Taking a Breather

Too often, taking care of yourself takes a backseat - especially during the holidays. Why? Because you're a dedicated Latter-day Saint with a family, a calling, and an eternal purpose? In a gospel where moderation can be as important as the Golden Rule, how can a busy person possibly hope to nurture his or her soul without feeling guilty?

Rest Giraffes function on 1.9 hours of sleep per day. Bats are known to sleep for nearly 20 hours. Dolphins rest one-half of their brain at a time, closing one eye at a time and moving very little, but still surfacing for air.

Staking our position at the top of the animal kingdom, humans typically sleep in warm, cozy beds. Our brains disengage from the external environment, and in a complex interweaving of firing neurons and discharging hormones, we drift off to la-la land and recharge for the next day. The human body relies on 7 to 8 hours of sleep per 24-hour period. Are you getting all the sleep you need?

Believe it or not, rest is a commandment. According to Exodus 23:12, ". . . thou shalt rest," is one of the Lord's chief precepts for godly conduct.

"We shouldn't feel guilty about getting quality sleep," says Wendy Rawlings, an LDS therapist who specializes in stress management in Federal Way, Washington. "Perhaps if we looked at rest as an invitation, an essential element to sustain our physical and spiritual well-being, we might come to better understand the commandment to rest."

A lack of sleep inhibits the immune system - it can even impact our ability to heal from wounds, physical and emotional, not to mention the extreme downside of mental fatigue. Being awake for over 24 hours can actually deteriorate our cognitive functioning to a point equivalent to having a 0.1 percent blood alcohol level - that's 30 percent higher than the legal driving limit in some states. Sleep is also directly related to memory. Deficiencies lead to the slower processing of higher cognitive functions, so important things like decision making and reasoning skills become increasingly difficult.

When it comes to sleep, women are already at a disadvantage. According to the 2009 National Sleep Foundation's Sleep in America™ Poll, 1 out of every 3 Americans lose sleep because they're worried about personal finances and the sluggish economy. Add in the fact that women are the most chronically deprived sleepers, and you've got a terrible case of badly missed ZZZs. It also doesn't help that fluctuating hormones during women's menstrual cycles throw sleep patterns out-of-wack two to three days per month. For men, sleep is crucial to testosterone levels, which positively affect energy and libido.

"Proper rest should never be viewed as a guilty pleasure," says Rawlings.

Relaxation Increased calmness. A lower heart rate. Decreased muscle tension. What's not to like about relaxation? The largest cause of sleep problems is psychological stress, so any form of deep relaxation can greatly benefit the body, from ancient meditation like prayer and yoga to modern techniques such as progressive muscle relaxation or cranial sacral therapy.

Sitting quietly or watching television is not enough to relax the sympathetic nervous system - which is the system within our bodies where stress triggers a nervous response that funnels blood away from our limbs and into organs, thus increasing our blood pressure and heart rate. Activating the sympathetic nervous system doesn't require a near-death experience or a life-altering event. Merely thinking about everyday worries can fire up your fight-or-flight reaction, increase muscular tension, and lower your immunological response to disease.

It may come as quite a shock, but we do contain the power to control our sympathetic nervous system. A study published in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine found that medical students who practiced relaxation techniques during exams increased the level of helper cells in their body used to fight off infectious disease. Interestingly, those students who only relaxed a few times showed little to no difference in immune response, while those who performed the exercises regularly enjoyed the strongest positive effects.

Rori Smith, an LDS massage therapist in Albuquerque, New Mexico, has noticed a lack of member clients who participate in the benefits of massage. "So few LDS [people] take part in mind/body therapy." Despite her unique gift of touch, Smith sees only a small handful of member clientele. "[Many people] don't realize they have the power to rise above the stress and tension circulating within their bodies. They don't understand it is okay to invest in their health on a regular basis."

Play Rest and relaxation are obvious and intuitive benefits to our health . . . but when's the last time you played?

Recent studies reveal that adults can end up miserable and worn out if they don't set aside time to play. Healthy adults who participate in three types of play - movement play, tool play, and group play - are all the better for it.

Movement play is enjoyable physical action: dancing, racquetball, snorkling. Tool play is losing oneself in creative expression that utilizes the brain and hands, like finger painting, building something, or scrapbooking. Group play is exactly what it sounds like: friends enjoying quality escapism, be it playing a board game or enjoying a concert.

"The trick is finding what works for you," Rawlings says. "Whether play is a coping mechanism or a life-long passion, the activity should be intrinsically rewarding and composed of effortless action. There is no room for stress when you're focused on play."

For children and adults alike, play elicits pleasant feelings of relaxation. There's even a psychological theory based on this fact, known as "flow." When we are totally absorbed in an enjoyable activity, our mind enters a state of being that athletes term "being in the zone" and musicians call "being in the groove." The energized focus during positive activities can cause a near-meditative state, similar to that which is achieved with deep relaxation.

Ancient Eastern religions like Hinduism, Buddism, and Taoism believe that a central tenant of spiritual development is honing the skill of melding oneself with an object. Zen calligraphers aspire to a state of mind known as "mu-shin" or "no mind state" when writing kanji characters with brush and ink. Their goal is perfect fluidity in execution. This enlightened state is considered a sacred, direct connection with the spiritual rather than the physical. Perhaps the same oneness with spirit is something we should yearn for and learn to discover through play.

"The gospel is about joy," Smith says. "We need to get it through our heads that it is right for us to soothe our souls. When you take the time to care for your needs, you're healthier, happier, and just plain better."

Bottom line: Thou deservest a rest. Now go relax and catch some ZZZs.

Something more . . . Daily Recommended Play

  • Body Play: Any form of joyful movement. "Joyful" is the key word. Take an afternoon and go golfing! Doing 200 push-ups just so you can get your 20s physique back is not equal to play. True play consists of not being stressed by pressing time limits or goals.
  • Tool Play: Do something creative with your hands: work on that old car, try your hand at baking, or learn how to juggle. Note: This does not include fixing the toilet or folding your laundry.
  • Group Play: Hooray for meaningless banter with friends! No serious talk. Be humorous and light-hearted in conversation. If you take your friends with you to the golf course, you can kill two birds with one stone.
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