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The 7 Different Types of Rest You Should Know About

Woman resting on a couch. Laying back with headphones on and an arm behind her head.
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Sleep tends to be an undervalued aspect of well-being. How many times have you heard a politician or A-list celebrity brag about getting by on five hours of sleep as if it’s a badge of honor? Thankfully, that thinking has been changing, and slowly we are starting to see these thoughts replaced by kinder, gentler, healthier self-care practices.

Now you may be more aware of the importance of good sleep. You start a bedtime routine and prioritize getting enough rest most nights. That’s great. But why is it that some mornings you wake up after your seven to nine hours still feeling exhausted?

Here’s what Dr. Saundra Dalton-Smith, a physician, researcher and author wants you to know: Sleep and rest are not the same thing. Though sleep is an essential part of the picture, it’s only one of the seven types of rest we need.

“Many of us are going through life thinking we have rested because we have slept, but in reality we are missing out on the other types of rest that are equally essential for our bodies and minds,” Dalton-Smith said in her 2019 TEDx talk. “By not recognizing all the types of rest, we can end up chronically tired and burned out. By not understanding the power of rest, we will continue to suffer from a rest deficit.”

Dalton-Smith came to this realization through personal experience. She was getting a solid eight or nine hours of sleep but still waking up feeling exhausted. A battery of tests showed nothing wrong physically, “so that’s when I started to look at how we evaluate fatigue. As a physician, if a patient comes to see me and says, ‘I’m hurt,’ I can’t diagnose or treat them with just that information. It’s too vague and nonspecific.”

It's the same with being tired, Dalton-Smith thought. So she started asking herself, “What kind of tired am I?”

“Every activity we do requires energy, and most of that energy is not just physical,” says Dalton-Smith. If you get an email from your boss about a problem, you steel yourself for a potential conflict. “That draws on emotional energy.” When you’re looking at screens and getting notifications all day, that overstimulation can sap your sensory energy. “And when your teen asks for your car keys, you draw from your spiritual and creative energy as you pray for a great excuse to say no!” she further explains.

“The first step to conquering your rest deficit is to identify where you’re using the most energy during your day. Then you can focus your attention on getting the type of rest needed to restore one of those specific areas,” Dalton-Smith says. To help narrow it down, she even created a rest quiz.

Dalton-Smith has identified seven different types of rest. “Each has its own characteristics that will present if you have a deficit,” she says.

The 7 types of rest (and how to get more of each one)

Physical rest

The first type of rest is physical rest, and it’s probably the one you’re most familiar with—and the easiest one to pinpoint if you’re short on it. Dalton-Smith says physical rest can be either passive or active. Passive physical rest means getting enough high-quality sleep (and naps if you need them). Active rest includes activities that are physically restorative, such as yoga, stretching, foam-rolling, even massage therapy. These are all things that improve your body’s circulation and flexibility, and encourage feelings of relaxation. Getting enough of both should noticeably increase your energy levels.

Another good tip is to pay attention to your work setup. “Make sure it’s ergonomically sound and not putting unnecessary stress on your body,” Dalton-Smith says.

Mental rest

A racing mind can be a sign that you require a bit of mental rest. “Signs of a mental-rest deficit can be irritability, forgetfulness and trouble focusing on work,” says Dalton-Smith. “Someone with a very busy brain will find themselves going to bed at night with their mind racing, not able to quiet it and fall asleep.” She cites as an example forgetting what you need to buy when you’re at the grocery story.

If you have a mental rest deficit, even if you get your seven to nine hours of sleep, you may still wake up feeling exhausted.

To rest your mind, try to distance yourself from anxiety-provoking thoughts. This can mean taking a vacation, going for a walk or simply transferring the thoughts that are weighing on you to a notepad, so that you’re not straining to process them internally. “You can schedule short breaks throughout your workday, maybe every two hours. These pre-planned breaks will remind you to stop and slow down long enough to calm your mind.”

Social rest

Social rest is a break from other people. It’s a concept that may feel most familiar to introverts, but anyone can feel drained by time around other people, whether family, friends, colleagues or acquaintances. Most of us spend much of our time with people who pull from our social energy by needing things from you, even if that’s just cordial conversation. It requires exertion and can be a source of exhaustion.

