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The seven types of rest that can improve your well-being

Rest is about so much more than getting enough sleep, says physician and researcher Saundra Dalton-Smith.

Tracking sleep has become a national pastime through smartwatches and apps that help consumers identify and interpret the amount and quality of their nightly snooze. However, this narrow focus on physical rest is misguided, says physician and researcher Saundra Dalton-Smith.

“We equate rest as sleep and use the two words interchangeably. Yet while sleep is a type of rest, it’s just one,” she says. “People often sleep seven to eight hours a night and still wake up tired because they are deficient in other areas of rest.”

Saundra Dalton-Smith, physician and author of “Sacred Rest: Recover Your Life, Renew Your Energy, Restore Your Sanity

In fact, she has identified seven types of rest that collectively contribute to a stronger feeling of physical and mental well-being, which she details in her book, “Sacred Rest: Recover Your Life, Renew Your Energy, Restore Your Sanity.”

Dalton-Smith became interested in rest when she was practicing internal medicine and realized how frequently her patients complained of issues like exhaustion and forgetfulness — yet didn’t have any physical condition that would explain these symptoms. This, and self-reflection on her own exhaustion, launched her research into different types of rest and how deficits in one or more can negatively impact mental health and overall well-being.

People lack adequate rest in specific categories based on where they lose energy during the day. “The type of work you do will predispose you to have a deficit in certain areas if you don’t have a strategy in place for filling it back up,” Dalton-Smith says. For example, someone who takes on an informal leadership role at home or at work may be lacking mental rest. Meanwhile, someone navigating a difficult relationship — whether with a partner, friend, or family member — may need more social rest.

The seven types of rest

Physical rest
If you’re not getting enough physical rest, you may feel wound up and chronically tense. This type of rest helps the body relax. Passive physical rest includes sleeping and napping, while active physical rest includes activities that help improve circulation and flexibility, like going for leisure walks, stretching, yoga, massage therapy, or acupuncture. Check your health care plan to see if benefits include coverage of, or a discount on, these types of active physical rest activities.

Mental rest
If you’re having difficulty concentrating or having a hard time falling asleep at night because of racing thoughts, you may be lacking mental rest. Mental energy gets drained when you are ideating and processing information, so mental rest should balance that work with regular breaks during which you can clear your mental space. You could incorporate mental rest through a nightly thought-download during which you write down the thoughts you are ruminating on as a way of releasing them from your mind, mindfulness, or meditation. Harvard Pilgrim Health Care’s Mind the Moment program offers a meditation hotline for small moments of mindfulness, available 24/7 from wherever you are. Give it a try by dialing 877-589-6736. 

Emotional rest
Emotional rest is the ability to express your authentic self, being open about your thoughts and feelings without revising them to make others more comfortable. In other words, it is “the rest we experience when we don’t feel like we’re hiding part of ourselves from other people,” explains Dalton-Smith. While it’s not necessary to be this vulnerable with everyone, it’s important for well-being to connect in this way regularly, whether it be with friends, family, a partner, or a licensed therapist. Tufts Health Plan and Harvard Pilgrim Health Care members can find cost-effective and convenient options for connecting with a counselor — whether they prefer sessions in person or through a digital platform like TalkSpace.

Social rest
“A huge part of mental health is that connectivity of social rest, which keeps you from feeling alone or isolated,” Dalton-Smith says. In order to get social rest, you first need to evaluate which relationships give you energy versus which ones drain your energy. Then, consciously choose to spend time with people who are positive and supportive, and overall leave you feeling revived.

Sensory rest
Do you keep the TV on for background noise? Are you constantly distracted by pings and notifications on bright screens? “If left unchecked, the absence of sensory rest can result in feelings of anxiety and agitation,” Dalton-Smith says, “and it’s important to evaluate what type of sensory input you’re taking in and allow time for rest and restoration from that.” Intentional sensory deprivation, like setting a no-electronics period each day, can help reduce the anxiety that comes from sensory overload.

Creative rest
Everyone needs creative rest, even if you’re not a “creative type.” It’s the rest we experience when we allow beauty into our lives and take the time to appreciate it. For some, this could be time in nature. For others, it could be time spent at a museum, concert, or theater, appreciating art. “Creative rest helps us to be able to feel inspired and motivated,” says Dalton-Smith. “Not getting enough of it can make someone feel as if they are just losing the joy of their experiences.” You can give yourself moments of creative rest throughout the day, notes Dalton-Smith, with small changes like adding fresh flowers to your space.

Spiritual rest
“Everybody has that need to feel as if their life has purpose and belonging,” says Dalton-Smith. Spiritual rest can look different for different people, depending on their beliefs. But whether it’s in a faith-based setting or a community setting, such as volunteering for a favorite charity, spiritual rest comes from feeling like you are contributing to and a part of something bigger than yourself.

Find out what type of rest you need
Wondering what types of rest you may need more of? To determine how you’re doing in each area, take a free rest deficit assessment at The quiz can help you identify what categories of rest you are lacking and suggest restorative activities that can fill the gaps. “We need to change our mindset that rest is the cessation of activities and open ourselves up to the possibility of pulling other activities in,” Dalton-Smith says.


Avoid common rest mistakes                                                      
As you seek to boost your well-being by incorporating these types of rest into your life, it is equally important to avoid common misconceptions and missteps, Dalton-Smith says.

Many people default to scrolling through their smartphone or binge-watching a TV series as their primary form of rest. The problem is that most people don’t feel rejuvenated after a screen session. “It’s more of an escape, a way for them to pull away from the stressors of life,” says Dalton-Smith. “You should leave your time of rest feeling restored, feeling energized. For most people, doing those activities does not accomplish that.”

Another common misconception is that the answer to feeling burnt out and exhausted is taking a vacation. While extended time away is important, it is fleeting, notes Dalton-Smith. She stresses that rest needs to be integrated into our daily lifestyle as a continually cultivated resource.

And, of course, there are many who believe they just don’t have the time to rest — which, counterintuitively, may be exactly when you may need rest the most.

“A successful life should have margin and quiet space,” Dalton-Smith says. “No one should be so consumed with work that there’s no time for restoration … That’s a life that’s not going to feel successful, even if it may look successful on the outside.”

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This content was produced by Boston Globe Media's Studio/B in collaboration with the advertiser. The news and editorial departments of The Boston Globe had no role in its production or display.