Małgorzata Kwiatkowska: I read on the Internet that you named yourself an expert in joy, pleasure and laziness – how nice and relaxing it does sound…
Katarzyna Haler: Yes, that’s right (laughs). I love to deal with these topics both in my office and after hours. Yet, unfortunately… nowadays it is more and more difficult to practice these three things. I even think that this is not an issue that goes with each individual, but even a cultural one – life has got filled to the brim with various activities, but also a huge amount of stimuli. As a result, our nervous systems are constantly dialled up. Also, the forms of resting have changed in such a way that they do not necessarily fulfil their regenerative function. Even when we start doing something that might seem relaxing, we still multitask in various ways – we reach for the phone, think about unpaid bills or plan a list of tasks for the next day – and as a result, we are constantly not quite zoned out.
MK: It would seem that the need to rest is in our blood but when we are constantly racing against time, with too much on our heads, we cannot turn off and truly, fully rest.
KH: Exactly. The kind of juggling we do every day, the heaps of chores both at work and at home, keeps us energised. And this tension sticks. Even when we manage to bring the project to its final stage we still feel an internal tension, or even more. We are evolutionarily structured in such a way that we need to unwind. And often we don’t – we follow the “couch reflex” and relax with a cupcake, coffee and a TV remote control, which of course can be nice, but in the end it doesn’t actually offer us in this department as much as, for example, physical exercise. I experienced it myself during the pandemic – even 15-minute exercise breaks gave me a boost and a lot of energy to work. It was enough to move around a little for the blood to circulate differently – and as a result, rest had a more lasting effect.
MK: But I have the impression that the phrase “rest is important” often seems a bit trivial to us because it is primarily work that identifies us, and actually we identify with work.
KH: Unfortunately, this approach is short-sighted. If we were robots perhaps we wouldn’t need to rest. Even the best machines, however, break down from time to time. And we, in the rush of things to do, following the coaching trends under the slogan “you can do anything if you try hard”, often overlook the fact that a person needs various things to function properly. In the long term, we will not be able to continue to operate at high speed. In my office there are many “strong women” who repeat like a mantra “I will be, I will manage, I will, I can, I have ambitions”. It’s great, but only for a moment. We borrow from ourselves, take energy loans and move away from the inner signals that say, “hey, slow down, you need a rest.” Only insomnia, recurring colds, stomach pains, strange anxieties and fears force us to finally stop. It is difficult for us to get out of this rush, overcome blockages and beliefs that only weak and lazy people rest. We cover this absolutely basic, normal need with different sentiments and evaluations. Whereas we should go back to thinking that rest is a natural and one of our primary needs.
MK: Which is also not easy for another reason. Today rest becomes a product – someone shows us how we should “perform” it to do it well.
KH: Yes, and it doesn’t work. We hurt ourselves, we fall into a trap, we act under artificially created pressure and we panic that even though we should rest now we cannot do it as someone showed us. Even the most expensive holidays purchased at a travel agency may not bring the rest we need. The key to effective rest is freedom. When I choose what I want to do with my free time, the effect will be completely different. Then the expectations towards oneself and the type of relaxation will decrease significantly.
MK: Is it a matter of how well we know ourselves?
KH: Absolutely. Let’s reach for the things we like, let’s be curious about new things, let’s experiment. Let us give ourselves space, let us be kind to ourselves. Let’s not expect too much. It is important not to get the job done when you recover from a state of tension and overwork. To leave myself the right to choose and to change my mind. Let us not let ourselves be persuaded that this is something wrong. I hear from my patients: “I tried macrame, but I was over it”, “I thought I would paint, but after two meetings I find that it is not for me” – and unfortunately the remorse begins. Then I explain that it is perfectly okay to try and search. We don’t have to run a marathon right away, instead, let’s look for something that we really enjoy and that is doable.
MK: Listening to ourself plays an important role also at a different level – focusing attention on our own well-being and detecting the moment of fatigue is necessary for us to notice that our body needs a moment of peace. I think when we do it too late, it will be more difficult for us to recharge the batteries.
KH: It all depends again on how much we know each other. In more difficult cases, all emotional signals “I feel bad, I feel difficult, I don’t feel good, I don’t want to do anything, even go out with a friend for a coffee or to the cinema”, irritation and tension, lack of sleep or headaches – it all roots back to the signal: “I need a rest.”
MK: And when we are refreshed, we deal with stress better, right?
KH: Of course! Rest is not just a pleasure. Rest is a charger. If we can recharge our batteries, not only is it easier for us to function, but actually we are stronger. Our ability to respond to stress is primarily rooted in physical strength and mental balance. When this foundation shakes, we cannot deal with reality. Presently, a new narrative about rest is our salvation – a break from duties is not laziness and weakness. Quite the opposite. This is a very responsible choice. Refusing to complete some tasks gives us the chance to be more productive in the future. For example, we will not disappear on a monthly leave due to burnout, we will cooperate more efficiently, and we will have the strength to build relationships with our loved ones and take care of them. It is also important that we set a good example – let us embody and practice conscious resting in order to carry it further.
MK: But how to do all of this when our hands are so full, times are so hectic? It seems to me that in the face of such difficult events as a pandemic, war or rising inflation, it is difficult for us to function normally, let alone think about holidays.
