Anyone Who Doesn’t Know How to Relax

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.

  •  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

  •  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.  

  • 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.

  •  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.

  • 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.
  •  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.