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Claudia Hammond on Resting in the Time of Coronavirus

Posted on 26th October 2020 by Mark Skinner

Combining scientific analysis with practical examples and personal testimony, our Non-Fiction Book of the Month for November draws on groundbreaking research to provide a rounded, vitally important new approach to rest. In this exclusive piece, Claudia Hammond discusses how the coronavirus pandemic has transformed our conceptions of what rest means.

Please Note: This blog was written just prior to the full November lockdown in England.  

It now looks certain that Covid 19 is going to cast a shadow over our lives for many months to come. We are in for a hard winter and quite possibly a second Spring of serious restrictions. Even if we are lucky enough to avoid getting seriously ill or becoming unemployed, all of us are going to be living lives very different from the ones we imagined a year ago. In many ways, the prospects are bleak. Yet, there are ways we can learn to cope with and even enjoy aspects of the altered reality still being imposed by the virus. 

My book The Art of Rest was written and indeed published BCV, before coronavirus. But much of the evidence and advice it contains is adaptable and relevant to the new world of the pandemic. One important lesson from the book is to get the right balance between being busy and finding rest. Before coronavirus took hold many of us had frantic schedules, juggling the demands of work, family, friends, social life and other activities. There were not enough hours in the day, it seemed. We felt under constant pressure and had no time for proper rest and relaxation. And then…. you know what happened. 

Since March, some people, such as key workers in the NHS, have been working harder than ever, of course. Others have had to adapt to the technological challenges of working from home, while schooling their children. By contrast, a lot of people have been furloughed or have lost their jobs.  They’ve found themselves with plenty of time on their hands, the empty hours dragging by. It might seem to this group that the last thing they need is to learn how to rest. 

But when inactivity is imposed from outside, or comes as a result of illness or depression, that enforced rest generally feels far from restful. So, we find ourselves in a paradoxical situation. We could take the chance to rest more and rest better, but the circumstances leave us feeling restless. 

It isn’t easy to do, but the way to avoid feeling this way, is to try to view the new situation as an opportunity. When I collaborated with psychologists at Durham University on a global survey called The Rest Test, we found that two thirds of the 18,000 people who chose to take part, said they wanted more rest. Now, albeit as a result of a terrible pandemic, many of us have what we wished for. Somehow we need to try to embrace the change, to take the chance to slow down, and draw pleasure and well-being from a simpler and less hectic lifestyle.  

That does not mean sinking into idleness. Lazing around all day is bad for us – physically and mentally. And for most people, it is very difficult to do anyway. Being rested, feeling restful, doesn’t come from doing nothing at all, it comes from doing those activities – some sedentary, but some strenuous maybe – which help to calm our minds, lower stress levels and ultimately relax our bodies. It is these activities – different for every individual - that people with time to fill need to seek out.  

For those who are working from home, the challenges are different. Research shows that, on average, people are working longer hours at home than they did in the office. If this is true of you, you should ensure that you maintain a clear boundary in your day between the hours when you are working and not working. If you are lucky enough to have a garden office or a study in the house, then finish work at a set time, literally close the door on work where you can’t see it at least, and relax by doing something different. If, like many, you are working on the dining table or the corner of your bedroom, then that ‘closing of the door’ will have to be more symbolic – but it is just as important. At least put your laptop in a cupboard where you can’t see it. Don’t allow the whole day to become a working day. Put that phone down and don’t answer emails into the evening.

At the same time, don’t neglect to take breaks during working hours. Research shows that even two-minute micro breaks where you lean your head back on your chair and close your eyes and or make a cup or tea or simply stare out of the window, help you to concentrate better and more importantly in these circumstances, contribute to higher levels of general well-being. Better still, try to take longer breaks of fifteen minutes or so – and definitely ensure that you stop for lunch and get away from your desk while you eat.

Much of our time in the winter months will be spent indoors, and continuing restrictions may mean we have to stay at home for a lot of the time. The good news is that eight out of the ten top restful activities chosen by respondents to the Rest Test were indoor activities that can be done at home, including things like watching television and – most popular of all – reading.  

And try to make weekends feel a bit different. For instance, even if the Sunday roast feels a bit odd when it doesn’t involve having the whole family round, do it anyway, to keep that sense of structure and ritual and normality. In the same way, Christmas this year might be a rather low key affair, perhaps only involving your immediate household and not the whole family as usual. But don’t cancel Christmas. Put up the tree, decorate the house, wrap the presents, have a special lunch as normal – even though there may be many fewer of you around the dining table.  Remember too that most years we try to do too much at Christmas and end up exhausted. Enjoy the fact that this Chirstmas is likely to be a quieter and more peaceful one. 

The January blues will be even more of a difficult period this year.  We won’t know what 2021 holds for us, we will have to cope with continuing uncertainty and it will be difficult to plan far ahead. To overcome this, try to live more in the present, but also plan small things in the near future. Booking a summer holiday may be high risk, but try to find out what is still on in your area and book tickets for any concerts, shows and events that are on. The organisers will only be able to stage them if they have put in place stringent safety measures. 

And if you do catch the virus somewhere or have to self isolate because of coming into contact with an infectious person, take comfort from this fact.  By chance, eight of the top ten restful activities chosen by people in the Rest Test – the exceptions are going for a walk and getting out into nature - can even be done during a period of strict quarantine. So, if you do have to stay at home for two weeks, try to reframe this period as a chance to rest in different ways, rather than simply seeing it as a form of house arrest.  

But of course if you can get out, make the most of it. As I say, rest can involve physical exertion. Going for a walk came at number six in the Rest Test top ten – and eight per cent of people in the survey said they found running restful.  With shorter days and inclement weather, outdoor exercise might not appeal in the same way it did during our lovely spring and summer. But do try to get out whenever it’s not too cold and wet. Apps such as Couch to 5k can help if you’ve never run before. Such activities, research shows, certainly tire the body, but at the same time they allow us to turn off the restless chatter in our heads and reduce levels of mental stress. 

And of course, it is possible – and enjoyable – to exercise at home. Again, this can be a communal activity with lots of online classes having sprung up since lockdown began. As part of my schedule in 2020, on-line Pilates has been good for my aching shoulders, my stir-craziness and it has helped me to rest and relax.

After months of restrictions, the prospect of months more ahead is clearly depressing. But try not to get too far ahead of yourself. There will be exceptions of course; I have friends who have really struggled, but many of us have probably managed better over the last eight months than we could ever have imagined. Well, the same could be true of the weeks up to Christmas – and then the months after that. Think about what helped you through lockdown before and do the same things again. And don’t put pressure on yourself to do lockdown well. Just getting through it is enough. You don’t need to have perfected sourdough loaves or learned a language. 

Time will move forward and if you think seriously about rest and what makes you feel rested, your mind and body will adjust to these new rhythms of life.  There will be days when you feel sad and anxious. But try to remember that you had better days before and you will have better days in the future. It helps not to tune in to every twist and turn in the Covid saga on radio and TV. Or to read up about it endlessly. Give yourself a break from the constant medical updates, the depressing graphs and statistics. There will be ups and downs in the rates of infection, hospitalisations and fatalities. There will be both advances and setbacks in the research into treatments and vaccines.  Checking the news once a day is enough.  

Finally, try to go to bed each night remembering three things you enjoyed about the day. We know from research that this improves your mood because as it becomes a habit, you start looking for the positives during the day rather than focusssing on the negatives. For the foreseeable future, these good things are unlikely to be foreign trips or great nights out. But there are more restful ways to take pleasure from life – seeing a new bird feeding outside the window, cooking a recipe you’ve never made before or reading a book you’ve been meaning to read for years.   

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