How to Achieve Rest When we are Anxious, Stressed, and Not Sleeping

Image by Eduard Militaru

We have been told since we were little kids that getting 8 hours of sleep is vital to our overall health and well-being. As someone who comes face to face with trauma every day through my work, my body agrees wholeheartedly with this advice. If I’m not running on the energy of a full night’s sleep, my ability to show up for clients is noticeably impacted. My concentration, my compassion, my ability to make decisions, and my genuine presence all become watered-down versions. Sleep restores our brain by removing toxic waste buildup and allows our brain to create needed neural connections that improve our functioning for the next day. You can read more about the specifics here.

Although sleep will always be an integral part of health, sleep is not the only tool we can use to rejuvenate and repair our dysregulated nervous system. Rest and silence are gifts to overall mental health and productivity that American culture, in particular, tends to overlook.

Rest can look so many different ways. For example, as I sat down to write this post, I checked in with myself and noticed that my brain was feeling a little foggy and distracted. I decided to set the timer for 20 minutes and lie down on my bed. My body has become pretty acclimated to the 20-minute power nap, which has been proven to be more effective and re-energizing than a second cup of coffee or a longer 1 or 2-hour nap. Not to mention, it has the added bonus of being regenerative for our neurons and giving us back more focus and productivity for the latter part of our day.

For many, however, a 20-minute power nap can be daunting. You might be thinking, “That’s cute. But my mind goes and goes and by the time I can finally get it to settle down, that twenty minutes would already be over.” Fair enough. But I’m going to challenge you to think of this attempt as not wasted time. Even if you’re fully conscious the entire 20 minutes just the very act of lying down, snuggling your body into cozy blankets or sheets, and being in silence can be restorative. You are giving your body a break and you are shifting the internal perspective from go, go go, to just being. Take a moment and notice what comes up for you during this pause.

Try to take some deep breaths in through the nose and out through the mouth and just concentrate on the feel of your body pressed into the soft surface. Watch the flow of your breath moving upwards from your expanded belly into your chest.

Full disclosure. Sometimes I have so much anxiety that getting quiet and focusing on my breath can actually alert me to how fast my heart is pounding and to the feeling of tightness and energy squeezing and vibrating inside my chest. Becoming aware of these sensations can make me feel like I’m even more anxious because a lot of anxiety manifests as the fear of body sensations that we associate with past experiences of anxiety. I might have the thought, “I’m so wound up. There is no way I can get to sleep” or “I don’t want to feel like this!” I might have the urge to get up and avoid the feeling by distracting myself. All of these sensations, thoughts, and urges are components of the anxiety itself, and although uncomfortable, relatively harmless.

Distraction and avoidance, however, are the underlying motors of anxiety. They give anxiety power and keep it running constantly in the background. Sitting with and facing the anxiety, while uncomfortable at first, eventually is what shifts it back into a core emotion (fear, sadness, anger, disgust, joy, excitement). Think of anxiety as the “avoid emotion” emotion and our core emotions as where we really need to get to in order to fully process, release, and let go.

By noticing the uncomfortable sensations of anxiety arise in my experience, ignoring my impulse to flee or to panic, and just continuing to sit and be with them for the full 20 minutes I am effectively training my brain and body that anxiety will not kill me and that I can get through it. I might notice that by the end of the 20 minutes the sensations are starting to abate naturally on their own, or they might not be. Either way, I still provided rest to the body and awareness to the mind which only helps bring our parasympathetic nervous system or “calming dial” back online.

Rest is about compassionate acceptance. Acceptance about where we are in the moment and trusting that our body will do what is needed in the moment. If we lie down and realize that we just can’t concentrate on our breath or quiet our mind, notice this with acceptance and trust that just the act of pausing and being silent is still restful, even amidst the chatter. For twenty minutes we are not taking in new information or needing to do or be something, we are merely with ourselves. Racing thoughts and all. And if you’re someone that has found that you really do need a longer nap to quiet down and get into the flow, set the timer for 60 minutes or 90 minutes, experiment with what feels most restorative and energizing for you. Just be careful that you don’t get in the habit of napping for so long that it worsens or creates insomnia at night.

Insomnia is a painful and uncomfortable visitor for many of us, and the work is to begin slowly shifting our mind from panicking and thinking, “I got literally no sleep last night. What am I going to do? This day is going to be awful” to “I don’t remember getting much sleep last night, which is hard, but I do know that I lay still for 7 hours and even allowed myself to go into a daydream or reverie state, which although not ideal is still a state of rest and recovery for my body. I still took care of myself just by slowing down and being quiet.” Again, you are using compassionate awareness to work with what is rather than ramping up your stress to fight against reality which only exacerbates the issue. Instead, welcome insomnia in. Work with it rather than fighting against it. Find rest within the edges of the wakeful state. Feel the silence that exists around the racing thoughts. Maybe ask insomnia what it’s trying to communicate, what it needs in this moment.

Rest is a powerful tool that can show up in so many different moments during our day if we begin to notice rest as the pauses in between our doing. For example, during weight-training, the 10 seconds between each set are brief moments of returning to rest, or similarly, if you have a yoga practice notice the moments in between postures where you pause and come back to center. At the end of either high-intensity exercise or a yoga flow, I encourage you to purposely lie with your back flat on the mat or ground and just rest in silence for a few minutes. Tune in to how you feel and any new sensations you might notice in your body. Notice the energy or space or vibration or calm.

Rest can look like taking a few extra long minutes to stand under the hot water in your morning shower, it can be consciously turning off the news or podcast to shift to listening to music or focusing on the sound of birds chirping outside, it can look like consciously taking a break at work and forcing yourself to walk around the block so you have a different view, it can be savoring the steam from the warm cup of coffee or tea before you leave the house in the morning, it can look like saying no to a social invitation after an exhausting week, or it can be as simple as taking a deep breath and pausing before responding.

Our moments of rest, repair, and rejuvenation are just as important to cultivating our passions and showing up in the world as action is. Without rest, our productivity suffers. Get creative and look for the moments in your day that feel restful. How can you add more rest? More silence? More compassionate acceptance of the difficult realities of living in a fast-paced culture? Start small. Every moment of rest counts.

I’m a licensed mental health therapist who loves combining neuroscience, holistic health, somatic work, and spirituality to give people tools to heal trauma.

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