The Value of Rest
From The Value of Rest – and all we gain from refraining
(Hvile – alt vi vinner ved å la være)
By Siw Aduvill
Published by Tiden Norsk Forlag, Oslo, 2019
Translated from the Norwegian by Alison McCullough
Learning to rest
If you get tired, learn to rest, not to quit!
A morning in June, around fifteen years ago. I had jumped into the car and pulled out onto the narrow road in the residential area in which I lived. When I rounded the next corner, I suddenly found my route blocked by a large vehicle and a man standing in the middle of the road.
My spontaneous reaction was to yell out of the window.
To be totally honest, I don’t remember exactly what I said word for word – my memory has conveniently edited it out. But what I do remember is that the man I cursed and shouted at didn’t scream back at me. He simply stood there, calmly, looking at me. Then I realised that the vehicle was a truck from the local council, there to collect the rubbish. My own rubbish! And I was sitting there screaming at the poor man?
Filled with shame, I eventually managed to splutter out a clumsy apology. Then I sat there – still ashamed – in the car for a few minutes, and waited until the waste collectors had finished their job and could let me pass.
Was there a matter of life and death at stake – was that why I had my foot to the floor and was firing on all cylinders? Hardly. I was stressed because I was late to teach a circus skills class to a group of children. This was the third year in a row that I’d arranged a summer school in circus skills for kids in Oslo, and as the person with the overall responsibility for the programme I had to be there before everyone else. The problem was simply that I had so many other balls in the air at the same time – quite literally. I’m a professional juggler, and have worked as a circus artist, instructor and director in the modern circus for most of my working life.
I was (and still am) a person who would get easily carried away by new ideas, and who would often start new projects. I also had an overdeveloped sense of responsibility and a desire to see things through – no matter the cost! And this certainly cost me. I hit the proverbial wall – or tent canvas, as it were.
A few months later a viral infection knocked me sideways for a few months, and then when I still didn’t manage to stop, this developed into chronic fatigue.
First, I had to rest – whether I wanted to or not. Looking at a wall on which the paint had already dried was more than stimulating enough for me. Then, after several years, the wall finally started to bore me, and I made a few feeble attempts to resume my life. After living my life like a swinging pendulum for a while, repeatedly taking on too much before completely collapsing, I found that I had to cultivate a balance between activity and rest, so that both my body and mind would have time to recover.
So began my search for good rest. A search that would take me to several countries, via huge numbers of books and articles and encounters with people – both living and dead – who through their belief systems, research and personal experience could teach me something about what rest could be. As I moved through this process, I became keen to understand how the nervous system operates, and as an extension of this, what it means to rest. As part of my journey I became a qualified yoga instructor, and have taught yoga and meditation for the past ten years, both at home in Norway and abroad. As a yoga instructor, I meet lots of people who are exhausted by the way in which we live – which perhaps isn’t so surprising, since many seek out yoga and meditation only when they realise that stress has caught up with them. The world is spinning at an ever-faster pace, and there’s a lot to keep track of. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by everything from time pressures and extreme weather events to milk allergies and the extinction of various species. All this results in us being overstimulated and under-rested much of the time.
When I published my book Yoga When it Counts in 2015, I received many strong reactions from readers who told me that they recognised themselves in my descriptions of an overexerted body and mind, and the feeling of never measuring up. This led me to believe that our conversations around stress are far from concluded. But I didn’t want to write another text about just how ill you can become from living with stress over time – the tabloid newspapers offer up more than enough of this. The part of our nervous system that reverses stress responds better to positive impulses – to the framing of opportunities, permission, care and encouragement. I wanted to emphasise the positive aspects of getting more rest. The process of writing this book has provided me with confirmation that rest broadens our minds and makes us more intelligent; being rested also makes wine taste better and orgasms last longer. In other words: we have everything to gain.
