The Need for Restorative Dormancy is a Law of Nature:
Rest brings Clarity and sets the stage for New Growth
I live among trees. On our modest horse farm in the middle of the Oconee National Forest in central Georgia we have borne witness to eleven autumns, expressed by the blazing colors of activity and silent stillness of dormancy in the many deciduous species that grow here. We have seen the same course of change in our horses’ hair coats, from glossy and smooth to thick and plushy. The trees and the horses embrace the coming darkness of winter, interacting with the changing light unconsciously, needing no convincing that spring will come. And yet, we know that this time of year is an invisible, restorative, and strengthening time for all creatures.
With us Humans, inevitably, and particularly in veterinary medicine, we get in the way of our own recovery needs by insisting on continual growth and unceasing productivity. In vet med, this time of year brings an increase in threats to our need for rest: increases in euthanasia appointments, stressed-out clients, holiday shifts to be covered, and many more. We are expected to “bloom” year-round. We are pushed to bring our A-game every day, driven by results and outcomes. We are encouraged to always strive to be the “best version” of ourselves. These external pressures can lead to the belief that we don’t have permission to shut down, to access the quiet that is necessary for self-reflection. We end up convinced rest is not an option.
I submit that every single one of these notions is dangerous if not deadly. Nothing blooms constantly. There is no “best version” of a person. The “A-game” is an illusion, a combination of factors that trick us into believing that we control the flow of Nature’s inexorable rhythms. Thinking, feeling, and behaving in ways that are out of sync with these rhythms can lead to feelings of inadequacy, failure, and that we are somehow responsible for the inability to meet the unrealistic expectation to perform at our best 100% of the time.
Let’s look at some different ways to understand and honor the need we all share for dormancy, for shutting down, even amid the inevitable increase in our veterinary culture’s burdens of care. How can we learn to allow our bodies to tend to those invisible, subterranean processes that heal, restore, and clarify our ability to work and love, and to chase the goals we desire?
This is the time of year we all need to ask ourselves, is there anything that we need to “turn loose” of as we move into a new year? What can we leave behind in the old year, if doing so would remove an impediment to progress on our own terms, even if it feels scary, counterintuitive, or misaligned with accepted business principles? How can we learn to trust the instincts, emotions and ideas that come from restorative rest and reflection?
Turning Loose to the Cycles of Recovery: Practical Domains
There are four areas we can all give more attention to in order to allow ourselves more opportunity to rest – in big and small ways.
Jennifer Piercy, Yoga Nidra instructor and sleep coach (see further reading) says that “we live in a time of addiction to Junk Light…anxious, overstimulated, inflamed…our sensitive biorhythms literally brainwashed into thinking that we should always be awake, that it’s not safe to rest.” The most striking thing our trees do when the light changes is not the dizzying array of colors they give to their leaves, gold, orange, red, purple, bronze. It is that they turn loose of those leaves to wind and weather, accepting the growing darkness as a help for their need for restorative dormancy. “Turning Loose” is also the title of a documentary on the legendary horseman Ray Hunt. The phrase describes the inner change that a horse makes when it transitions from fear to trust.
Turning loose to the need for natural darkness and restorative sleep, Piercy says, has the effect of activating “a whole network of intelligence” that goes about healing our bodies (including our thoughts, attitudes, and emotions) as we sleep. Depending on our accumulated stress levels, it may take weeks for sleep cycles to re-calibrate and become restorative. A stressed brain sleeps differently than a non-stressed brain (see further reading), stuck in a chronic state of self-preservation. Our goal, therefore, is to identify and remove barriers to rest and sleep. This may seem obvious and simplistic, but we know that it is not easy.
If all we do is to address the sensory environment in which we work and live and hope to rest, we will have done a great service to our well-being.
We can always take a moment to notice the noise levels around us, including the volume of our own voice when speaking with someone. What sorts of auditory bombardment have we been allowing ourselves to tolerate, or forcing ourselves to overcome? Is there a way to eliminate, reduce or escape the din of the treatment area in the hospital, for example?
