7 Types of Rest for Neurodivergent People
Rest is essential for everyone, but it is especially important for neurodiverse people. Non-neurotypicals are simply more likely to experience sensory overload, autistic burnout, and other challenges that can be exacerbated by a feeling of overwhelm. “The biggest brain hack is finding your purpose”, I once wrote, but in order to do so, you need some clarity of mind. Rest can help you find it, by mitigating the challenges of living in a society not designed for your way of thinking. In this blogpost, I distinguish seven different types of rest: mental, physical, sensory, creative, social, emotional, and spiritual. Each type of rest is important for overall well-being, and combined, these forms of rest allow the brain to recover from the unique cognitive demands experienced by neurodivergent folk, and to recharge for better functioning in a neurotypical world.
For me personally, the most important form of rest is about giving the mind a break from thinking and processing information. This can involve meditating, journaling, colouring, or simply spending time in nature. The symphony of thoughts, emotions, and sensory inputs that constantly bombard our minds can quickly lead to a state of cognitive overload, characterised by difficulty concentrating, memory lapses, and irritability. Mental rest, therefore, serves as a refuge, offering an opportunity to silence the mental chatter and allow the brain to slow down, declutter, and rejuvenate. Just as a fallow field regains its fertility through periods of rest, so too does our mental landscape revitalise through mindful respites.
The practices of mental rest can be as diverse as the individuals who seek it. For some, passive relaxation techniques such as meditation, journaling, or nature immersion provide the ideal sanctuary. Meditation cultivates mental calmness by anchoring the mind to the present moment, while journaling offers a safe space to process emotions and gain clarity. Immersing oneself in nature’s serenity can soothe the senses and reduce stress, promoting a sense of tranquillity.
For others, mental rest may involve engaging in mentally stimulating activities that deviate from their usual routines. Engaging in activities such as solving puzzles, playing video games, watching a documentary from a field unrelated to yours, or reading and writing in a different language can provide a refreshing change of pace, activating different cognitive pathways and fostering new connections within the brain. These activities can serve as a mental workout, invigorating the mind while simultaneously offering a respite from the demands of daily life.
Physical rest is about giving your body a chance to recover from physical activity. This can include both passive rest, such as sleeping and napping, and active rest, such as stretching, yoga, and massage. Physical rest is extra important for neurodivergent individuals as it helps them regulate their social and sensory energy levels, and manage any physical discomfort or tension that may arise from sensory sensitivities. Note that physical rest does not have to mean lying in bed or on the couch: engaging in gentle physical activities can also promote relaxation and improve overall well-being.
There are roughly two types of physical rest: passive and active. Passive rest, encompassing activities such as sleeping, napping, and quiet contemplation, provides essential respite for neurodivergent minds. During these periods of repose, the brain has the opportunity to consolidate memories, process emotions, and engage in essential cognitive housekeeping. Moreover, passive rest promotes relaxation, easing tension and alleviating the effects of sensory overload.
Active rest, on the other hand, offers a distinct yet complementary approach to physical rejuvenation. Engaging in gentle physical activities, such as stretching, yoga, or light cardio, can stimulate the release of endorphins, natural mood enhancers that combat stress and promote overall well-being. These activities also enhance flexibility, coordination, and balance, contributing to a sense of bodily awareness and control.
At the heart of sensory rest lies the concept of environmental modification. By meticulously crafting spaces devoid of excessive stimuli, neurodivergent individuals can create havens where their senses can relax and rejuvenate. Dimly lit rooms, devoid of harsh fluorescent lights, offer a soothing balm for eyes accustomed to bright intensities. Soft, ambient sounds, such as the gentle murmur of nature or tranquil music, replace the cacophony of daily life, allowing ears to rest and recharge.
Technological advancements have further expanded the realm of sensory rest. Noise-cancelling headphones, with their ability to block out intrusive sounds, provide a haven for auditory-sensitive individuals, while weighted blankets, with their gentle pressure, offer a sense of security and comfort. These tools empower neurodivergent individuals to curate their environments, fostering a sense of control and autonomy.