So what is rest? My definition of rest is being in a state in which the nervous system is in a so-called parasympathetic response, i.e. when we activate our system for safety, trust and care – the opposite of the ‘fight-or-flight’ state I was in when I screamed at the man who was just trying to collect the rubbish. Our normal state, as I see it, should be one in which we are fully relaxed; a state in which we place trust in each other, and wish each other well. But we are programmed for action, and driven by our primitive brain. Restlessness takes over, and it’s easiest to simply carry on in a kind of ‘business-as-usual’ state, without listening to what the body actually needs.
In his book The Power of Rest: Why Sleep Alone Is Not Enough, American physician Matthew Edlund divides what he calls active rest into four different categories: mental rest, physical rest, social rest and spiritual rest. Directing our focused attention towards a single element, such as the breath or a mantra, can give us an experience of mental rest. Physical rest we can achieve through relaxation techniques, in which we permit the physical body to become still and calm; we can also rest while moving, such as by taking a stroll, dancing, or performing exercises using techniques from practices such as qi gong and yoga. Social rest, according to Edlund, is mostly about enjoying the company of others – he believes this type of rest to be just as beneficial to one’s health as quitting smoking, and includes sex in this category. The last kind of rest Edlund mentions is spiritual rest, which arises when we feel connected to something greater than ourselves. Many people find that they experience this sensation when out in nature – at sea, for example, or in a forest or on a mountaintop. Rest can be found in feeling small, as this can free us from the sense that we’re carrying the entire world on our shoulders – as can often be the case when everything seems to be only about us, and what we’re capable of achieving.
The act of resting might sound passive, but in this book we’ll look at active rest – how lying down to take a nap can be progressive and positive. How much rest do we need in order for it to make a difference? In our body? In the culture in which we live? We are all different, and must therefore recognise that each of us will need to find a unique balance between activity and rest; it is clear, however, that many of us would benefit greatly from resting more than we currently do. Rest will not solve all our problems in itself, but we need to be rested to effectively tackle life’s challenges.
This book is intended as an invitation to shop less, stress less and take on less, so that we can enjoy more of what life has to offer. To see that less is more, and that in a calm state we become more creative and empathetic, and act in ways that are more in line with what is best for both ourselves and others. To understand that challenges don’t need to be met with constant brute force, and that a life free from stress and panic truly is a possibility – and one we must grab hold of! Imagine a slack elastic band which, if drawn back, can then shoot forwards with great energy! This is how we might think about rest.
This book embraces silence and withdrawal, but not with the intention that we should remain in silence. There isn’t much solidarity in living in silence, especially when so many of us have voices that go unheard. Withdrawing gives us the opportunity to recharge our batteries in order to return with greater strength, and to speak up when we see injustices and situations requiring better solutions. It enables us to be efficient, and to persevere when tackling the great challenges of our time. We still have some way to go, but walking uphill is much easier when we are rested – and when we walk alongside others.
Chapter 1: The sympathetic body
The Church says: The body is a sin. Science says: The body is a machine. Advertising says: The body is a business. The body says: I am a fiesta.
In the summer of 1975, people abandoned the beaches in favour of cinema auditoriums in order to watch the movie Jaws – which at the time was one of the greatest box office successes in Hollywood history. Millions of people chose the darkness of the cinema over the sun, the sea and their bathing costumes – and afterwards, it would be a long time before many of them would dare to enter the water again. What’s so scary about sharks? The short answer is: everything. For over 400 million years, these carefree gangster-fish have swum their way through five mass extinctions that eradicated almost all life on earth, and there is little to indicate that they’ll be going anywhere soon. A shark can develop up to 30,000 teeth in its lifetime; by comparison, a human being has just thirty-two. And in addition to possessing all the same senses as humans, sharks can also sense electricity and vibrations under water. This means that they can detect the signals from your heartbeat – even from great distances away. A shark is also able to sniff out just a single drop of blood from among a million drops of water! But despite these and other monstrous qualities, only thirty to fifty shark attacks on humans are reported each year; of these, around five to ten will be fatal. Across the world, more people die of peanut allergies, but ‘Deadly Peanuts: The Movie’ doesn’t exactly have the same potential to scare the living daylights out of us. In the darkness of the cinema, a layer of fiction exists between the audience and the real threat. Our heart rate might increase, our muscles might tense up and we might gasp for breath – but deep down we know that we are safe in our seat. If we find ourselves in a truly dangerous situation, such as a war zone, there is far more at stake.
