A rest state is just a non-stress state

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After living with ME/CFS for a while, and having lived with the contributing patterns of stress for much longer, it’s natural to become normalised to a high resting stress level.

I was surprised when I first checked my resting stress level (see below for how to do this) that it was extremely high all the time, even when I was ostensibly resting and in a safe and calm environment.

I realised I didn’t know what it was like to not be at that level of stress, because I was so used to it.

I didn’t have any idea of what being relaxed and in a resting state meant and what it would feel like. It felt mysterious and unobtainable.

It’s easy to jump to the extreme when thinking about rest states. That to heal properly, we need to be in a state of absolute calm, perfect tranquility, with no thoughts in our head. Or to be completely numb to the world.

These extreme pictures make rest states completely unattainable. Which only piles on more stress, as now we’re stuck in our current cycle.

Fortunately, that’s not what a rest state is, what we need from it and when we need it.

There are two understandable but false images here: that we need to be in a bliss-like state to truly rest, and that we need to be in a rest state all the time.

Neither is true.

Our body is either in a danger-response state (flight, flight or freeze), or it’s not. So we get back to a rest state simply by not being in a danger state.

It’s our default mode. We don’t need to do anything special to get there, we just need to stop sounding the alarm all the time.

A rest state isn’t a blissed-out or abnormal numb state or mindset, it’s just the absence of stress. This makes it much easier to get to. There’s no special trick.

I had mistaken a specific type of rest state (e.g. zen-like states) for being the only type. As with mindfulness and meditation, these are great tools to help calm our body and support our recovery and we can deliberately cultivate these states. But rest states in general are just non-stress states.

Our task then is to recognise when our bodies are in an unnecessary state of stress, such as when in a safe environment, and help turn this into a non-stress state, to give our bodies a chance to heal.

I found this a big challenge, but it’s made easier by realising that it isn’t something extra we need to learn. Once we can start to remove unnecessary stress loads, we will come to a rest state naturally.

Checking your resting stress level

Start with a simple stress level rating system out of 10. Something like this:

  • 0-3: Calm and relaxed
  • 4-7: Fight or flight
  • 8-10: Freeze/numb (extreme stress)

These are based on levels of parasympathetic (calm and relaxed) and sympathetic (fight, flight or freeze) system arousal.

To check your resting stress level, find a moment when you have time to yourself to relax with no commitments, ideally on your own.

Become aware of the level of stress and tension you can feel in your body whilst you are resting. Give that feeling a rough score out of ten, based on the rating system above.

This is a purely subjective score, so don’t worry about the specific number. Just go with what feels approximately right. You can also adjust the rating number brackets to suit you.

The aim is simply to give you an idea of your stress levels when in a safe and relaxed environment, i.e. when there are no external stressors. If your score is above the calm and relaxed range, then it’s likely you’d benefit from working on lowering your stress levels.