You’re exhausted. You come home from work and collapse onto the couch for a Netflix binge. But when you get up 4 hours later, you feel the same as when you first flopped down. What’s happening here? This is “resting”, right? But then why don’t you feel rested?
Many people confuse rest states, which are relaxed, restorative and come in response to safe environments, with collapsed states, which are dissociated, draining and come in response to stress and danger. They can look quite similar, and yet the experience in the body is quite different.
Let’s explore these two states so that you can start to feel the difference in your body and begin working towards true rest and restoration in your daily life.
What Trauma and Stress Responses Can Look Like in the Body
When we are experiencing threats or danger in our life (including psychological, financial, social and emotional dangers), the body typically responds with one of two states. This is going to be a very over-simplified explanation, but it will be helpful when we then look at resting compared to collapsing. The first is hyperarousal, often called a “fight or flight” state, marked by increased energy and heart rate. You may feel highly anxious or angry, and your body is activated, ready for anything. This is very useful if you actually need to fight or run away, but is very taxing on the body. Chronic hyperarousal states drain the body’s resources and cause a lot of physical and mental wear and tear over time. The second is hypoarousal, often called a “faint” or “collapse” state. Hypoarousal usually kicks in when fighting or fleeing has failed and our body essentially crashes. This state of hypoarousal is the one that can often be confused with constructive rest. They can look quite similar from the outside, laying on the couch for instance could be a collapse or a yield into rest, but the experience and the effect on the body and nervous system is quite different.
Identifying Collapse vs. Rest
Collapsing is a state of hypoarousal that occurs in response to threat, stress, or danger. Vitality drains out of the body, and though we may not be active, we’re also not really restoring our energy or resources. It is more of a “shut down” than a “refuel” and is characterized by:
- Fatigue, lack of energy
- Shallow breath
- Low muscle tone
- Low mood, low motivation, depression
- Desire to isolate
- Low body awareness and inability to tend to the body’s needs
Resting, in contrast, is a state of yielding into support and restoring internal resources. It comes as a response to safety, and is characterized by:
- Relaxation, relief, calm
- Deep breath
- Appropriate muscle tone for postural maintenance that slowly softens
- Embodiment, connection to the body and to emotions
- High body awareness and ability to tend to the body’s needs
- Slow re-energizing of energy occurs
The key to engaging rest vs. collapse comes down to two main pieces:
body awareness and transitional time.
First, increase your body awareness by engaging in some simple embodiment practices such as intentional breathing, self-massage, stretching, tapping, or gentle movement. One of my favorite and simple ways to check in with the body is to simply ask yourself what would make you physically more comfortable in the moment. This might mean taking off some tight clothing or shifting how you are sitting. As you tune into your body you might notice other immediate needs that you can take care of such as getting a drink of water or going to the bathroom.
You can see how taking some time for body awareness naturally brings us into the second piece which is allowing transitional time between states of activity and states of rest. If you come home and immediately flop on the couch, my guess is that you’re more likely going to go into a collapse. But if take some time to breath, move, change clothes, drink some water, or wash your face, you are starting to signal to your body that the situation has changed and that you are moving into a safe environment where rest is possible. Then, when you’re ready to rest on the floor, a chair, or a bed, take some time to explore your physical connection to this environment. Shift your weight to notice how soft or hard the surface is. Notice the texture. Let your body slowly come into relationship with this external support and allow yourself time to get comfortable. Once you’re comfortable, return to some intentional breathing, perhaps lengthening your exhale and breathing out the mouth. Notice your body softening on each exhale. You will probably feel relaxed and aware of your body softening.
You may notice a sense of calm or relief, but with the increased body awareness and decreased overall tension, it is also possible that some emotions might visit your here such as sadness. This is perfectly ok and healthy, and means you are not dissociated. Do your best to breath through the experience, let emotions come and go like waves, and don’t hesitate to reach out for additional emotional supports as needed.
If you would like support finding true states in rest and restoration as you recover from stress or trauma, please reach out for a free consultation where we can talk about your experience and how somatic counseling can help.