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Doing vacation versus vacationing

By Amy Nielsen

This was my week off, my vacation at home to rest. This is the week I set up months ago to take a little time before the summer season got into full swing to do a bunch of nothing. I have a very active busy, but fun, summer planed. But, it will be anything but relaxing. I had a busy spring and I am feeling the shoulder season hump.

I must have had too many empty blocks on the calendar in a row. My subconscious took over and I succumbed to the cult of busy. I filled in every single one of those squares with something. Something fun and on the outlook relaxing to be sure; a picnic with our homeschool co-op family, a trip to the opening day of a farmers market - even an overnight field trip to a super cool attraction with awesome friends. But, I filled in my down time.

I took away my rest and digest time. Rest and digest is a key process in my life and I am not good at allowing the time for it. That’s why I planned it in ages ago. It’s a time for the body to do the important tasks of repair and processing, but also for the mind and spirit to do repair and process work. I need some time to gather my umph for summer and process the spring.

Warning – mini physiology lesson coming. Nothing gross, just some basic markers so we are all on the same page about what happens where. It’s important or I wouldn’t bore you with it.

So the human body’s central nervous system is made up of nerves that have little light switches along them. The switches are grouped into one of two side-by-side systems. One controls the fight or flight response; think being chased by a bear, or the deadline of your big project at work, or the blankity blank traffic jam you sit in every day, or your mother-in-law’s impending move to a nursing home. That is the sympathetic system.

The other controls the rest and digest part; post-Thanksgiving dinner football “watching”, fishing trips in the summer heat with Grandpa, your dog greeting you at the door, or your cat purring on your chest, or the steady practice of Shabbos on Friday night. This is the parasympathetic system.

I can only remember which is which because rest has an r in it like para. Anyway, these light switches cause physical reactions to occur in the human body depending on the stimuli they are given. When the sympathetic nerves are engaged, your eyes dilate, heart races, you breathe more shallowly; when the parasympathetic nerves are stimulated your eyes contract, your heart rate slows, and you breathe deeper. The sympathetic nerves take a lot more energy to make them fire. The longer you stay engaged in your sympathetic nervous system the harder you are working your body. However, the sympathetic ride is energizing, invigorating, and intoxicating.

So why on earth do we continue to drive ourselves to this state of sympathetic overdrive? Because we get jazzed on it on a cellular level. This is where the mind and spirit get disengaged and the chemical part of us takes over.  Remember that the beginnings of fight or flight feel like a great rush of invincible energy. Those chemicals that make us feel terrific are made during rest and digest.

We use up the chemicals we make in rest and digest during our fight or flight. When we run out of them, our cells try to replace them with similar chemicals any way possible to keep feeling good. Ever have a craving for a double fudge brownie sundae after a really long work week? There are a lot of chemical reactions that go on that make that craving happen and those reactions are the same ones that make you crave busy.

Relaxing however doesn’t look very productive, even though it is as chemically productive to the human body as busy. I would like to change the world view of nappers from inefficient lay-abouts to see them as being the most productive relaxers ever. We should celebrate them. Without productive relaxation you cannot have the well for productive busy.

At a very basic level good sleep is the purest and simplest form of deep relaxation, of being fully engaged in the parasympathetic nervous system. It is also the hardest for many of us to achieve because we are not cellularly ready for deep relaxing sleep. We have put too much stimulus into ourselves and our little cells are still working on processing it all.

I use the word stimulus because I don’t want you to automatically think coffee, though I have a particular beef with coffee. Stimulus can come in the form of too much little blue screen, too long of a gym session, volunteering for seventeen organizations at once, or too much diet soda, too many bags of organic freeze dried wasabi peas (peas are little sugar bombs), or the sixth cuppa of the day.

But I saw the empty squares on the calendar and my sympathetic nervous system took over and said – more stimulus, please. I know many of you can relate. When I originally planned this vacation time, I planned space to be, to fully engage my parasympathetic nervous system as much as possible. I intended to nap – a lot. As we got closer my cells being so stimulated already, kept pushing for more. Sort of like a chocolate craving, I was craving doing. I know I am going to need a vacation from my vacation.

Now I find myself trying to carve out time to piece together some true rest. Next time I plan a rest and digest vacation I will make sure to plan the doing of napping into it. I might even set calendar reminders.

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