A concussion in November 2021 taught me a deep lesson about mental rest. My learning? We’re doing it wrong, at least when it comes to our brains.
My recent experience recovering from a concussion has taught me a lot about my brain – how important it is to my daily life, how truly fragile it is and honestly, how terribly I’d been treating it. We’re all guilty of going about our lives with little thought about how much our minds are doing to keep us going. Sort of like a car engine – without it, the car wouldn’t go anywhere but it remains hidden under the hood. And it turns out that one of the best things we can do to support brain wellness (rest) is something we’re not doing particularly well.
Our brain is incredibly adaptable, especially to the daily stress we encounter. When presented with stress, the brain works hard to keep functioning. It revs higher, it shuts down lower priority functions, and it keeps on going. And so often, we keep pushing through, expecting that our mind will just keep up with us and our stressful lives. Until we start noticing the ‘check engine’ light is blinking and it’s not working quite as well. That’s when we usually try to rest.
Unfortunately, the most common ways to rest, such as watching TV, scrolling social media, even taking a vacation, aren’t actually resting our brains. No wonder, after resting, we’re still tired.
What a concussion can teach us about true rest
As soon as I started showing symptoms of concussion, I went for an assessment. After all, these symptoms were scary and were impacting my ability to work. When I was officially diagnosed with concussion, I thought ‘Okay, give me the treatment plan and let’s get this thing cleared up so I can get back to my to do list.’
The treatment plan left me reeling. Printed papers of the rules for me to follow for the next 2 weeks minimum, to be read to me by my partner because my brain couldn’t recover and read them at the same time. “Excuse me?” I asked. “I read a hundred emails a day, surely I can read 7 pages.”
“Not while your brain is recovering, you can’t.” Gulp…
As my partner read me the plan, my heart sank. The first 48 hours would be spent in a dark room, with as little cognitive stimulation as possible. That meant no screens, no sounds, no activity, no deep discussions. The third day, I could engage in light cognitive activity for 30-45 minutes and then return to the dark room. After that, a gradual return to normal routines if, and only if, I experienced no symptoms. Now we can debate about whether that’s the best way to treat concussion (and I’ve read a LOT of articles since that share multiple treatment methods) but in the end, they all include some element of rest.
This all sounded impossible for me to do. I’m busy. I like to be busy. I have been known to measure my day’s success based on how many things I get done. But, I also like my brain and wanted it to heal. So, I turned out the lights, put my phone away and went through the most boring days I’ve ever experienced in my life.
How to truly rest the brain as part of stress management
With all that time I had to think (because my thoughts don’t come with an on-off switch), I thought about stress and well-being.
There’s no doubt that stress affects our brain and I think we all know that our brain requires rest. But often after a busy day, we resort to those simple, traditional comforts – sitting on the couch watching TV, scrolling endlessly on our phones, those kinds of things. After a stressful period, we might take a vacation to get away from it all. These ‘restful’ activities are supposed to leave us feeling better; ready to take on another day, rejuvenated with a full tank.
Except that most often, we’re still tired. Our brain still feels foggy. Our tank is empty. Can you relate to that feeling? I know I can, and I’ve heard of countless others who feel the same, frustrated that after ‘doing nothing’ they’re still tired and stressed.
Disrupting my busy cycle and forcing myself to slow down and experience true rest was eye-opening to say the least and taught me a few lessons that might help us all better tackle overall stress recovery:
True rest isn’t easy at first – Ever experience laying in bed but not being able to sleep? Or being somewhere when your phone dies and you have ‘nothing to do’? Or when we were kids and we felt SOOOO BORED!!!! Painful, right?! True rest means we stop doing a lot of things and that doesn’t feel natural, especially in our busy culture. But once we move past that initial fear of ‘what do I do now’, we start to experience our mind wandering and drifting from one topic to the next, people watching, daydreaming. We let our brain take the wheel for a while and we just sit back and enjoy the ride.
Rest shouldn’t be stimulating – If we’re having fun, learning, working, playing, exercising, watching something, or listening to something, the reality is our brain is working hard. Now some of these activities are less stimulating than others, but they all require our brain to stay on shift. So true mental rest is supposed to be boring, devoid of things that will overstimulate our brain or at the very least, stimulate only one of our senses at a time such as walking in a familiar place, listening to a meditation, or staring out the window in silence.
Rest must be valued - We fill our time because we’ve been taught that the only good use of time is when it’s spent getting things done. But rest must be valued as part of that work cycle. Any athlete knows the importance of rest – do you see marathon runners that never stop running, or weightlifters who carry around 500 lbs all the time? Nope. That’s because rest is equally as important in their training as the actual exercise part.
Rest doesn’t require a lot of time – Good news right, since that’s our most limited resource? We often use the old quip ‘I sure need a vacation’ when we’re feeling tired or stressed. Luckily, true rest doesn’t require a flight or packing a suitcase. Rest can be as simple as 5-10 minutes a day. As long as we’re doing it regularly and intentionally, that can be enough to help our brain settle back down to baseline. I’m afraid the excuse of not having enough time doesn’t apply here.
Rest should make you feel better, not worse – this sounds obvious, right? Except that after watching that show, or eating those chips (guilty pleasure of mine) or scrolling social media, when we’re truly honest with ourselves, we feel worse afterwards. I often wonder ‘where did my evening go and did I really have to eat that entire bag?!’ Or for others after scrolling social ‘why don’t I look like that?’ Whereas after true rest, you’ll feel a sense of calm, peace, a quietness in your mind. That's a sign that you’ve actually rested.
While I was laying in a dark room, there were a million other things I felt I ‘should’ be doing. But I reminded myself that mental rest was needed in order to recover and I wanted to recover. So I rested. I laid there, doing nothing, for a total of 72 hours. If you aren’t battling a concussion, you don’t need to go that extreme, but if you’re battling stress, anxiety, or burnout, you need true rest just as much as I did. And you can start with just 5 minutes.
Now go embrace ‘Dolce far Niente’ - the sweetness of doing nothing.
It’ll be hard at first, but your brain will thank you for it.