Sensory rest extends beyond the physical realm and encompasses mindfulness practices that cultivate inner tranquillity. Deep breathing exercises, guided imagery, and progressive muscle relaxation techniques provide effective means of calming the nervous system, easing tension, and alleviating sensory overload. Sensory rest is about giving your senses a break from overstimulation and to empower you in managing your sensory experiences, fostering a sense of self-regulation and inner peace.
If your work is creative work, you might need some creative rest as well. This can involve pursuing hobbies that are not creative in nature, or simply spending time relaxing without any pressure to be productive. Creative rest encompasses a spectrum of activities that allow the mind to disengage from the pressures of creative output and engage in pursuits that foster relaxation and rejuvenation. While engaging in hobbies that are not creative in nature, such as gardening, sports, or reading, can provide a welcome respite, exploring creative avenues outside one’s primary creative field can also be remarkably beneficial.
For instance, a professional musician might find relief from the intensity of playing their instrument by composing music in a different genre, experimenting with other instruments, or simply singing for the sheer joy of it. By venturing into uncharted creative territories, individuals can rediscover their innate love of creativity without the pressure of professional expectations.
Moreover, engaging in diverse creative pursuits stimulates new perspectives and fosters cross-pollination of ideas. The skills and insights gained from one creative endeavour can unexpectedly enrich another, leading to unexpected breakthroughs and creative growth. Additionally, incorporating non-creative hobbies into daily routines, such as taking up a sport or joining a book club, can foster a sense of balance and well-being.
Also referred to as “Me Time” and “a person-free day”, social rest is about taking a break from social interaction. It can involve spending time alone, pursuing solitary activities, or simply enjoying the tranquillity of one’s own company. This time away from social interaction provides opportunities for reflection, introspective thought, and emotional processing. It allows individuals to recharge their social energy, reduce stress, and gain a clearer perspective on their relationships and social engagements.
Social rest also involves establishing clear boundaries around how much time and energy individuals are willing to dedicate to social interactions. This may involve setting limits on the number of social commitments, declining invitations to events that feel overwhelming, or taking breaks from social media. By setting these boundaries, individuals can protect their emotional well-being and ensure that their social interactions are enriching rather than draining.
Creating an environment that supports social rest is therefore important. Establishing a dedicated space for solitude, free from distractions and social obligations, allows individuals to retreat and recharge. Additionally, communicating social boundaries clearly to friends, family, and colleagues can help prevent social overstimulation and ensure that individuals have the space they need for rejuvenation.
Just as with all forms of rest, the ways of emotional rest can be as diverse as the individuals who seek it. For some, connecting with loved ones who provide a sense of safety and support can foster emotional solace. Spending time with family and friends, engaging in shared activities, or simply enjoying their presence can provide a sense of belonging and emotional nourishment. For others, engaging in activities that bring joy, relaxation, and a sense of fulfilment can serve as a form of emotional rest. Whether it’s pursuing hobbies, immersing oneself in nature, or engaging in creative endeavours, these activities can provide a distraction from emotional stressors and allow the mind to unwind. In any case, emotional rest is about taking a break from emotional demands.
As neurodivergent individuals, we might experience heightened sensitivity to emotions and stress. Therefore, we can greatly benefit from implementing emotional rest strategies into our daily lives. Emotional rest then also refers to the intentional practice of taking breaks, engaging in self-care activities, and utilising effective coping mechanisms to regulate emotions and reduce burnout. One effective approach is the implementation of training and development programs specifically tailored for neurodivergent individuals, focusing on emotional regulation strategies. These programs can provide valuable tools and techniques to help manage negative emotions such as anxiety, a common experience for those with neurodivergent traits.
Emotional rest can promote positive emotional states. By engaging in activities that evoke joy, satisfaction, and a sense of fulfilment, emotional rest can contribute to an overall sense of well-being and optimism, reducing the impact of negative emotions. Additionally, emotional rest can improve sleep quality, as it promotes relaxation and alleviates stress.