KH: Right now we are facing stress of a different caliber – tremendous uncertainty. Before, people had access to less information, they didn’t live at that pace. And we, for several years already, have been staring into the fog not knowing what will emerge from it. Today, we cannot comprehensively imagine what tomorrow shall bring. And it often turns out that the future get even worse. So, the question is whether we are able to feel safe in this ambience of ignorance at all. Therefore, we need a new strategy for rest. In my opinion, the way out is to tolerate uncertainty and let go of control, also, to think that whatever happens we will manage anyhow. When we prepare for a difficult event, while still thinking about it for three weeks, we actually pay a much greater cost associated with a huge mental burden. We need to turn away from thinking about what will be and move towards empowering ourselves. Today it is very important to keep our thoughts in the mental parking lot, where we know that some things can wait, and we will have time to recharge and gain strength to face them.
MK: Are we able to do it ourselves?
KH: Some people will cope with this task better, others worse. But nobody can do it on their own. Pandemic, war, high inflation – conditions are too difficult to stay zen. We do not have such an innate ability because fear is, in a sense, an adequate response to what is happening – it serves to focus on the problem, to come up with a solution, prepare and adapt. But we often come up with scenarios for which we have no way to prepare because we do not know if they will come to fruition. We grind these greatest fears a million times, we even bathe in them. And finally, additional analyses come into play, which are already very harmful. This behavioural matrix easily becomes a habit or form of spending time and contact with loved ones – the brain learns our behaviours very quickly, and what is worse – repeats them.
MK: Do we have to change our thinking?
KH: This, in my opinion, is the key to health and safety of our times. How to do it? Through working on the misconception that worrying puts us in control and breaking with the “you should have thought that before” misconception. Predicting everything is impossible and only creates the illusion that this line of conduct can save us from what is bad out there. It brings unnecessary tension. We must realise that as humans we are on the one hand vulnerable – because we cannot control everything in the world. Yet, on the other hand, we have enormous power because we are adaptable, flexible, resilient, creative and cooperative. Today I do not know how to deal with what is just looming on the horizon as I do not fully see what it is. But when I see the problem in all its glory, I will start to figure it out and believe that I will find a way out.
MK: It seems much more economical – instead of anticipating every possible scenario, I assume whatever it is, I’ll be fine.
KH: You need to build self-confidence, and by this I mean some kind of mental and emotional discipline. Let us listen to our interior as an exceptional radio broadcast – let’s check what is going on in the head and in the heart, let’s find out if our inner voice is our good adviser that will help us in crisis situations, or whether it is rather stress and anxiety driving it. If we come up with the latter answer, we will get a signal that something needs to be changed. We can go to a therapist, reach for a smart reading material or simply talk honestly about our fears with a close, trusted person who will provide us with mental support. It all depends on your personal needs.
MK: Are there any exercises that we can introduce into our everyday life to find the strength to fight difficult thoughts?
KH: We can do a lot for ourselves but, again, it depends on what helps us and what we are like. It has to suit us. More task-oriented people can, for example, write down their worries – organise “10 minutes for stress”. It’s time to damp all bad thoughts. When we purge them like this, after a while we will look at everything with a cooler, more critical eye. Then it may turn out that some things, when viewed in black and white, are not so scary anymore, some things can be rebuilt into a bit more rational and adequate structure. Other people may need a more emotion-oriented approach. Until recently, tenderness, kindness and concern were not associated with personal development in our culture, and now they are becoming a part of it. I wholeheartedly encourage you to build an approach to your own self around them. I would say that these are the most important tips today. When we talk to ourselves as to our worst enemy: “I am so dumb, I will go to therapy just because I feel like a failure, I would go to see my friend but she probably has had enough of me and my whining”, we do ourselves a lot of harm and our nervousness and fear spiral. I am positive that we will feel different if we observe ourselves with kindness, saying: “it’s all so difficult, I will look for help somewhere because I need it very much right now.” Let’s find a new source of strength – maybe a proper meditation technique. I do this in the form of a visualisation – I visualise images pairing them with emotions, saying that I am safe, strong and I can handle it. I also recommend a digital detox – all notifications and checking the latest feeds do not serve our brain well – we get it used to being constantly stimulated. Being off-line, going to the forest or park, sitting in a boring place where nothing is happening – on the grass or under a tree – will help us to redirect the brain and activate its other functions.
MK: So we can do a lot, still lovers of ready-made solutions must feel disappointed – there is no universal ready made solution for rest.
KH: Let me emphasise once again: all in all, it is important that we take the time to look for our own way to de-stress, our way to rest most effectively. I encourage us to be understanding and patient with ourselves – then we will give our nervous system a chance to switch and change the tracks so that it can regenerate better. If we consider that when we are constantly tense and busy our brain is immersed in cortisol, we understand that it takes time for the body to recover, neutralise, and give space for other substances to play their part.
MK: It is also important to realise that conscious and effective rest is not a way to escape from problems. Rather, it is a protective shield – it can help us deal with difficulties and overcome problematic situations.
KH: Absolutely. When we say, “I don’t have time for taking a few days off,” we are doing ourselves a lot of harm – we make us slaves to certain things, we cannot slow down, and the pressure begins to overwhelm us. By getting more and more in debt with ourselves, we do not notice that our actions become the cause of growing anxiety. While we should act the other way around: if we have a lot to do, let us slow down mechanically for a moment. I strongly believe that then you will be able to do much more – your inner strength will move mountains. Paying attention to what we really need is the key to balance. Let’s talk with our inner self, let’s try to get to know and understand ourselves.
MK: We encourage everyone to do so. Persons who are covered by their company’s ICAS EAP Employee Assistance Program, are also invited to contact our psychologists who will help you organise the rhythm of activity and rest so that you can act effectively and feel good at the same time. Thank you for the conversation.
KH: Thank you very much.