The Importance of Rest & Relaxation For Therapists: Making Time for What Matters this Holiday Season

woman relaxing on a beach

The end of the year can often feel like a mixed bag of contradictions. We know we have the holiday break coming up, and we start to look forward to a period of rest and relaxation.

But the truth is, we’re pretty terrible at making use of this time in ways that will offer us rest and relaxation.

December itself is a month fuelled by preparations: setting up decorations, organizing, buying and wrapping presents, planning meet-ups and celebrations – that’s even before we reach the 25th!

As therapists and mental health professions, our roles so often feel pressured and highly stressed. When working in any such environment, it’s crucial we make appropriate time for rest and relaxation.

Rest Versus Relaxation

You might think that rest and relaxation are the same things – but they’re two separate things. When you separate the two and consciously consider what they refer to, the better set you’ll be to make sure you get the right amount of both.

  • Rest: Rest is defined as a period where work or movement is ceased to sleep or recover physically. We rest each night when we go to sleep, and we rest after intense experiences like an injury or surgery. Rest allows our minds to take a break and allows our body to repair. Without sufficient rest, our bodies suffer various physical and psychological impacts, including impaired memory, lower stress thresholds, poor concentration, weight gain, and poor judgment.
  • Relaxation: Relaxation is defined as the release of tension and a focus on refreshing our mind and body. Relaxation occurs while we are awake and typically involves engaging in activities we find fulfilling. Participating in the right activities that allow us to relax can help to improve our cognitive functioning, lowers the risk for depression and anxiety, and promotes better physical and emotional health.

While rest and relaxation are seperate, they do go hand in hand, and when you consciously act in ways that promote and support both in your life, you’ll reap wonderful long term benefits.

Making Time for Rest and Relaxation this Holiday Season

Many people, therapists no exception, struggle to take the time they need away from work throughout the year.

While our work is important, we can only be our most effective selves when we also take care of ourselves.

Research has shown that workers who don’t take appropriate vacation time are at higher risk of burnout and often feel they cannot handle professional demands. Burnout can also lead to marriage and family problems, contribute to depression and anxiety, and poor health all round.

But taking time off is only useful based on what you do with it. If you take a break but find yourself constantly thinking about work, worrying about clients, and checking emails – you won’t get the break you really need.

Sociologist Sabine Sonnentag of Germany’s University of Konstanz has spent years researching what we need to do to make a successful break that optimizes our health. She believes four significant factors contribute to a vacation that offers effective recovery:

  1. Relaxation: As defined above, relaxation involves engaging with activities that help you feel fulfilled, refreshed, and content. It might be a long hike in nature, spending time with friends, or an afternoon reading on the sofa. Whatever it is, make sure you make time for it.
  2. Control: Control relates to the amount of control you have over the experiences you have to engage in. If you spend this time adhering to the whims and demands of others, you’ll significantly reduce the positive impact of taking a break.
  3. Mastery experiences: Mastery experiences refer to the engaging, interesting things you are skilled at. They offer challenges but keep you mentally engaged. These experiences are all about feeling active and involved in the things you love. This might be doing a short course, reading a book about something you’re passionate about, writing, painting – whatever type of thing that gives you a feeling of ‘flow.’
  4. Mental detachment from work: An important but often challenging component for a restful break is total mental detachment from work. This is where you’re not worrying about what you still need to do or what’s coming up when you return to work. You’re not checking emails or focusing on work projects. Your mind is totally clear.

Sonnentag and her colleagues advise that if you can take a vacation break that is high in all four of these categories, you’ll meet the sweet spot of having a vacation that actively aids your send of emotional, mental, and physical wellbeing.

How Long Should You Take Off?

Another important to ask is how long your vacation should be? We often think taking a big chunk of time away from work will have the best benefits, but research has found the opposite may be true.

Psychologists found that happiness levels rise rapidly during the first few days of a vacation, peak around day eight, and then slowly decline.

Longer holidays have their benefits and allow us to travel and spend more time in a place when needed – if we need to visit family and friends in other parts of the country or world. But research indicates that taking shorter, more frequent breaks may offer the most positive impact on our overall health.

If you’re wondering how long to take off for the holidays – it seems eight days may be the sweet spot!

Make Time for You

Although the holiday season feels intensely focused on spending time with family, friends, and others, remember it’s just as important to carve out some time just for you.

As therapists, we’re often putting everyone else before ourselves – it’s the nature of our work, and I know we all find it incredibly fulfilling.

Just don’t forget to refuel your own fuel tank, ready to keep providing clients with the best version of you to support them.

Cecilia Racine: Immigration Evaluation Therapist

I’m Cecilia Racine, and I teach therapists how to help immigrants through my online courses. As a bilingual immigrant myself, I know the unique perspective that these clients are experiencing. I’ve conducted over 500 evaluations and work with dozens of lawyers in various states. Immigrants are my passion, I believe they add to the fabric of our country.

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