You probably don’t need anyone to tell you that rest and relaxation are important, but have you ever put thought into how to relax? It might feel like a weird question, given that rest can seem deceptively straightforward, but hear me out. Plenty of things can get in the way of restful, restorative downtime, and the truth is, a lot of us aren’t great at relaxing in practice. It’s a skill worth refining, though—we all need ways to recuperate from the many stressors of the world for the sake of our mental health.
“We all need more rest than we think, especially now,” Jor-El Caraballo, L.M.H.C., therapist and cofounder of Brooklyn-based therapy practice Viva Wellness, tells SELF. “We have barely scratched the surface of the psychological toll of 2020, so however much rest you think you need is probably not enough.”
If you’re thinking that sounds great in theory but have no idea how to implement it, don’t worry. For many, relaxing is easier said than done, but we’ve got some tips on how to make your rest time, well, feel like rest. Read on for some helpful tips on how to relax.
1. Know what actually relaxes you.
It might sound obvious, but tons of people aren’t very discerning or creative about how they spend their downtime. “People often think they’re resting when they’re really not,” clinical psychologist Ryan Howes, Ph.D., tells SELF.
For example, maybe you tend to count scrolling through Twitter for a couple of hours as relaxation. That might be restful to some people, but for many, it’s more stressful than anything. Or maybe you force yourself to do things that you’ve heard are supposed to be relaxing—like meditating, napping, or taking a bubble bath—when you actually find them super boring or unhelpful. Relaxation isn’t one-size-fits-all.
To start to figure out what rest means to you, you might want to reframe how you think about it in the first place. “Relaxation is not one activity—it’s the outcome of any activity,” says Caraballo. And which activities lead to relaxation will depend on you. Explore hobbies, different types of physical activity, various means of socializing, self-care practices, and more. Then pay attention. “Ask yourself, ‘How do I feel after doing this? Do I feel grounded? Do I feel stable? Do I feel at ease?’ If so, maybe that’s something that can be on your list as a way to rest from the world,” says Caraballo. “And if not, maybe you need to try something else.”
If you find that your go-to relaxation activities aren’t actually relaxing and you’re blanking on what else to try, you might have to go back to the drawing board and start experimenting. That’s okay. “Start small,” says Caraballo. “Like, so small that you think it’s absurd. Literally sit for 30 seconds. Do one deep-breathing exercise a day.” Go from there.
2. Be intentional about your rest time.
Intentionality is kind of the golden rule of rest. In order for relaxation to be effective, you have to commit to it. “Six hours of half-assed relaxing is not as good as two hours of focused, intentional relaxing,” says Howes. The truth is, we half-ass our rest all the time. We get distracted by email or social media. We turn our hobbies into side hustles and drain them of joy. We spend our rest time thinking about our to-do lists. We leave ourselves open to distractions or wander aimlessly between activities because we don’t actually know what we want. Instead, try getting in the habit of telling yourself, “Okay, it’s time to relax,” and really knowing what that means.
Caraballo suggests asking yourself what you hope to get out of your relaxation time each time you do it. “To rest” or “to escape” are starting points, but it helps to get specific. Do you need to distract yourself from problems at work? Do you need to feel refreshed and ready to dive back into life? Do you need to calm your anxiety? Do you need to feel soothed and comforted?
From there, you can figure out how to support your needs—both by choosing the right activity and by figuring out which boundaries to put into place (like not checking your phone or choosing the right location or time) in order to make it happen. Speaking of…
3. Schedule rest time and be generous about it.
When we don’t schedule things, we tend to make decisions based on how we’re feeling at any given moment. And while that can work for rest sometimes (like when you’re having a hard day and decide to reschedule your plans so you can have a quiet night in), other times it works against us. If you wait for the mood to strike or until you feel like you “deserve” to relax (more on that later), you won’t rest nearly enough. You have to carve it out on your schedule—even if it’s just 15-minute bubbles here and there.
The most important part of scheduling rest: Be honest about what you want and need. You don’t want to use scheduling as a tool to try to restrict yourself; use it to protect your time. For example, if you know in your heart of hearts you really want a whole day on the couch doing nothing but marathoning your favorite comforting TV show, give yourself permission to do just that from the get-go. Don’t block off an hour of time in hopes it’ll magically make you need less time unwinding and then beat yourself up when you inevitably press “Next Episode” over and over, anyway.
4. Enjoy pockets of relaxation throughout your week.
Speaking of restricting yourself, it’s easy to fall into an all-or-nothing mentality around rest. Maybe you push yourself too hard during the week and only rest on weekends. Or maybe you tell yourself you don’t have the time or bandwidth or resources to rest “properly” so you don’t do it at all. When we do that, not only do we run the risk of burning out and rendering rest less effective overall, but we also wind up turning to activities that aren’t restful so much as numbing.
Take, for example, watching TV or playing video games. They’re both awesome relaxing activities I love, but sometimes I wind up feeling guilty instead of really enjoying them. Why? Because I avoid them during periods I need to be productive, then get sucked in for hours when I finally have a chance to plug in.
According to Caraballo, that sort of restrictive behavior actually works against our rest. “When you don’t have smaller moments more regularly, you can fall into binges,” he says. And given that for many, binges of all sorts can come with guilt, shame, and other emotions that impact our ability to really relax, it’s a lot more effective to build relaxation into your schedule regularly. So try sprinkling some of the activities you usually save for the weekend throughout the week instead and see how that works for you.