Whether we are religious or not, practising a form of spirituality can delve deep into the core of our being, connecting us to the essence of who we are and what gives our lives purpose and meaning. It is a journey of self-discovery, self-reflection, and self-realisation. This is a process that evolves and changes as we progress through life. In a world filled with constant noise and distraction, taking time for quiet contemplation can be profoundly restorative. Whether through meditation, prayer, or simply sitting quietly in nature, allowing ourselves to be present in the moment without judgement can bring a sense of inner peace and clarity.
One aspect of spiritual rest is the connection to nature. Spending time in the great outdoors, whether it be hiking through a forest, gazing at a starry night sky, or simply sitting by the ocean, can awaken a sense of awe and wonder within us. It reminds us of the vastness and beauty of the universe, placing our own lives in perspective and fostering a sense of humility and reverence. Another path to spiritual rest lies in cultivating a sense of gratitude. Taking time to appreciate the blessings in our lives, whether big or small, can shift our focus away from what we lack to the abundance that surrounds us. Gratitude fosters a sense of contentment and inner peace, allowing us to savour the present moment and appreciate the simple joys of life.
Engaging in acts of kindness and compassion can also lead to spiritual rest. Extending a helping hand to others, whether through volunteering, donating to charity, or simply offering a listening ear, can connect us to our shared humanity and foster a sense of interconnectedness. When we act with kindness, we not only make a positive impact on others, but we also enrich our own lives and cultivate a sense of purpose and meaning. Spiritual rest can also be found in creative expression. Whether it be through painting, writing, music, or any other form of creative endeavour, allowing ourselves to express our inner selves can be deeply cathartic and liberating. Creative expression can help us to process our emotions, explore our thoughts, and connect with a deeper level of self-awareness.
How to incorporate all types of rest in daily life
The benefits of rest extend far beyond mere relaxation. By incorporating respites into their daily routines, neurodivergent individuals can foster emotional resilience, enhance self-awareness, and cultivate a sense of balance. Rest provides an opportunity to observe thoughts and emotions without judgement, fostering a deeper understanding of one’s inner landscape. This self-awareness empowers individuals to navigate their emotions effectively, reducing stress and anxiety. Moreover, rest can ignite creativity. By allowing the subconscious mind to wander freely, mental respites can foster new ideas and creative breakthroughs. The brain, unburdened by the constraints of focused work, can explore uncharted territories, leading to unexpected bursts of inspiration. Additionally, mental rest can contribute to improved sleep quality, as it promotes relaxation and alleviates stress.
Therefore, to conclude, here are some tips for incorporating all seven types of rest into your daily life:
Schedule them in: Just like you would schedule any other important appointment, schedule time for each type of rest into your calendar.
Be intentional: When you are resting, be fully present and focused on the activity you are doing. Avoid multitasking or thinking about other things.
Take breaks: Throughout the day, take short breaks to give your mind and body a chance to rest. Get up and move around, or simply close your eyes and take a few deep breaths.
Set boundaries for yourself: It is important to set boundaries around your time and energy. This means saying no to commitments that you do not have time for, and delegating tasks when possible.
Frame expectations for others: Let the people in your life know what your needs are when it comes to rest. For example, you may need to take some time alone after a social event, or you may need to avoid certain topics of conversation that are triggering for you.
Disconnect: When you are resting, try to let go of cell phone screens and other devices. This will help you to relax and be more present.
Try to remember that rest is not about being lazy or unproductive. It is about taking care of yourself and giving yourself the time and space you need to recharge. Try different types of rest to see what works best for you. There is no one-size-fits-all approach, but what is universal is that you are well-rested, you are better able to manage stress, cope with challenges, and live your life to the fullest.
“Rest is a fine medicine. Let your stomachs rest, ye dyspeptics; let your brain rest, you wearied and worried men of business; let your limbs rest, ye children of toil!” Thomas Carlyle
Martine Mussies is a PhD candidate at Utrecht University, writing about the Cyborg Mermaid. Besides her research, Martine is a professional musician. Her other interests include autism, (neuro)psychology, martial arts, languages, King Alfred and science fiction. To see more visit www.martinemussies.nl