I don’t know about you, but over the last month or so, I’ve been tired.
Even getting enough sleep, I have been experiencing a deeper kind of fatigue. If you’ve been tired, fatigued, depleted, or even burned-out, you’re not alone: a recent article published in the New York Times pointed out that “We Have All Hit a Wall.” This has been an intensely draining year, for oh so many reasons…and all of us are feeling the weight of it. In the article, Dr. Margaret Wehrenberg, an anxiety expert, is quoted as saying: “When people are under a long period of chronic, unpredictable stress, they develop behavioral anhedonia,” meaning the loss of the ability to take pleasure in their activities. “And so they get lethargic, and they show a lack of interest — and obviously that plays a huge role in productivity.”
I’ve run up against this wall myself. In fact, I even reached out to a group of other Alexander Technique teachers to see what kinds of inspiration they were able to provide for this time. Over and over again, the response was: rest. Of course. But could I really just stop working? Could I ask the world to quit being so much for just a few days?
Fatigue is real, and yeah, the solution is rest — Whole Self rest. Resting your Whole Self doesn’t just mean sleeping (although that’s great). It means processing stress constructively and — over time — changing the habits that keep you in cycles of stress and fatigue.
Stress lives in our bodies, as well as our minds, and we don’t escape the effects of stress when a stressful event is “over.” (This is especially important to remember in an ongoing stressful situation, like the current pandemic). Until we discharge the physical stress-response of our bodies, that stress is going to be with us, building up and draining our vitality and health. Drs. (and sisters) Emily and Amelia Nagoski published a book in 2019 called “Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle.” The book offers of a way of understanding how stress works in the mind and body, as well as practical tools for moving through experiences of stress so that we don’t get locked into it. Two of them — physical movement and breath — are what I work with every day in Alexander Technique and Voice lessons. You probably knew this intuitively already, but I was excited to read confirmation that moving, singing, breathing, and connecting with ourselves really does lower our stress!
We change our responses to stress when we have practical, embodied tools to use in the moment and throughout the day. Why is this important? Keep reading.
Whatever we are accustomed to doing feels normal to us. If you are used to living with a certain level of stress in your mind, nervous system, and body, it will feel normal to you, unexceptional. Let’s imagine this as a stress/ease-meter: Your meter works on a scale that goes from 0 (totally relaxed) to 10+ (totally stressed and tense). If you consistently operate at an 8 or a 9, 6 will feel really relaxed, but you still have so much possibility of ease that you’re not even exploring!
Frequently, a student who is having an in-person lesson will say something like, “I thought I was relaxed, until you supported my elbow and asked me to let it be easier. Then I found I could relax it even more. I didn’t even know I was holding it.” Perhaps their feeling of “my elbow is relaxed” was really a 5, and they discovered that there was a 4. With time, and practice, you might find more levels of ease…or even totally recalibrate your scale!
Put another way, if you have been working hard and pushing fast, taking yourself to the point of fatigue, depletion, or burn-out, your scale may be skewed. What counts as “rest” now may feel a whole lot more like stress later, after you’ve built more Whole Self freedom into your daily life, and you’ll have ease — and stress resilience — that you didn’t even know was possible!
How do you recalibrate your scale of ease? By finding small moments to practice moving down that scale. Maybe you stop completely, practice constructive rest, and you move from a 7 to a 5. Maybe you go for a walk with your eyes up (no looking at your phone!) and notice that your arms and legs can release into your stride…you move from an 8 to a 6. Maybe you get oriented to the space around you, allowing the ground to support you and the sky to surround you, and then you practice three easy, slow exhales (like a whispered Ah), or sound a low, easy hum, or you sing a favorite song…and you move from an 8 to a 3. Or simply tune in to the sensations of the world around you. Your nervous system will take this as a cue to release into space.
Example: I started writing this blog from a favorite little part of Earth…my patio. It’s only about 75 square feet, tucked in the back corner of my little house, surrounded by driveway, looking at my little back yard, my recycling bin, and my small raised-bed garden. I have a sun umbrella. I have wind-chimes. When I was outside on the sunny day, I was able to rest in the sound of the chimes, in the sensation of the spring breeze, in the sound of birds and the green of growing things. Later, I was editing indoors, and the weather was grey and a bit chilly out, but I could be attentive to the bit of sky I can see through the window, the sensation of the chair supporting me, the ease in my back, and the warmth of my tea. I’m working, but by practicing this gentle embodied mindfulness, I’m also giving myself moments of rest.
You Have Time
Each of these practices takes less than ten minutes. Some of them can be done in less than one! Yet all of them provide significant benefit to your mind, body, and being. Keeping stress in your body can result not only in behavioral anhedonia (aka not enjoying anything in your life) but it can also lead to illness. Have you ever had the experience of pushing for something big, some sort of milestone (like a performance, a due date for a project, the end of a degree) and then immediately afterward, you got sick? That’s stress catching up with you.
It’s important to note that we cannot practice self-care in a bubble. Many professions and industries glorify burnout, and expect exhaustion as a norm. American society is not generally set up to allow individuals the time, support, and space they need to rest — whether they be high-powered executives, retail workers, medical professionals, academics or public school teachers, parents who are full-time with their children, or musicians. The tools I’m offering you are for your own self-care…AND we need to change the systems that expect and glorify exhaustion as a part of daily life. My belief is that as individuals create space in their own lives for change, for rest, for creativity, we will also see a change (led by those individuals) within our systems. It’s the process that makes the difference.
No, really: You Have Time
So. Perhaps you’re planning some time off to rest in the next few months. By learning to rest better, now, you will be in a place where you can actually enjoy yourself. You don’t want to spend the first days of your vacation feeling groggy, or even ill! Instead of waiting to unwind until you get to your destination, try finding little bits rest within your every day life, and make sure to take the longest stretches of “off” time that you can when you’re stopping work for the day or the weekend. You really do have the time, and your future self will thank you for it! Lower that level on your stress scale now, and you’ll not only feel better today, but you’ll enjoy your time off even more.
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Looking for new ways to incorporate rest and ease into your life? I’d love to have a conversation with you about challenges you face in to making space for rest, and some strategies that you’ll enjoy from the whole-self learning of voice or Alexander Technique study.