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When Our Chronically Ill Bodies Say “Rest,” Why Don't We?

  [ 24 votes ]   [ 2 Comments ]
By Tony Bernhard, J.D. • • August 17, 2017

When Our Chronically Ill Bodies Say “Rest,” Why Don't We?
Reprinted with the kind permission of Toni Bernhard.

Scheduling rest periods into your day can help tremendously.

Most people who are chronically ill (which includes chronic pain) benefit from scheduling at least one rest period into their day because it helps keep symptoms from flaring.

I’ve learned from experience and from the thousands of people who’ve written to me that taking a “time out” by pausing to rest is one of the hardest challenges we face. It takes discipline, that’s for sure. 

(I also recognize that some people who are chronically ill have to keep working outside the home, and so don’t have the option to rest. My heart goes out anyone in this situation.)

For those of us who do have the option, the challenges posed by the need to rest differ depending on whether we’re with others or we’re alone. I’ll take up each separately.

Why we resist resting when we’re with others

1. We don’t want to miss the opportunity for in-person contact

I live a pretty isolated life, and so when people come over, it’s special, even though I can only comfortably hang out for an hour or two. Most of the time, I go over the limit that my body can handle. When I do this, the symptoms of my illness start to intensify, but I ignore the signals because I’m enjoying myself so much.

Others who are chronically ill have told me that they also find it hard to muster the discipline to leave when they’re socializing. It helps if you have an “ally” who can prompt you, letting you know that it’s time to go lie down. I’m fortunate that my husband usually does this, although I admit that sometimes I ignore his prompts.

A few months ago, something happened that clearly showed me how my refusal to rest when I need to can sabotage my ability be with even more people I care about. Two friends had come over for an early dinner on a Friday. I was having such a good time that I ignored my husband’s prompts that it was time for me to lie down. (He always knows when it’s time because he can see changes in my face and body posture that tell him I’ve used up my energy stores.)

The consequences of my actions? Because I stayed too long, I was unable to go to a wedding two days later—a special event for me personally because, not only have I’ve known the bride since she was born, but my husband was conducting the ceremony. Lying on my bed during the event, I realized that had I left the Friday gathering when I should have, the likelihood was high that I could have gone to the wedding, even if just for a short time. Ah, well. Hopefully, I’ll do better in the future.

2. We’re concerned that others will judge us negatively if we get up and leave the room.

Several years ago, someone who’d been visiting me and my husband said in a negative tone to me a few days later: “You just disappeared.” After that incident, I became reluctant to leave a social gathering because I was afraid people would think I was being rude and anti-social (my illness is invisible to all but the few who are with me a lot). I know I can interject myself into the flow of conversation and say, “Excuse me but I have to lie down,” but I hate interrupting, especially with something that switches the topic to my illness.

t took years, but I’ve finally reached the point where, most of the time, I don’t mind if someone judges me negatively for leaving when I need to rest. It’s an act of self-care and self-compassion on my part, something that should be a top priority for all of us.

Why we resist resting when we’re alone

1. Resting brings our symptoms to the forefront of our attention because we’re no longer distracted by the world around us.

Far too often, I get caught in a vicious cycle. I put off lying down to rest because, when I do, I immediately feel my symptoms more intensely (whether it be pain, heart palpitations, or a headache—three possibilities for me). But, of course, by not resting when my body needs to, those symptoms are already intensifying; this, in turn, increases my resistance to lying down since lying down brings those symptoms to the forefront of my attention. As I said, a vicious cycle.

2. Resting goes against our cultural conditioning that we should be doing as much as we can at all times.

We live in a culture that values doing over being. I was taught that I wasn’t making the most of each day if I wasn’t working hard all the time and that resting or napping was a sign of weakness.

Here’s what I’ve come to realize: If you’re chronically ill, “making the most of each day” includes resting or napping. This may require you to overcome years of cultural conditioning in which you learned to always be striving and cramming everything you can into each day. It's definitely worth the effort for all of us to change this harmful habit.

© 2017 Toni Bernhard.

Toni Bernhard is the author of the award-winning How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and Their Caregivers and How to Wake Up: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Navigating Joy and Sorrow. Her newest book is called How to Live Well with Chronic Pain and Illness: A Mindful Guide. Before becoming ill, she was a law professor at the University of California—Davis. Her blog, “Turning Straw Into Gold” is hosted by Psychology Today online. Visit her website at

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Article Comments Post a Comment

A sticking point
Posted by: kkr0cks
Aug 17, 2017
I agree with everything you said, Toni. I just want you to know that some of us are not able to work, so not working isn't an option we've chosen it's a reality forced on us.
Reply Reply

Thanks for your comment
Posted by: 013101
Aug 17, 2017
I'm one of those people who can't work, so I don't have that option either. I thought I covered that by talking about people who are forced to work even though they're too sick or in pain to do so, but I should have clarified that some of us have "no working" forced upon us. Thanks for adding that. All my best, Toni
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