For as long as I can remember… I’ve always been a bit of a high-strung workaholic.
On one occasion, I worked myself into total burnout – where I could barely stand for more than a few seconds without feeling dizzy. And mustering up the energy to walk to the sink to pour and drink a glass of water felt like facing a trans-Atlantic expedition.
While I’ve gotten a lot better at maintaining balance with age, burnout is still something I have to monitor and stay on top of.
Over the last decade, I have googled the following three words more times than I can count:
“How to rest…”
And I always found the results less than satisfactory.
So, after years of struggle, learning, experimentation, and success, I wanted to create a guide on resting, for type-A people.
Signs You’re An A-Type (Like Me)
A-types are the driven, competitive, fast-paced, high-achieving sort. If they’re awake, they’re almost always in-gear, multi-tasking, and driving forward toward something.
If you identify as being ambitious, driven, organized, proactive, impatient, high-stress, anxious, proactive, and success-conscious – then chances are good you fall into this category.
For this kind of personality, rest can seem like a completely foreign concept. And It definitely did to me.
If we’re asked what “rest” means to us, we might say doing mindless administrative tasks, or hitting the gym.
Note that both of these things are still just other forms of working.
The gym might seem like downtime, just because you’re getting away from work (even though we’re usually still thinking about work the entire time) but you’re still doing a shit ton, and outputting loads of effort…
It’s not truly resting. Which begs the question…
What is the meaning of rest? And how does it work?
Rest is the core of the word restore, which means to return, bring back, or repair something to its original state.
In the case of resting, that “something” is the nervous system.
Your body has a conductor, permanently operating in the background, which is constantly responding to your environment and managing bodily systems.
It’s called the autonomic nervous system, and it has two branches: the sympathetic and parasympathetic.
You can picture these like parallel train tracks running through the body, which you switch back and forth between.
We switch into the sympathetic track to upregulate, mobilize, take action, and get stuff done. It’s responsible for the fight-flight-or-freeze response, and keeping us plowing through general life stress.
We switch into the parasympathetic track to downregulate, stop, relax, and rejuvenate. It’s responsible for the rest-and-digest response, the deep feeling of safety, and repairing the negative effects of stress.
They’re kind of like the gas and brake pedals on car. And burnout happens as a result of being stuck in the sympathetic state, when we’re constantly going, moving, or doing, and pressing the biological accelerator.
To stay in “drive,” the body has to keep taking energetic priority away from important restorative functions, like the immune and digestive systems, and keeps pumping cortisol into our veins to fuel us. Even when we’re running on fumes, and have totally drained our batteries.
This state is essentially survival mode. And it’s useful in short bursts, to run away from predators and take care of business. But we’re not meant to be in it 100% of the time. We also need times of safety, relaxation, and just chilling out.
Unfortunately, with the way modern society has been set up, it’s easy to stay triggered in survival mode day in, day out.
We’re bombarded with more stimulation and external stress than the human body was built to handle. We have an insane amount of things to juggle – bills, staff, relationships, packed schedules, traffic, and media noise.
In order to cope and keep these balls up in the air, our body pushes into sympathetic overdrive and never lets up.
Hustling has also been fetishized in the modern business world. People pride themselves in missing meals, losing sleep, and #neverquitting on their goals. It’s considered cool to treat your body like shit and work yourself to death.
Basically, in the A-type paradigm:
Rest = Laziness.
The belief is that if you’re not pushing forward, you’re moving backward, and losing ground (which seems like an attitude that’s more fit for warfare than living a good life).
But on top of our fast-paced environment and lifestyle, and hustle culture, the A-type personality often has something even deeper working beneath the surface.
Running From A Core Fear
The sympathetic nervous system has a core feature that benefits our survival, called vigilance.
To be vigilant means to constantly be on the lookout for dangers and threats. You’re ready to sprint to safety at a moment’s notice. Neurologically, your brain is anticipating problems and risks, which puts you in a place to avoid or solve them.
So, if an A-type person is stuck in sympathetic mode, it might feel like you’re running toward something…
When really you might be running away from something. Or, in fancy terms, you’re “mobilized against” a threat, or some fear.
And that threat is rarely a tiger or pack of wolves, but an imaginary danger in your mind, at the level of identity.
A-types keep a lot on their plate and set high goals. Not just because they want to achieve, but they feel like they have to achieve.
Working and accomplishing is how they feel valuable. It’s how they prove themselves as worthy in the world.
So, their operating system can’t even compute “rest,” or momentarily disengaging from work and missions, because that would mean falling behind, and succumbing to laziness…
And that would mean being worthless.
