There Are 7 Types of Rest. Which Do You Need Most?
Written by: Jessie Geoffray
Updated: July 21, 2022
When we first heard Dr. Saundra Dalton-Smith’s theory of rest, it unlocked something. Finally, here was an explanation for why, after days or weeks of sleeping well, we can still feel as burned out as ever. Or why, even at our most fatigued, an afternoon spent on our feet volunteering can feel more restorative than a nap.
In her book, Sacred Rest: Recover Your Life, Renew Your Energy, Restore Your Sanity, Dalton-Smith presents the idea that we all need seven different types of rest to feel fully alive and fully ourselves. And that the antidote to burnout isn’t just, say, a vacation—it’s identifying the types of rest you need most desperately and adopting small daily strategies to replenish them. Below, she explains in her own words.
The 7 Types of Rest
I’m a board-certified internal medicine physician who, about ten years ago, completely burned out. At the time, I had two toddlers and a full-time medical practice, and I was actively writing and researching. I had gotten to a place where my life had no boundaries whatsoever. It was go, go, go, nonstop.
That burnout time led me to a point of recognizing that the health care industry had ill prepared me to be able to help even myself when I got to that place of exhaustion and depletion. The only research I could find was about needing better sleep quality and getting more sleep and how sleep-deprived everyone was. So that was my focus for a while. I spent a lot of time researching and looking at sleep and looking at how to improve my sleep.
I got to a point where I was sleeping eight, nine hours, very solid, very sound sleep, and I would still wake up completely exhausted. And that’s when it started to dawn on me that something was missing—that something was greatly missing. I had no medical conditions whatsoever. I did the battery of tests that every doctor can do to evaluate fatigue and nothing was wrong with me physically. It was something more than that. That’s when I started to look at how we evaluate fatigue. How do we evaluate exhaustion? Because as a physician, if someone walks into my medical practice and says, “Hey doc, I’m hurt,” I can’t do anything with that. That’s so vague and nonspecific. I don’t even know where to begin to look to diagnose or even how to treat. But that’s what I was doing.
That’s what most of my patients were doing when they came in and said, “I’m tired.” It was nonspecific. It didn’t give me any direction. I started to ask myself the question: What kind of exhausted am I? What kind of fatigue am I experiencing today? I started to ask my patients that every time they told me they were tired. The seven areas of fatigue I write about in Sacred Rest are the seven areas that I consistently heard patients talk about. They were universal across so many different patients with different jobs.
Work-life balance is such a misnomer, because nobody wants work on one side of the scale and life on the other side—in that scenario, if you’re succeeding in one area, you’re failing in the other. Nobody wants that. We want work-life integration. We want work-life harmony. We want them to have an ebb and flow so that both can succeed and thrive. And so I spent over ten years researching, looking at the different types of rest, narrowing them down to the main ones I felt most people were missing and needed to be aware of to stay at their personal and professional best.
There are seven different types of rest: physical, mental, spiritual, emotional, social, sensory, and creative. Each type of rest has its own characteristics that will present if you have a deficit.
1. Physical Rest
Physical rest has two components. It has the active component and a passive component. Passive being things like sleeping and napping. We need high-quality sleep. But physical rest also includes active things like yoga, stretching, using a foam roller, getting a massage, and making sure that the ergonomics of your work station are not toxic to your body.
Signs that you have an active physical rest deficit could be body aches and pain. It could be swelling in your legs and feet after sitting at your desk for long periods of time; it could be spasms in your back.
2. Mental Rest
Someone with a mental rest deficit might find themselves lying down to go to sleep at night and their mind’s racing and they’re not able to quiet it and fall asleep. Another example is the person who walks into the grocery store and is trying to remember the three items that they went in there for, and they can’t seem to recall the information. They’re struggling with concentration and recall, and they’re not in their eighties, so they’re not someone who we’re thinking has dementia. We’re seeing people in their thirties who can’t remember three items for longer than a few minutes because of this busy brain. They’re not able to hold on to information.
3. Social Rest
Social rest is the rest we experience around life-giving people. Most of us spend the majority of our time with people who are pulling from our social energy. Not that they’re negative people, but they’re negatively pulling from our energy, whether that’s your spouse, your kids, your coworkers, your clients—they need things from you. They’re pulling from that social energy. You can tell that you’re feeling that if you ever find yourself saying, “Can I just get a moment for me?” You feel like everybody’s taking, and you never feel like anybody’s ever pouring into you or contributing back into your life.
One of the ways of evaluating your social rest is to think about all of your relationships. Are you always the one who’s pouring out into the lives of others? Do you spend time with people who don’t need anything from you, where you just enjoy each other’s company and each other’s presence? That’s what we want to have in our lives: some people we just enjoy spending time with. Your kids and your spouse can be part of your social rest, but you do have to be aware of the dynamics of the relationship so that you don’t spend all your time pouring yourself into them. Let them pour back into you.