Much of what we know about the nervous system is a result of observing people in such extreme situations. What triggers the fear response, and prepares the body to fight or flee? Our nervous system can be broadly divided into what we call the somatic nervous system and the autonomic nervous system. The somatic nervous system enables us to control voluntary movements. It enables me, for example, to move my fingers across various keys on my keyboard to create sentences, which in turn enable me to communicate with you through time and space – I’m able to control the mechanical part of this process to a certain extent. But as I sit here breathing and blinking, and feel my heart beating to pump blood around my body, or that my bladder is full and that it’s time to empty it, it’s the autonomic nervous system that is at work. This autonomic nervous system is again divided into two – the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system.
The sympathetic response
When we watch the movie Jaws and our breathing becomes shallower, our heart beats faster and our muscles tense up, this is a sympathetic response. The process goes something like this: through our senses, we receive information that there is danger afoot. The brain produces stress hormones, which prepare the system to respond by either fighting or fleeing. Blood flows out into the arms and legs, so that we’ll be better able to act quickly. When we are frightened, the nervous system responds by firing on all cylinders. This is generally a favourable response, since it ensures our ability to survive – in a threatening situation, we can try to get away from our attacker or the impending danger by running or swimming as fast as we can. If this isn’t possible, our other option is to fight using our muscles and teeth for all they are worth – although here we don’t possess the impressive bodily attributes or skills of many other species. So unless we happen to have a harpoon hidden down our bathing costume, our best option is to flee the scene.
The body is also able to respond in a third way, however, which can feel as if our brakes and accelerator are being floored at the same time – with the result that we simply stand there, as if frozen in time and space. It might be beneficial for a prey animal to play dead when encountering a predator that will only eat fresh meat because it knows that eating the equivalent of sushi that’s been left out on the counter for too long might have a negative effect on its health and survival. The Australian possum is deserving of several Oscars for how successfully it can play dead – it plays this role so convincingly that the predator eventually casts it aside and starts looking for another, living victim. After the credits have rolled the possum simply gets up, shakes itself off, and strolls on its merry way. This is rarely an alternative we humans actively choose – as tempting as it might be to play dead at boring dinner parties or certain Christmas gatherings. But for humans, the activation of a freeze-response in a threatening situation, such as during an assault, can result in a feeling of powerlessness, and in some cases shame at not reacting actively, which can settle in the body as trauma until it is processed.
We usually talk about the sympathetic response in relation to fear and stress, but it is important to emphasise that we can also mobilise a positive sympathetic response. There are contexts in which we activate the sympathetic response to give us energy, or to have fun or feel excitement (such as when watching a scary film about sharks). Some people like to challenge themselves with various kinds of intense stimuli that would give others a heart attack just thinking about them; individuals who are attracted to extreme sports, for example, experience these activities as positive stress. Challenging yourself by giving a speech at a gathering, or taking responsibility for a project that seems just out of reach, can also be a positive experience and provide a sense of achievement. But extreme sports are not for everyone. This is partly about our personal base level – that is, how high a level of stress our body is subjected to on a daily basis. It might be that people who live in safe surroundings have a greater need to seek out situations and activities that give them an adrenaline rush; if, on the other hand, you belong to a group of the population that is continually stopped by the police or shot at, and are living under circumstances in which you must constantly be on alert in order to survive, swimming with sharks or bungee jumping suddenly seems much less attractive.
