If we slept six or seven hours and sat around in an office all day, why do we need more rest? And the weekend—of course we rested, right?
One major problem with how many of us unwind, is that we choose activities that overstimulate the nervous system to do so. Down time that involves electronics may actually make it take longer for your body to relax.
Our nervous systems have two modes of operation: that “fight or flight” response oriented sympathetic nervous system and the “rest and digest” oriented parasympathetic nervous system. When we participate in activities that keep us in that stress mode of being ready for “fight or flight,” we continuously flood our bodies with stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline.
Another downside of being “plugged in” for our relaxation time is that it interferes with our bodies’ production of melatonin (the sleep hormone). Melatonin production is decreased when we are exposed to bright light. One hundred years ago, people would work hard all day and naturally wind down as things got darker. Now, we are exposed to artificial light nearly 24 hours a day. Studies have shown that use of television and electronics right before bed may result in poor quality or interrupted sleep.
A few things we can do to help really get that rest we need:
1. Unplug an hour before bedtime.
I know. I’m bad at this one too. Shifting towards something simple like music and reading (reading one of those things with pages—not one that lights up) is a great way to switch from the melatonin stealing electronics.
2. Use an alarm clock with dimmer options.
We may not think it adds much, but every little bit of light pollution adds to our sleep disruption.
3. Move more during the day.
The lymphatic system of the body doesn’t have a pump to move fluids through the body the way heart circulates our blood. In order to move lymph through our tissues, we have to get moving. When our lymphatic systems are sluggish, ongoing fatigue can be a result, even if we do get sufficient sleep.
4. Spend time outdoors.
Fresh air and sunlight are two of those magical ingredients that science can’t totally quantify. We know that getting sufficient vitamin D is important, but beyond that just spending time in nature has a quality that makes us feel connected and refreshed.
You don’t have to spend an hour chanting or anything weird to get the benefits of meditation. When I first mention meditation to stress management clients, some look anxious like I’ve asked them to consider joining a cult! Mindfulness meditation can be as simple as sitting quietly and paying attention to the in and out rhythm of your breath for a few minutes. Neuroscientists have found that in addition to making us feel relaxed, meditation actually changes our brains. Stronger, healthier connections in our neural pathways equals greater resiliency to deal with stress when it comes up, and greater capability to truly rest and restore ourselves.