Rest Is Not a Four-Letter Word

Behold the power of regular downtime in giving you the physical and mental stamina for your best RA life.

I’m tired, all the way into my aching bones and my sluggish mind. It is the kind of exhaustion that comes with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and other types of chronic illness, and it rules my life with an iron hand. Talk to anyone with RA and they are likely to say the same. In fact, a recent Danish study suggested that up to 80% of people with RA and other types of autoimmune arthritis experience significant fatigue. So it's no surprise that rest is an essential part of managing my disease, which is why it's recommended by every single person on my medical team. But how do you get the rest you need with RA when you live in a world driven by the Cult of Busy?

We encounter it every day: When you meet a friend or acquaintance and ask how they are, the inevitable answers are “busy,” “no rest for the wicked,” or perhaps even “busy, busy, busy!” Between the work that pays the bills, the side hustle, family, a social life, and keeping up with everything on social media, it can feel as though the world is full of people burning the candle at both ends (and in the middle) and taking pride in being overwhelmed and worn out. Rest has become a four-letter word, equated with being lazy and selfish. In the process, those of us who actually need to rest, who cannot function without it, are judged just as harshly.

But the “fun” doesn’t stop there. We inevitably internalize that judgment and start beating ourselves up, adding chronic guilt to the list of symptoms of our chronic illness. When you’re not able to keep up with everything you think you ought to do, every day is consumed by a constant sense of failure. The “shoulds” alternate with “too tired” and the fight to juggle the two takes even more energy.

Let’s slam the brakes on that right now! Because we don’t have to live this way. That Cult of Busy is driven by a uniquely North-American perspective on work and constant activity that isn’t found in the rest of the Western world. If you look at European cultures, you’ll find a completely different emphasis on leisure time: They have more vacation (25 days in Denmark and 30 in France versus the typical 10 to 15 in the United States and Canada), policies to prevent employees from replying to email during evening and weekends, an emphasis on togetherness and relaxation as vital to emotional and physical health, and—get this—a belief that you can be more productive by actually working less. An article in The New York Times described it as resulting from specific policy and social decisions that emphasize quality of life over material wealth and endless work hours.

Because none of us are robots.

And that brings me back to rest and the slightly revolutionary action of prioritizing it in your life. Fifteen years ago, it became obvious that I needed to have a nap every day in order to manage my fatigue and pain. This was essential, not an indulgence, and I quickly learned to rename it my Mandatory Rest Period to emphasize the medical need to others. Soon after, I realized how much better my life became when I treated rest as non-negotiable, even sacred.

But not all of us can take a nap in the middle of the day and some of us need more rest than one nap can provide. It can feel desperate and hopeless to not be able to lie down when exhaustion overwhelms you, but take heart. In a world where doctors sadly can’t issue prescriptions for naps, there are other options to restore and recharge your physical and mental batteries. Here are some that work for me:

Meditation. Just 20 minutes of sitting quietly and not doing anything can be incredibly restorative. You can use an app, such as Insight or Calm, listen to ambient music, or simply sit in a quiet corner. The key is to not engage with your thoughts, but just let them pass. If 20 minutes seems like forever, start with five and work your way up.

Stretching. How much time do you spend in the same position every day? Probably a lot. Take a few minutes every hour or so to stretch your body and work out the tightness in your muscles.

Take a walk. Motion is lotion with RA, actually helping to reduce pain and keep your joints flexible. A nice walk, even just around the block or less, gets you out in the fresh air and away from stress. If you come across a park bench, have a sit and watch the world go by.

Play. Whether it’s time with your kids, your pet, or your favorite hobby, play and creativity give your logical mind a rest and warm your heart. My favorite is to take a walk with my camera. Spending just half an hour doing nothing but looking for great shots works as well for me as a nap and a therapy session combined!

Read. A good book is the most perfect de-stressor. It keeps your mind entertained so much it can’t think about anything else. Your choice of book doesn’t matter, but if you’re really tired, I highly recommend a trashy romance or mystery.

For me, my Mandatory Rest Period was my first experience with unapologetically putting my own needs first and being open about how vital prioritizing my body's needs is to managing my RA. It was the beginning of me becoming much more aware of how important rest—physical and mental—was to my ability to actually do what I “should” do and even more important, beginning to question all those “shoulds.”

It turns out that getting some rest created enough room for me to see that intense busy-ness makes everything seem like it’s an emergency, which is the last thing you need when you have a chronic illness. And here's the real kicker: When you take a hard look at all those urgent items on your list, you realize that hardly any of them qualify as an actual emergency.

Lene  Andersen, MSW
Meet Our Writer
Lene Andersen, MSW

Lene Andersen is an author, health and disability advocate, and photographer living in Toronto. Lene (pronounced Lena) has lived with rheumatoid arthritis since she was four years old and uses her experience to help others with chronic illness. She has written several books, including Your Life with Rheumatoid Arthritis: Tools for Managing Treatment, Side Effects and Pain, and 7 Facets: A Meditation on Pain, as well as the award-winning blog, The Seated View. Lene serves on HealthCentral's Health Advocates Advisory Board, and is a Social Ambassador for the RAHealthCentral on Facebook page, facebook.com/rahealthcentral. She is also one of HealthCentral's Live Bold, Live Now heroes — watch her incredible journey of living with RA.