The parasympathetic response
The nervous system’s parasympathetic response is the opposite of being on red alert. It is through this response that we exhale and relax, easing the tension in our shoulders; that we recover, and digest both food and impressions. This is the body’s system for safety, assuredness and satisfaction; how it feels when everything doesn’t seem to be going up in smoke, when the key doesn’t break off in the lock – when a shark isn’t trying to eat you. It is within this landscape that the daily functions of body and mind play out, and it’s also our greatest source of feelings of satisfaction and belonging. It was previously believed that these states of mind arose because the system that handles danger was turned or tuned down; now we know more about how this system makes use of natural chemicals in the brain, such as endorphins and dopamine, which are associated with deep joy and strong positive emotions. When we are in a parasympathetic response, feelings such as trust and compassion are far more accessible to us than when we are on red alert.
The parasympathetic response is sometimes referred to as a regenerative process, since it renews the body’s cells and systems. The regenerative process doesn’t need much energy in order to function, but the absence of danger is a prerequisite. Our surroundings are important for the nervous system, because we respond and organise ourselves in accordance with the demands of our environment at any given time, both consciously and unconsciously. The parasympathetic system reacts positively to safe surroundings, regular and calm breathing patterns, relaxed muscles, slowness and rest. But because the surroundings in which we now live are so full of stimuli, modern humans usually spend more time in defence mode than in regenerative mode. We can, however, attempt to create a positive and supportive environment in which we emphasise giving the body and mind what they need in the form of peace and coherence, so that struggles and self-defence don’t come to dominate our everyday lives.
Of course, we can also insist on maintaining an environment filled with stress and challenges; one in which our calendar is always jam-packed with appointments and we never take the time to catch our breath. It’s possible to keep this up for a long time – but the problems arise when something unexpected happens and we have to drop everything to focus on the situation in front of us. Because defrosting the freezer suddenly seems much less urgent when we have a huge leak under the sink, or when the stove has caught fire. If our house is going up in flames, we must prioritise mercilessly and mobilise all our resources in order to put out the blaze – and this is also true for the body. It can’t prioritise digestion or cellular regeneration when the alarm has been sounded; faced with a threat, reproduction isn’t such a high priority, either. This might explain why we lose our sex drive and desire for intimacy when we have a long list of things to do within a tight deadline. These tasks might not represent a real risk to life and health – but the body responds as if it needs to focus on surviving.
The three parts of the brain
The brain plays a natural role in the relationship between what we experience and how the body reacts, and there are three main parts of the brain that are referred to in connection with stress reactions. The first is the so-called reptilian brain, which is the first part of the brain that developed in humans. The reptilian brain is connected to the autonomic nervous system, and manages instincts that are necessary for survival. It is here that the fight-or-flight response is regulated, in addition to basic bodily functions such as sleeping and waking. Reptiles aren’t exactly known for being overly sentimental – they lay eggs that are easy to abandon, and leave their newly hatched offspring to fend for themselves.
But things are different for species that give birth to live young. Most mammals are helpless in the period following birth, and our behaviour was therefore forced to adapt to these needs in order to ensure the survival of the species. It became necessary for us to care about each other, and so the limbic part of the brain developed. The limbic system plays a significant role in how we interpret sensory impressions, how we code and remember sensory information, and how we react to all this information emotionally. It monitors both our internal and external environment, and ascribes emotional significance to all we smell, see, hear, feel and taste. The limbic system is known as the seat of our social and emotional intelligence, and is also responsible for the creation of memories.
Just behind our forehead lies the newest part of the brain, which is therefore called the neocortex – in this book also referred to as the frontal cortex. This new cortex is where we utilise our language, make plans and solve problems, and doesn’t actually mature until we reach our early twenties. This is the centre of our rationality, and the part of the brain we use to solve mathematical calculations. We are particularly enthusiastic about and proud of this part of the brain – to such an extent that we often permit the rational part of us to override other kinds of intelligence. But when we are stressed, and shift into survival mode, it is our reptilian brain that steers the ship – when this happens, we would do well to engage the other parts of our brain. We can do this through calming down, by activating the parasympathetic response. The body then sends a message to the brain, informing it that there’s no shark fin to be seen nearby, and that the production of stress hormones is therefore unnecessary.