Of course, it’s a bullshit story coming from a core wound. But it feels hyper-real. And that’s what’s keeping them in constant motion, so they never have to stop and fully confront their core fear.
This was a huge theme for me years ago. I didn’t write hundreds of articles to be helpful (I mean, I did, but also)… I wrote hundreds of articles to obsessively disprove my worthlessness. And what an exhausting way to live.
It’s tricky, because it rarely feels like you’re on a fear-based sprint through life. On the surface, it often feels like you’re crushing it and conquering the world. That is, until you hit a wall and crash and burn.
In order to rest, we have to begin learning that it’s okay to rest, we deserve to rest, and we need to rest.
Taking On The Task Of Non-Doing
The antidote to burnout is to regularly embrace non-doing. To get to a place where you feel valuable, worthy, and comfortable in just relaxing. Where nothing needs to be earned. And nothing needs to be done.
You can feel like you’re perfect and enough just as you are (and yes, you still want to build epic shit and do great things).
Most restful activities involve a sense of non-doing. There’s usually no other purpose to them besides nurturing or self-care. There’s no challenge to conquer, quota to hit, or obvious financial ROI (though being more well-rested will inevitably improve your performance, and therefore earning potential. Because you’ll have more energy, focus, and creative resources).
The task now is to find non-doing activities that work for you.
Since A-types are so attached to doing all the time, and feel highly uncomfortable with not being in action, just laying or sitting down might make you feel anxious, which is counter to the whole point of getting rest.
But you don’t have to meditate or be completely inactive to rest. There are a ton of ways to access the neurological benefits we’re after that involve activity. You can build a bridge from doing to non-doing, by engaging in activities that are restorative, slow, and inherently nourishing.
Plus, your nervous system doesn’t immediately enter a state of rest just because you stop moving. Your mind and emotions could still be racing. And your heart rate could be spiked. A lot of this comes down to intention.
You have to send your mind and body a message that it’s safe to relax. There are no tigers to fight, inside or out, and it’s time to recuperate.
After trying out dozens of tactics to find what works to me, I’ve assembled a core list of pleasurable and restorative self-care practices that I cycle through in my routine.
These are my favourite ways to integrate rest into my everyday life, which may work for you too.
– Engage in slow activities that are pleasurable.
Physically slowing your pace and reducing cognitive tasks or distractions is a simple way to help the body switch gears.
Think of carefully preparing a meal while listening to fun music. Doing Tai Chi. Or taking slow walks in nature.
Strolling outside in the city can still be beneficial, though it’s not that relaxing to have hundreds of people pushing past you while a symphony of car horns blares in the background. The stillness and spaciousness of nature has a powerful effect. And I immerse myself in it as often as I can.
– Do breathwork.
Our breathing patterns are a main way the body gets the signal to switch between tracks of the nervous system.
When we breathe, we stimulate a bundle of nerves that connect from our organs to the brain, called the vagus nerve. It can tell the brain and body to basically either chill out, or freak out.
Doing intentional breath work is an amazing and super fast hack I’ve used for years to enter deep states of rest and calm down. In a matter of a few minutes—anytime, anywhere—you can blast away stress and tension.
Most of that time has been using the Wim Hof method, which you can find a ton of classes and tutorials for online.
I highly recommend learning more about it, especially for proper technique and safe practices. But if you want to jumpstart without any official method, dedicate a couple minutes where you’ll just sit or lay down and intentionally breathe.
Begin by settling in and slowing your breath for a few moments. Let whatever thoughts you’ve been having, or problems you’ve been working on, to melt away.
Then start taking deep, full breaths through your mouth, and let them go with deep, relaxing sighs. You’ll want to add a little effort on the inhale, to bring in maximum air, and no effort on the exhale. And there’s no need to rush it. Take about 5 seconds or more per exhale/inhale, and keep repeating for up to one minute.
For 30 seconds to a minute afterward, just relax and breathe naturally. Usually I’ll do a few rounds of this, though I’d advise you to properly learn how to do this before pushing it further.
– Listen to your favourite music from when you were a teen.
For most of us, our teenage years had their own set of problems and stresses. But there was also usually an air of freedom and lack of responsibility. We often listened to way more music back then, on loop, which becomes a trigger for that carefree time and state of mind.
Listening to your favourite music from that era tends to bring a sense of play and nostalgia, which can be deeply rejuvenating.
I love throwing on old punk and emo records (NOFX, Taking Back Sunday, Saves The Day, Alexisonfire, Thursday, etc.) that make me want to jump and thrash my apartment, and sing (or scream) along. Other times I’ll listen to the gorgeous acoustic songs that make we want to lay down and cry. It’s like a little emotional vacation.
– Mindfully sip a mug of tea.
