What is ‘true rest’ and how do you get it?

What is true rest?

Just because you’re relaxing or not working, it doesn’t mean you’re actually resting and recharging. Here’s how you can achieve true rest.

Every living being on this Earth has a natural need for rest. We can quickly become burnt out, irritable, or unwell without time to relax and recharge.

But what is ‘true rest’? How do we define it, and how can we find time and strategies to help actively fill our cups?

In theory, we all understand the importance of slowing down, but it is much easier said than done. Even the research is still divided on what it truly means to rest, with the concept often mistakenly used interchangeably with sleep.

In reality, rest doesn’t always require sleep. Conversely, all the sleep in the world sometimes doesn’t feel enough to cure our exhaustion.

Some define the idea by looking at its counterpart, non-rest, to determine what rest is by understanding what it isn’t.

Swedish researcher Margareta Asp said: “The essence of rest is being in harmony in motivation, feeling, and action. The essence of non-rest is being in disharmony in motivation, feeling, and action.”

By this definition, rest is about engaging in activity, or non-activity, that feels invigorating and energising for you. True rest will look different for everyone; no single type of recreation, hobby, or relaxation technique works for everyone.

The mere absence of physical or mental activity doesn’t necessarily mean you are truly resting. Mindless scrolling or binge-watching can be as energetically depleting as working hard toward a deadline or grinding out a challenging workout.

With so much confusion about what it really means to rest, alongside the constant demands of modern life, it’s no wonder some are claiming that fatigue and burnout are the new pandemics.

Why are we all so exhausted?

If you feel perpetually fatigued no matter how much sleep you get or how much you scale back at work or in your social life, you’re not alone.

Chronic fatigue is rising, whether due to long COVID symptoms or the general demands of our increasingly fast-paced and high-pressure lives.

Even when we aren’t actively ‘doing’ the things that drain our energy, chances are they continue to dominate our mental real estate. If you are ‘resting’ by sitting still and berating yourself for what you ‘should’ be doing, you are not truly resting.

Many have fallen into the trap of thinking that our career or other success metrics are the main factors that make us worthy. We evaluate our performance in our jobs, bodies, social media popularity, family and relationships to determine whether we are ‘good enough’.

When our self-worth depends on our accomplishments, slowing down isn’t always enough to fully recharge and reconnect with ourselves.

In fact, idle time without intention can lead to feeling restless or bored, re-confirming our belief that time not spent working towards a goal is time wasted.

Rest isn’t something you can just tick off your to-do list so that you can continue moving at a million miles an hour. You need to adjust your priorities and habits to build true rest and restoration into your daily life.

Remember that rest is not necessarily ‘doing nothing’. Rest is profoundly productive and essential to our wellbeing and ability to show up for who and what matters most to us.

If you don’t take time to restore your mind and body voluntarily, you may be forced to by illness or burnout.

What is true rest?

How to find ‘true rest’ and restoration

If you’re tired of constantly feeling tired, but no amount of watching Netflix or having relaxing weekends is improving your energy levels, here are some tips for finding ways to rest and recharge.

Track your time management

Most of us know the value of keeping to a budget regarding our finances, but what about our time and energy budget?

When life is overwhelming, the higher part of our brain that can find solutions and think rationally functions less optimally. Even moderate stress makes it difficult to make logical decisions about managing our schedules and finding opportunities for rest.

Start plotting how you spend your time on a calendar and look for possible time and energy vampires that keep you feeling drained.

These energy-depleting activities could include social events you don’t actually enjoy but feel obligated to go to, too much time scrolling social media, or reading depressing news articles.

Avoid shaming or judging yourself for where you spend your time, and instead, get gently curious about how you can restructure your life to be more energising.

Recall times you felt truly present and alive

When burnout becomes your new normal, it’s easy to forget there was a time you weren’t so tired.

To reconnect with how it feels to be balanced and rested, ask yourself when you last felt pleasantly alert and fully engaged in the present moment.

Perhaps you felt truly rested during your last holiday or after spending quality time with trusted dear friends. What qualities from those experiences can you replicate in your daily life?

Of course, we can’t all go on vacation whenever we feel tired or burnt out, but there is usually a way to capture some of that magic, perhaps by learning to cook something you enjoyed while overseas.

Make a ritual of it, play some music, light a candle, and relish the process of nurturing yourself.

Stick to your boundaries

It’s easier said than done, but if you say yes to everything, you will end up having to say no to yourself and your own needs.

So many of us are constantly riddled with guilt for not performing in every aspect of our lives and are overwhelmed with work, financial, and social obligations.

Saying no or taking space for yourself can be especially difficult when you have caring responsibilities or loved ones are going through a hard time and need more support than you have the capacity to provide.

When you feel tempted or obligated to cross your own boundaries for someone else, remind yourself that stretching your energy too thin only hurts you and those around you in the long run.

If you become unwell, resentful, and exhausted, you risk losing the capacity to function in your own life, let alone show up for those you care about.

Seek support

Nobody can manage life’s stresses alone, no matter how deeply entrenched the idea that independence is the ultimate goal and status symbol.

In reality, humans have lived in relationships and interdependence for the majority of our history.

Finding the strength to reach out for help, whether from loved ones or a mental health professional, can help you begin to gather resources to support and help you recharge.

Perhaps you can ask a colleague to remind you to take regular breaks or find a trusted friend that reassures you it’s okay to say no to obligations that drain your energy.

If your exhaustion persists over an extended period, a counsellor or medical practitioner can help you find the root causes and develop strategies to start healing.

Shift your mindset

Rest is often something we feel we need to earn, and many believe that resting without first achieving a goal is somehow ‘lazy’.

Many now argue that laziness is not a genuine concept but rather a myth rooted in Puritanism which capitalism now uses to keep us tirelessly working towards some imaginary end goal where we will have finally earned the right to slow down.

Taking time to recharge is not a sign of laziness but an important sign from your body or nervous system that something needs tending to. Free yourself from the shame of resting whenever you need or want to, regardless of whether it feels ‘earned’.

Doing so can be the first step in finding the peace and comfort in taking a break and resting your mind, body, and spirit so you can re-engage with your life meaningfully and joyfully.

You’ll also be doing important work in shifting the narrative for future generations to live how they want to, without the pressure of conforming to narrow ideals of what a successful and meaningful life entails.

Emma Lennon

Emma Lennon


Emma Lennon is a passionate writer, editor and community development professional. With over ten years’ experience in the disability, health and advocacy sectors, Emma is dedicated to creating work that highlights important social issues.