5. Establish a ritual to get in the mood.
This is especially important for those of us who are working from home. When we work from home, the lines between work and personal life can become blurry because we don’t have the usual routines that help signal the beginning and end of the workday. For example, we don’t have a commute or the act of physically leaving the office. It might not seem like a huge deal, but those rituals are actually super helpful when it comes to telling your brain it’s time to get out of work mode and into rest mode.
6. Learn skills for managing your emotions and negative self-talk.
A lot of potent emotions can get in the way of rest, from anxiety to guilt. Even if you’re physically doing an activity that usually relaxes you, if your mind isn’t on board, it’s not going to be as impactful. You have to tackle the mental side of things, and a lot of the time that looks like brushing up on coping skills and therapeutic tools that can help put you in a mindset to relax.
If you have a hard time disengaging from strong emotions like anger and frustration (maybe from a long workday) or general sadness or distress (maybe from, IDK, the whole world around us), try these emotional regulation skills. If you tend to beat yourself up for resting because you feel guilty or undeserving, try this RAIN meditation for self-compassion. If you can’t unwind due to anxious thought spirals and existential dread, try these tips for reframing anxious thoughts or these grounding exercises. Then keep these skills in mind as possible ways to tackle the next few tips too.
7. Don’t force yourself to earn rest.
Confession: I fall into this trap a lot, and I know I’m not alone. Too often I have a hard time unwinding because of unfinished work, chores, and other obligations hanging over my head, so I tell myself the fix is to frame rest as a reward. Just finish your to-do list before you relax, I tell myself. That way you can enjoy it more! Makes sense in theory, but guess what? Our to-do lists are rarely completely finished, and making rules around when we’ve “earned” a break is an easy way to work too much and rest too little.
Plus, thinking this way can also ruin the rare times you do rest because guilt and distraction will inevitably creep in. When you decide that rest is something you must earn, it’s really, really difficult to feel “deserving” of it.
So instead of thinking of rest as a luxury that you only deserve after an accomplishment, try reminding yourself rest is necessary. “It’s not about deserving—you need rest,” says Caraballo. “Our brains need downtime. Biologically, physiologically, rest is a necessity.”
8. That said, you can remind yourself how rest supports your work.
As much as I want to say that rest is important for its own sake because it’s necessary and enjoyable, I also can’t deny that it supports our ability to keep up on our responsibilities in the long run. It’s okay to use that as motivation, especially if you have a hard time allowing yourself to step away from work or other obligations for some downtime. “Not everything needs to serve productivity, but the truth is, you’re going to perform better when you’re well rested and have some gas in the tank,” says Howes. If telling yourself that helps you feel less guilty and distracted during your downtime, so be it.
Speaking of, it’s also okay if you have mixed feelings about this. It can suck to have to tell yourself “Taking a break from work will make you better at work,” but also, that’s reality. “As long as we live in a capitalist society like this one, these thoughts, these doubts, these questions about whether we deserve rest and whether rest must exist to uphold this system are going to come up,” says Caraballo. “Grappling with the relationship between rest and work will always be a work in progress because we don’t exist in a system that affords us not to have that challenge.”
9. Adjust your expectations.
We put a lot of pressure on relaxation these days. It’s supposed to be our reprieve from the scary world, the trenches of capitalism, the grip of burnout. When we put so much pressure on rest to leave us feeling magically restored from all that, it actually has the opposite effect. Because really that just means putting pressure on ourselves. “Because of the society that we live in, there’s very much a strong push to take care of yourself,” says Caraballo. “Especially now. It’s like, ‘You must take care of yourself. It’s your responsibility to take care of yourself. You’re a fool if you don’t take care of yourself.’ But that creates a lot of pressure for people and a lot of anxiety around rest.”
Instead, take relaxation one day at a time. “We have to be realistic about what rest is,” says Howes. “We have to recognize that relaxation isn’t the absence of stressors—it’s about creating moments when you’re putting your stressors temporarily on hold and setting boundaries so you don’t have to engage with everything on your plate.”
10. Ask for help.
Your inability to chill out and rest might be more complicated than you’d expect, according to Caraballo. Whenever his clients say they have a difficult time relaxing, he tends to do a bit of an audit, asking questions to help dig into the relationship they have with rest. Turns out, a lot of us get messages about rest, directly or indirectly, from the world around us and at home. Hustle culture and capitalism are obvious examples of this, but others might be more personal.
“For example, someone will say, ‘I come from an immigrant family, and my parents were working-class when they arrived to this country,’ and I’m like, ‘Okay, so maybe you got a lot of messages about what it means to be a citizen here and what it means to be productive,’” says Caraballo. “It gives us a place to start.”
That’s only one example, but the point is, chatting with a therapist can go a long way in helping you learn how to relax. “Not knowing where your trouble is coming from is a barrier to finding out what will work for you,” says Caraballo. “We’re here to help provide insight.” If you don’t already have a therapist to talk to, start with these tips for finding an affordable one.
11. Lastly, be kind to yourself.
Intentionally optimizing rest so it’s as effective as possible is a worthy endeavor for a lot of reasons—but also, it shouldn’t be an added source of stress or something you pressure yourself to do all the time. There are going to be days when negative thoughts and guilt creep in or when you opt for numbing out or escapism instead of something you know works better. In fact, there are probably going to be a lot of days like that, and it’s okay. “I think the best thing that we can do is not get tied up in doing rest perfectly or having the perfect relationship with rest,” says Caraballo. “Instead, be gentle and patient with yourself and understand it’s an ongoing challenge.”