Or what about how we treat our eyes, in our world of screens and unfiltered instant information, often designed to provoke a strong emotional response and keep us scrolling and clicking? This is but one example of Piercy’s “Junk Light,” the species of visual stimulation that keeps us in the doom loop of always being emotionally and cognitively “on call.”
These are but two of the senses that, if we get quiet enough to accept what they and their other three counterparts are saying, have much to teach us (see Practical Suggestions).
The two sides of our autonomic nervous systems have catchy names, “fight, flight or freeze,” and “rest and digest.” The latter side is as essential to tend to as sleep and environment are, as we prepare for rest in the middle of the hardest season in practice. Typically, our appetite decreases when we’re stressed, but we all know the phenomenon of “stress eating.” Our bodies know that sugar reduces cortisol (one of many stress hormones), hence the well-worn trope of clutching a tub of ice cream when we’re heartbroken. On the other hand, the simple practice of keeping a constant supply of fresh (not processed) calorie-dense food always available can teach our bodies that when we’re working hard, we can still access rest through stopping to chew something good for us at every opportunity.
Finally, the most important factor in building our ability to rest is the quality (and quantity) of our relationships. Too many of us fall victim to the false assumption that if we take time away from the job, that we are “letting the hospital (patients, coworkers, bosses, clients, ourselves) down.” This attitude is no one’s fault; it is a natural effect of the professional environment we find ourselves in and our innate empathy skills and sense of duty. If only we could openly voice that attitude, that fear, with our coworkers and loved ones. Simple phrases like “I need your help by making sure the patients are OK while I get away for awhile,” or “I will be out of communication for a few days. I trust you and the others to work out any questions that come up,” or “I’m afraid of leaving all this work to you, but I need to put it down so I can come back and help you better.” There is no magic thing to say, just the willingness to be honest about how we feel and what we need. We might find that they secretly wished that we could rest up away from everything, that we never needed to be afraid of their response. We might find new, durable depths of trust.
The starting point to approaching restorative rest and dormancy, to activating the healing processes that emerge when we shut down is, as Piercy puts it, to “allow thinking to dissolve into sensing, feeling, and being.” This is nothing more than allowing the here-and-now to be as it finds us and pay attention to it, without judgement. Here I will therefore free myself from any claim to these suggestions being supported by research. They come from having lived, survived, and learned to thrive in this profession. I hope you find some of them useful:
- Take two minutes to observe your breathing. Don’t try to change it, just notice when inhale and exhale begin and end, and allow the rate and rhythm to change as a result of your attention to it. For two full minutes.
- Insist on a strict policy of non-interruption during meal breaks. If someone intrudes with a question, simply reply “I’m eating,” and continue silently staring at them until they go away. The effect will spread.
- Go outside, find a comfortable place to sit, and just listen. Learn how the world looks, sounds, and smells at different times of day.
- Have music on while writing medical records.
- In your desktop folders and files, wherever possible, change the word “work” to “play.”
- Keep yourself and your teammates fed. If necessary, advocate strongly with the hospital to provide and integrate free-choice fresh healthy snacks as a standard operating procedure.
- Shut off all screens and unnecessary light 45 minutes before bed.
- Turn off email and chat notifications when not at work.
- Never share your cell phone number with a client. Just don’t do it.
- Take an extra day or two after you return from a vacation. Yes, we need to recover from them too.
- Write down the events of a stressful shift as if you were writing a screenplay. Share it with trusted others. Set aside time with them to kick the furniture and tell war stories.
- Motivation is unreliable. Force your body to do the movements of the above suggestions, and give changes a chance to happen.
As we turn toward new goals with the new year, may we find rest and appreciate the healing and clarity that is turned loose when we ourselves turn loose to the rhythms of light and dark, the cycles and seasons of effort and rest, and the passage from fear to trust. May we embrace the need for dormancy not just as an intrusive physical necessity, but as the key to our future growth.