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Learning to Rest

Resetting the Nervous System, Relearning Skills

It’s been over two weeks since leaving the full-time workforce and I still don’t really feel rested. I’ve been sleeping a lot more, working on supporting my body and respecting what it is telling me, and keeping up with the house and the kid. I’ve been able to take it easier on bad pain days and work on my coaching clients, group offerings, and website. That’s all been great, but I’m still running on stress and adrenaline half the time, and it’s an addiction that my brain finds damn hard to break.

We live in a society that strongly ties productivity to worth, and only prioritizes certain types of “work.” There is a book titled Rest is Resistance, and I wholeheartedly believe in that concept. Rest is not something a person should have to earn, it is a human need. Now if I could just decolonize my brain enough to not feel guilty, that would be great.

Apart from the background feelings of guilt, I’m also dealing with a very real and not often talked-about side effect of unmasking: skill regression. Basically, since beginning to listen to and respect my body and my limits, I’m having a much harder time doing things that I used to be able to power through. So even though I’m resting MORE, taking it even slower, I am still struggling to complete chores, practice gentle movement, stay focused on work tasks, and keep up with the demands of adulthood.

There hasn’t been a lot of research done on skill regression yet, but there are a few theories as to why this happens. My favorite has to do with unmasking, state dependent learning, and neural pruning. Basically, your thoughts, actions, and patterns are all based on how your brain connects ideas and experiences. “Neurons that fire together, wire together” is a neat way of saying that your brain makes strong associations between behaviors or events and your emotional state of mind. Your internal state can be strongly connected to things you learn, including facts and information like memorizing for a test, but also to skills and abilities.

There are lots of examples of those neural connections that you might already know. Do you know someone who just CAN’T go near seafood again after a food poisoning experience, or do you have a certain song that makes you feel excited and happy because it’s connected to a memory you have? Just like memories and feelings can be tied to unrelated things, so can your learned skills. Basically, what you learn in one state, like being stressed, under the influence of caffeine or alcohol, or when totally relaxed, can be hard to access again if you are in a different state of mind.

There were several experiments done on this that showed similar results. If you learn (encode) information such as a list of new words under one set of conditions, it is easier to remember (retrieve) the information when you are in the same conditions. Three different experiments over the years have tested participants when they were underwater versus on dry land, when under the influence of drugs versus sober, and in a sad versus neutral emotional state. In all three experiments, the participants were able to retrieve new, learned information better when having the same mood or feeling in which they learned it.

Neural pruning is another good concept to know - our brain is constantly making connections as well as trashing old connections that are not used as often. This is why if you don’t use a new language often, you will start to forget how to speak it, and why grown adults often cannot remember how to skip! Use it or lose it - and this pruning process can be deliberate or totally unconscious.

So how do these concepts apply to an adult or teen in burnout recovery? Let’s dive in, and I’ll try to explain how these things have applied to me recently.

A big part of my burnout recovery journey has to do with reducing my overall stress. Living as a high-masking “high functioning” person for over 30 years has meant that I’ve had to ignore my own body’s needs, push past my limits of stress and exhaustion on a daily basis, and run on adrenaline and cortisol for WAY longer than is healthy. We need stress to grow, but prolonged high levels can throw you into constant fight-or-flight. Stay there long enough, and you end up in total shutdown, and years of elevated cortisol can lead to serious health issues.

That’s what I’ve been experiencing lately and the main focus of my campaign to rest and recover. To reduce my daily stress I have been staying home more, talking to fewer people, taking on fewer responsibilities, stimming more freely, and listening to my body. I have also been actively trying to avoid overextending myself and using coping mechanisms that are not supporting my recovery journey.

When I am successful in this, it means that my brain can start to wake itself back up from the stress fever dream of the last couple of decades. I have to prod my nervous system out of total shutdown, practice resilience and coping with moving back up through that fight or flight response, and finally work to maintain balance in an engaged state. To do that, I have to discard years of habits, masks, and behaviors that are harmful to me at the end of the day.

This is where neural pruning comes in! As I move away from old habits, behaviors, and coping skills, some of those paths and connections get pruned as my brain tries to actively direct resources where they are most needed. But what happens if a skill, ability, or constructive habit was connected to some of those pruned paths, and what does that look like?

In practice, this looks like thinking about the week ahead and not knowing where to start on meal planning for the next few days. Standing and staring at the sink full of dishes and not being able to figure out how to restack them so water doesn’t flood the counter when I turn on the faucet. Needing gentle nudges from others to remember to eat, prioritize chores, and pay bills. Not having the energy to reach out to friends and family, or feeling like I don’t even know what to say when I finally do.

Remember where I said in the beginning that my brain was addicted to stress to function? Enter the synthesis of neural pruning and state-based learning. In essence, I initially learned a lot of my “adulting” skills under conditions of intense stress, masking, and overload. I have practiced these skills for most of my life under these same conditions. So when I move my brain and body into a more rested and healing state, it is not as easy for me to access those skills. Essentially, I have to re-teach myself how to “adult” at a pace that is healthy, and find internal motivators to keep me moving.

Think of writing an essay. Have you ever, or do you know people who have, written a HUGE essay the night before it was due? The brain is dependent on that last-minute pressure to kick the adrenaline into high gear and overcome the block to task initiation. You can double down, focus, and really be productive - but only under intense stress and with a looming external deadline. To break that habit, you have to work on the foundational skills of self-inhibition, time management, organization, planning and prioritizing, working memory, and much more.

To support this in my daily life, I have incorporated plentiful reminders, visual supports, and adaptations to make tasks easier. I have cut down on the number of choices I have to make in a day to reduce decision fatigue. I ask for help initiating chores and to finish them if I get tired prematurely. I focus on the good that completing tasks will bring to my daily life and remind myself that I deserve to live in a clean, navegable space and a fed, hygienic body.

Nonetheless it is still exhausting to re-teach myself how to be an adult, and to really address my internalized ableism around our society’s ideas of independence. For many, many ND people, the level of support you need to be really functional in your daily life may be fairly substantial. I have always considered myself low support needs because I’ve been able to hold down a job, but at the end of the day I can’t feed myself or keep my space organized - so am I really functional without help?

I hope to get more of my motivation, organizational skills, and energy back as time passes. But in the meantime if I seem distracted, absent, or struggling - it’s because I’m figuring out how to settle into this more adaptive and affirming lifestyle. It’s not easy, and there are no real guide books, but I think in the end it will be worth it to not keep hitting these deep periods of burnout every few years.

Follow along on my burnout recovery journey, and stay tuned for occasional freebies like printables, goal banks, and affirmations!

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