, guilt, fear and anxiety is beyond difficult in a world that conditions us for obligation, competition, productivity and busyness. So have some grace for yourself.
If you aren't sure how to rest, start small. Spend one minute every day doing some diaphragmatic breathing exercises, in which you inhale deeply through your nose, filling your belly, and exhale slowly and completely through your mouth. Click here to view a demonstration video. Diaphragmatic breathing helps to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, which allows our bodies to break free from the stress response for a moment. But just a moment here and there can have a huge impact on your overall health and wellbeing. I hope you can find the time and courage to rest for a while.