Jumping back to the start
If you are a blue tit, you have to watch out for the cat sitting there staring at the nest. If you’re a squirrel, you should find a tree to climb when a dog comes bounding past. In a dog-eat-dog world, such as the savannah or the forest, the stress response is activated daily. But the animals manage to quickly reset their nervous systems after the immediate danger has passed – either by shaking themselves off, by fighting, or by getting away from their attacker. We humans, however, tend to enter a state of chronic stress, in which the stress chemicals continue to rage through our bloodstream and where the system fails to reset to parasympathetic mode. What happens then is that the easily ignited survival response that puts us on red alert starts to corrode the body’s organs and the system as a whole. One example of this is the stress hormone cortisol, which is useful for short-term, defensive behaviour because it mobilises fat and sugar, giving the body energy. At the same time, however, damage to the immune system, organs and cognitive functions can result if the body experiences high levels of cortisone over an extended period of time. The fight-or-flight response is always ready to shift into gear – and this is positive, as it increases our chances of survival. But since we know that we cannot remain in this state for long without paying a high price for it, we can try to make some choices that will reverse this process. And one special nerve in particular can help us do this.
The vagus nerve
The vagus nerve is the longest nerve in the body, and one of the main instruments of the parasympathetic nervous system. From its origins in the brain it winds down the neck, past the heart and lungs via the oesophagus on its way to the stomach, liver, kidneys, adrenal glands and intestines. The vagus nerve controls swallowing (together with other nerves of the tongue and throat) and the vocal cords, and both influences and transfers impulses from the lungs, heart, stomach and digestive tract. The vagus nerve (from Latin: to wander) influences such large areas of the body because it wanders through the organism, linking everything together. The word tone is used to describe the vagus nerve’s functional ability, and this is measured by monitoring the heart rhythm in connection with the breathing rhythm. Your heart rhythm increases slightly when you breathe in, and its tempo decreases slightly when you breathe out. A large variation between the in-breath and out-breath results in higher tone in the vagus nerve – high vagal tone indicates that the body has a good switchboard system, and can more easily activate the parasympathetic response.
This also improves the function of many of the body’s systems. It has been suggested that high vagal tone results in improved blood sugar regulation, and reduces the risk of stroke and cardiovascular disease because it also results in lower blood pressure. High vagal tone is also said to be beneficial for digestion, because it results in improved enzyme production in the intestines. Chronic inflammation and pain, prolonged and intense stress, and emotional challenges such as mental trauma, loneliness and depression, are all conditions associated with weakened vagal function. But since the vagus nerve practically wanders throughout the entire body, there is much we can do to influence it. Yoga, meditation and rest have proven to have a positive effect on heart rhythm variability (the variation between the in-breath and out-breath as mentioned above). Laughter acts as a medicine in most contexts – including this one, since the stomach, lungs, vocal cords and diaphragm are spontaneously involved. Humming and singing affect the part of the nerve that wanders through the neck and throat – since song plays a role in most cultures, might this be because we instinctively feel that singing calms and creates bonds between us?
We have looked at how the nervous system’s sympathetic response is sympathetic in the way that it ensures our survival, and that the body responds as best it can to protect us from dangers and threatening situations. We have also seen that we cannot remain in a state of continual high tension without this affecting our health. For most of us, a big fish with thousands of teeth poses less of a real threat than the adverse health effects that can result from prolonged stress. The regenerative state we can enter into when we relax is of tremendous value to us human beings, and so it can be useful to think about how we can cultivate this and make it into a more normal state. We must therefore learn ways to reverse our state of red alert, so that we change the body’s biochemistry and experience a state of calm, belonging and care. This is the very essence of what we must do in order to rest.