There’s a modern-day plague that you may not have heard about. It affects millions but flies under the radar because its symptoms aren’t always obvious. A lot of people you see walking around are afflicted. Maybe even you.
See if this sounds familiar: To the outside world you appear active, alert, and fully engaged. But inside, physically and mentally, you feel a bone-deep fatigue brought on by a combination of not enough sleep and the fast pace of daily life. You’re exhausted, overstimulated, and running on empty. This state of being both tired and wired has a name, coined by sleep specialist Rubin Naiman, Ph.D.: t’wired. And while it may be a catchy term, it’s definitely not a healthy state to be in.
Feeling t’wired means our body and mind are being pulled in two directions at once, explains Naiman. Our natural and complementary rhythms of activity and rest become upended. We end up in “a state of wakefulness that’s no longer balanced out by adequate rest.”
There are two main reasons why we’re t’wired. The first is the cultural pressure to move at warp speed, to accomplish more, to be more productive—to “hack” our life. This phenomenon is perfectly captured in Facebook’s famous business mantra, “Move fast and break things.” Faster-equals-smarter is a quality we admire.
The second is that we’re a sleep-deprived, over-caffeinated, and wired bunch. This state of hyperarousal is fueled by technology (emails! social media! Netflix binges!) and sustained by stress and a loop of anxious thoughts, none of which is conducive to getting a good night’s rest.
“This physiological state causes racing brain waves, a rapid heart rate, overheated core body temperature, and it [messes with] hormonal rhythms,” Naiman says. “And when you’re not fully rested, you’re unable to be fully awake.”
This overstimulation creates a “turbocharged wakefulness,” meaning that many exhausted people don’t even recognize how tired they truly are. The cycle continues each night as we lay our head down on the pillow but can’t fall asleep. The result? More than one-third of Americans suffer from insomnia. Unsurprisingly, over the long term, we pay the piper: Research links insomnia to depression, while chronic physical stress has been linked to a number of health problems.
So how do we break the cycle, since the world isn’t slowing down anytime soon? We need to get more “true rest,” says Naiman. “We confuse rest with recreation—catching a movie, going to hear music, or reading a book. All of which are relaxing—refreshing, even—but they’re not the same thing as rest.” Naiman defines true rest as intentionally cultivating a state of serenity and calm. It’s about stepping on the brakes and coming to a full stop.
Here are three ways to do just that:
1. Plan a digital detox. Many psychologists say we’re not even aware of the toll that our device “addiction” takes on our sleep, focus, and balance. Take a break from your electronic devices for a day—or go all out and put your phone in the drawer for the weekend. Turning off your devices allows for your body and brain to turn off for a bit, too. When you’re not distracted by a buzz, beep, or vibration every few seconds, you can reclaim your time and spend your energy on what you truly want to do.
2. Journal to help quiet your mind and calm your emotional energy. Think of your brain as a hard drive that can get glitchy with limited space. A journal is like the cloud: a place to keep your files (read: worry, fears, stressors) so you can free up space in your head for more clarity and calm. In fact, one study showed that putting feelings down on paper reduces activity in a part of the brain called the amygdala, which is responsible for controlling the intensity of our emotions.
3. Let your mind wander. We have two kinds of attention. The first, “directed attention,” we call on for tasks requiring focus, like driving or doing our taxes. Even seemingly relaxing activities like watching television or reading require our voluntary, directed attention—and directed attention tends to be tiring. The best way to restore our brain is to give it a rest by shifting to the second type, “involuntary attention,” which happens when something captures our attention without any effort, such as spending time in nature, meditating, or looking at art. Nature is an especially powerful source of involuntary attention, with one study showing that, even in winter, a 20 minute walk through a natural environment boosted focus, improved attention span, and lowered stress.
True rest is all about bringing more restfulness into our day and “learning how to cultivate calm energy,” says Naiman. “The goal is to get connected with that quiet stillness.”
Janet Ungless is a New York-based editor, writer, and content strategist with expertise in wellness, health and fitness. She’s written for Prevention, More, Livestrong, and Everyday Health and also worked at exhale mind body spa. Find her on Twitter @jungless