Green tea and matcha are awesome options, because of how many health benefits they deliver, without giving you a bunch more stimulation via caffeine.
Both teas are loaded with polyphenols, which have a ton of health benefits, like reducing inflammation, and neutralizing free radicals and repairing cellular damage, which defends against aging and disease.
Another big component is L-theanine, which has great calming, anti-anxiety effects, while increasing dopamine and encouraging a calm, creative alpha wave state in the brain
L-theanine also boosts metabolic rate to burn fat, and improves your quality of sleep.
After preparing yourself a mug, slowly take each slurp. Taste the flavours. Feel the warmth in your mouth. Then when you swallow, feel the tea travel down your throat into your stomach, and hug you from the inside.
Add in a dash of quality natural honey for a tasty anti-microbial, anti-oxidant boost.
– Get a massage.
Physical tension and mental tension are linked together. Whenever I bust up tight muscle, it always opens and clears my mind.
I recommend booking at least an hour to fully drop in and soak up all the benefits of therapeutic touch and the relaxing atmosphere.
It’s likely not something you’d do every day, and sometimes you might not be able to fit in an appointment. So you can always foam roll and use acupressure balls or a massage gun at home.
To get the full effect, make it a sacred ritual. Remember that the body responds to the space it’s in. Consider creating a similar relaxing environment like you’d have at a spa. Dim the lights. Get some aromas or candles going. Play some relaxing music. And melt into a puddle of chill.
The benefit of choosing an actual spa or clinic is that you can book recurring appointments in your schedule, which keep you accountable to making time for it. Plus, you can’t match the skill of outside professional hands, which also allow you to totally let go and surrender to the experience.
– Take naps.
Lying down to rest can sneak your brain an extra sleep cycle in the middle of the day, so you can carry on with more energy and cognitive resources.
I used to scoff at the idea of naps, and found it insane that anyone could make them work. After figuring out how to do them well (thank you Demetra), and feeling the effects, I absolutely relish in them.
The ideal naps length is around 20 minutes, and no more than 30. Because once you hit deeper levels of sleep, and get snapped out of it by an alarm, you risk causing grogginess and disorientation, which makes the transition back into the day much tougher.
And you don’t have to fully disappear and truly sleep for it to be a useful nap. Just having your eyes closed and going through the motions is deeply restorative for the brain.
– Take regular extended sea salt baths.
Sea salt and epsom salts are rich in magnesium and minerals, which relax muscles and hypertension.
Apparently, the academic jury is still out on how well we absorb magnesium through the skin. But this shit is still hella relaxing. And elite athletic coaches are still recommending this practice to their clients, who rave about the benefits, so that’s good enough for me.
If you’re already taking the time to buy salts and draw a warm bath, spare no energetic expense. Crank up the vibes to 11. Turn off the lights off, spark a few candles, drop some essential oils or bubbles in the water, and add a little ambient music.
You could even double down and take a nap. Doctors probably wouldn’t publicly advise falling asleep in water. Though I’m not a doctor. But I am a giant, so I couldn’t drown myself in a tub even if I wanted to.
– Yin Yoga classes.
Yin is a super slow, restorative style of yoga practice that’s all about stillness and releasing, instead of exerting effort.
For me, it brings all the benefits of meditation, without the excruciating boredom and distractedness. Just like with massage, when someone else is there to guide me through the practice, I can relax much deeper, and stick with it way longer than I could on my own. And I can commit to booking days and times each week that work for me.
Tips For Successful Integration
Whatever your ideal rest practices look like, the key is to schedule them into your life.
Even with all this in mind, the reason I still risk burning out is because my mind naturally prioritizes working as a default. If I didn’t book this stuff into my calendar, I could go weeks without even thinking about it.
Treat baths, walks, breath work, massages, or grocery shopping like any other important meeting you’d never miss. Choose specific slots in your week to do them. And pick several different activities to keep it interesting and compound the benefits.
Set timers or alarms during your workday to remind you to get up and stretch, or make a cup of tea.
If you have a partner or co-workers around you, tell them that you’re committing to taking better care of yourself. Share your specific practices, and ask them to check in with you once in a while to help keep you in check.
You might be slippery with it at first. But if you get into the habit for a few solid weeks, you’ll be blown away by the difference, and wish you’d been doing this years and years ago.
Dedicated to your success,
Ps. If you enjoyed this article, you’ll also love checking out:
– How To Recover From Extreme Burnout (Adrenal Fatigue, Exhaustion)
– How To Fully Release Difficult Emotions That Hold You Back
– Why Entrepreneurs Burn Out And Kill Themselves
– Play It Away: A Workaholic’s Cure For Anxiety by Charlie Hoehn (book)