One silver lining to the pandemic: As we’ve spent more time solo, many of us have reassessed which activities and relationships enrich our lives rather than drain our energy.

The right way to achieve social rest is to carve out “alone time,” where you do things simply for yourself, without social interaction. Ideally this happens daily, but can be specific weekly events, as well.

Spiritual rest

Feelings of dejection can be due to spiritual exhaustion. Spiritual rest involves moments of connecting to something beyond the mental and physical, and to feel a deep sense of belonging, purpose and acceptance, says Dalton-Smith. Someone with a spiritual rest deficit might feel like their work, or what they do, doesn’t really matter or benefit anybody. If you don’t feel like your work has meaning, you’ll feel burned out. “We all have that desire for meaning, to feel like we belong and that we are contributing,” she says.

“When we feel disconnected from the rest of the world, it can leave us feeling unmoored,” says Dalton-Smith. “Without it, we are prone to existential crises.” Spiritual rest is about engaging in or with something greater than yourself in your day-to-day routine—it could be volunteering in your community or being part of a faith-based organization or other group that aligns with your interests and beliefs.

Sensory rest

All of us are probably suffering from sensory overload—from mobile devices, laptops, tablets, TV, zoom meetings, traffic noise—24/7. If you’ve gone back to an office, all the ambient conversations and bright lights can pile on to overwhelm your senses. Even listening to music or podcasts in your down time can contribute to sensory overload.

Even if you’re not consciously aware of all the sensory input that’s happening around you, “your body and subconscious are going to respond, and over time you’ll develop sensory overload syndrome,” Dalton-Smith says. “The No. 1 way most of us respond to sensory overload is irritation, agitation, rage or anger.”

One obvious way to counteract the effect of too much noise is to unplug from your electronics at the end of each day. A total digital detox every so often is even better. Equally effective is to simply take a few minutes during the day to close your eyes and tune out. Try 10 minutes of non-sleep deep rest, which is when you get yourself to a sleep-like state for a short period of time to let the brain rest completely. Taking this time for deep rest can indeed give you a major boost, says Dr. Chris Winter, a neurologist, author of "The Sleep Solution" and "The Rested Child," and Sleep Advisor who sometimes practices NSDR during his lunch break. Intentional moments of sensory deprivation can rest your brain from our over-stimulating world.

Creative rest

Unlike the other forms of rest, creative rest means leaning into the things that promote creativity: Creative rest is what we experience when we take the time to appreciate beauty in any form. “Whether it’s the natural beauty of the ocean or other gorgeous landscape, or created beauty like art, music or dance, creative rest reawakens the awe and wonder inside each of us,” says Dalton-Smith.

One sign that you have a creative rest deficit is that you have a hard time being innovative or thinking in the abstract. A creative rest deficit can mean that even problem-solving is difficult, she says. “Creativity is more than just art; it’s any type of innovation. During the pandemic, most all of us had to draw on our creative energy to problem-solve and adapt to living in our ‘new normal.’ And because many of us don’t think of ourselves as creatives, we never realized we were draining those stores, or how we’d replenish that depleted energy.”

Emotional rest

“Emotional rest refers to the rest we experience when we feel like we can be real and authentic in how we share our feelings,” Dalton-Smith says. “An emotionally rested person can answer the question ‘How are you?’ with a truthful ‘I’m not OK’—and then share some hard things that otherwise go unsaid. There are a lot of times we hide our feelings without giving them the opportunity to be exposed, expressed and to heal.” Replenishing your emotional rest also means cutting back on people-pleasing, and saying yes to others when you want to say no.

“Symptoms of an emotional rest deficit are feeling that you always have to keep your emotions in check, that you never have the freedom to be truly authentic about what you’re feeling. If you’re in need of emotional rest, you probably have a social rest deficit, too,” Dalton-Smith adds, because you’re not differentiating between relationships that revive you and those that exhaust you.

It's about staying true to yourself and in touch with your innermost needs.

No matter what rest you may feel yourself struggling with, keep in mind that if your definition of rest is lying on the couch binge-watching an entire season of a TV series, that won’t alleviate any rest deficits. Make sure you take time to pause and evaluate how you’re feeling so you can choose the best course of action to keep your energy cup filled.

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