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Take a moment out of your busy lives to spare a thought for the over-rested

Often, being "rested" means being alone, away from other people. For the elderly or housebound, being over-rested can be just as bad as being too busy.

By Phil Whitaker

I don’t know if you caught it, but BBC Radio 4 has just concluded a three-part series, The Anatomy of Rest (now on iPlayer), presented by Claudia Hammond. It distilled the work of a group of neuroscientists, poets, psychologists, musicians and philosophers who, under the auspices of the Wellcome Collection, have spent two years enquiring into the nature of rest – its importance to us, what’s going on in our brains while we’re doing it, and what the consequences are if we don’t get enough. Throughout the programmes, contributors wrestled with the fundamental question: what in fact is this thing we call rest?

Rest appears to be markedly different for different people. For a minority, it means doing nothing and allowing the mind to wander. For most, however, resting is much more active. Reading gained the most votes among the 18,000 respondents in the show’s “Rest Test”, closely followed by getting out into nature, with listening to music the third most popular choice. For some others still, rest involves undertaking vigorous exercise.

Yet a common theme emerged: even for the most extrovert among us, the things we deem restful usually entail doing something on our own, away from other people.

We shouldn’t be surprised. Muscles move us around our physical environment, and if they do too much, they tire and have to stop for a while. Our brains navigate our social environment; the same principle applies. Brains have more complex functions, too, for which dedicated time is required – laying down memory; reflecting on our circumstances; predicting and planning for possible futures.

Though fascinating, The Anatomy of Rest suffered from a reductionist flaw: focusing on this one aspect of our mental life, it never panned out to the bigger picture. Speakers occasionally reminded us that rest is the obverse of busyness – the underlying assumption being that our hyperconnected, neon-lit, 24/7 world gives us too much to do, with our down time ever more squeezed. But, as a GP, I’d say that’s barely half the story.

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Not a day goes by without my seeing patients suffering the health consequences of “unrest”. They may be parents of young children, whose every moment is consumed by family. Or people working ridiculous hours – whether in competitive professional roles as they strive for success or in multiple, low-paid jobs to help make ends meet. Or they may be carers, supporting frail, unwell relatives on top of running their own lives.

And yet, for every one of these, there is another patient suffering “over-rest”. These are the housebound elderly, who may go days without interacting with another human being. Or disabled people whose social contact is measured in 15-minute slots with well-meaning but harried careworkers. Or the long-term unemployed, who have all the time in the world to read, walk in the country and listen to music, but haven’t the heart for it, because their life seems stripped of purpose.

For the unrested, I urge the creation of spaces in which to recharge their batteries by doing things for themselves. The most common immediate reaction is: “I can’t do that!” We excel at boxing ourselves in to unsustainable busyness and believing we’re powerless to effect change. But once a patient is persuaded of the importance of “me time” – or is given permission to prioritise it – apparently insurmountable obstacles can be overcome.

It’s much more challenging for the over-rested. Too often they are genuinely powerless, relying on stretched services, far-flung relatives and a stigmatising benefits system. For them, proper “rest” might look decidedly like busyness, and impossible to achieve.

What is common to both groups is a loss of balance. Rest is the counterweight, the thing that stops us being blown over by whatever winds are prevailing in our lives. The Anatomy of Balance might have been an even more illuminating project.

Phil Whitaker’s fifth novel, “Sister Sebastian’s Library”, is newly published by Salt

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This article appears in the 05 Oct 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's triumph