4. Spiritual Rest
Spiritual rest needs vary based on someone’s own belief system. At the very core of that is that need that we all have to feel like we belong—that need that we feel for our work and our efforts to contribute to the greater good. We need to feel like we’re pouring ourselves back into humanity.
Somebody who might be suffering from a spiritual rest deficit is someone who goes to work for a paycheck, but they’re like, “What I do doesn’t really matter. What I do doesn’t benefit anybody. If I do it or don’t do it, if I do it with excellence or not, it’s not going to make a difference.”
If you don’t feel like your work has meaning, you will experience burnout. Find a way to connect to desire for meaning, whether that’s through community, a work culture where you feel like what you do matters, or a faith-based culture. We all have that need to feel like we belong and that we are contributing.
5. Sensory Rest
Whether or not you are consciously aware of the sensory input around you, your body and your subconscious self are going to respond. That sensory input might be the sound of phones ringing in the background, the bright lights of your computer, the kids playing while you’re at your home office, your notifications going off on your phone or your email, or even the visual backgrounds of everyone on a Zoom call.
All of these sensory inputs over time can cause you to develop sensory overload syndrome. The number one way most of us respond to sensory overload is irritation, agitation, rage, or anger. And so people with a sensory rest deficit may find that you’re good in the beginning of the day, but you can’t understand why at the end of the day you’re so agitated or irritable.
6. Emotional Rest
Emotional rest specifically refers to the rest we experience when we feel like we can be real and authentic in how we share our feelings. Many of us carry quite a bit of emotional labor privately, in that we don’t share with people what we’re feeling. We may be carrying emotional labor because we don’t want to share with our kids how bad things are with the pandemic and how it’s affected our finances. You may be carrying emotional labor if you’re in management and you had to lay off employees but you couldn’t show your feelings because you wanted your team to feel like everything was great.
There are a lot of times we carry emotional labor and we hide our feelings without giving them the opportunity to be expressed and to heal, to be exposed. The 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.
7. Creative Rest
So creative rest is the rest we experience when we allow ourselves to appreciate beauty in any form. Whether that’s natural beauty, like the oceans and the mountains and the trees, or created beauty, like art, music, and dance.
The way you can tell when you have a deficit in this particular area is when you have a hard time being innovative. When you have a hard time brainstorming, when problem-solving is difficult for you. Creativity is more than just art; it’s any type of innovation. A lot of people over the pandemic used an excessive amount of creative energy because everything as we had known it changed. There was a lot of problem-solving required, which means there was a lot of creative energy required. And most of us, because we don’t see ourselves as creatives, never thought about how we would pour back into that energy well as we were draining it.
Where to Start
When I started this journey, I needed all seven types of rest. I was burned out. I was done. I remember lying on the floor of my house and staring at the chandelier in my foyer thinking: I have the house, I have the car, I have the man, I have the kids. I built this life I always wanted and I’m hating it. I’d built a very successful-looking life on the outside, and on the inside, it felt horrific to live in because I was so tired and drained.
I needed all seven types of rest. But you can’t eat the whole elephant at one time. You have to start with one area. And for myself, the area that I needed most in the beginning was emotional rest.
I was a physician working in the ER and the ICUs—I was dealing with life and death all day and then going home and trying to put on a smile for my family with no one I could talk to about this. Physician and nurse suicide rates are through the roof—they have excessive amounts of emotional labor that they carry because of the professional job. And you’re not going to burst out in tears even if you want to in the ICU. You keep it all in. You’re trained to lock it down. I was carrying an excessive amount of emotional labor and had an emotional rest deficit and needed to understand that about myself so that I could recover from it and get to a better place. And so that’s where I started.
I started with the place with the greatest deficit, and that’s what I recommend. That’s the reason the rest quiz I created to help you figure out where to start has a numerical score. So you can see your highest level of rest deficit and pick one or two types and start implementing some of the tactics that help you begin to experience those types of rest.
The restoration process has to be something you can do at almost any time without a lot of limitations. You don’t have to take a three-month sabbatical or some kind of big carved-out period of time. You need a strategy of small things you can do today to start feeling better. I’d rather you do small amounts of restoration through your week than nothing, because then at least you’re pouring a little bit back into those buckets that are getting depleted and not letting them go all the way to burnout.
Saundra Dalton-Smith, MD, is a board-certified internal medicine physician and work-life integration researcher. She’s the author of Sacred Rest: Recover Your Life, Renew Your Energy, Restore Your Sanity and the founder of Restorasis, a professional development agency dedicated to restoring well-being in the workplace.
This article is for informational purposes only. It is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice. To the extent that this article features the advice of physicians or medical practitioners, the views expressed are the views of the cited expert and do not necessarily represent the views of goop.
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