Urban Survival – Rest and Digest: A Guide to Preventing Burnout

 In Health, Inspiration, Yoga & Meditation

With the change of season, and a readjustment to city life after a summer of teaching in nature, I caught the bug that’s going around. It’s that time of year, where it feels like “it is on” – a rush to get everything done before Christmas. I rarely get colds these days, something that I am very grateful for as this wasn’t always the case. When I do get a cold it triggers a memory in me of a few years ago. I was in a cycle of over working, over stressing and didn’t make time for self-care. In fact I didn’t really know what this meant, bar drinking a glass of water before I went to bed after a few too many drinks… I was doing great projects that meant something to me, but I felt like there wasn’t enough time. Everything had to be done by tomorrow and there was a lot on that list… In many ways I haven’t changed much, even after an 18 month ban on “big ideas” I find that my list is still big. I have a lot of enthusiasm for finding ways we can live more connected, sustainable and loving lives. Back in 2012 after I finished the Think Act Vote book, The Future We Choose (now The Future Is Beautiful), I had a spectacular burn out.. To the extent that after two intense years leading that project and putting that book together, I had ran out of steam when it came to the bit of actually sharing the work.

Something had to give and so it did. The signs had been there for a long time before I burnt out. I had a cold every month, I was tired, stressed, depressed. My mentors were telling me to slow down, to allow some space in my mind. But I couldn’t hear any of these warnings. I was motivated by fear. I had cut off the part of me that could listen to my body and so the will I had to get the work done won over my health and happiness, which I know now were vital elements to the success of the project. It got to the point where I was forced to make changes and understand more about what was happening with my body. It ended up taking the form of drastic changes and deep healing as years of always being “on” had made an impact. It was these discoveries that have inspired becoming a facilitator for this work and understanding how our nervous system works.

There is this mode of being that we call “fight or flight.” It’s a mode that we can tap into when we need. Traditionally this was only called for when we were literally being chased by a tiger. We go into an alarm state, which brings us into our sympathetic nervous system. When we are living from this perspective, we create an automatic response that works faster than the thinking part of our brains and makes our bodies ready for action. In essence we are acting like we are under threat. Our neural pathways become very short and fast. Our bodies speed up, tense up and become more alert. All functions not critical to survival shut down. We start to produce stress hormones like cortisol, and our adrenal glands kick in to produce more adrenaline to keep us fired up. Our heart rate and blood pressure increase. Our energy is diverted from our bodies natural healing process, building tissues and eliminating waste.

Most of us that live in the city are constantly in this “fight or flight” mode. It can be triggered by the fast pace of our always on the go lifestyles. With a constant stream of notifications coming in through our phones and a constant pressure of things to do, places to be, and people to please. This mode is stimulated within us when we feel stressed, have a lot of sugar, caffeine, cigarettes or alcohol in our systems or if we have experienced trauma in our lives. Lack of sleep, emotional stress and poor diet can all effect our adrenal glands.

A little stress is of course normal, and needed to be productive, but we need to give our bodies time to naturally repair. This process is called “rest and digest” when we are in our parasympathetic nervous system. This is a state where we give space for healing and regeneration. Our bodies are able to give energy to digesting, eliminating waste and building immunity. Our neural pathways become longer and slower. Our heart rate decreases and we feel a state of calm. We feel composed, maybe quiet even. Totally chilled out… We may even feel lethargic as our body is focused on repairing. Sometimes it feels like we couldn’t move even if we tried, but in a good way.

If you suffer any of the following then chances are your adrenals are working overtime.. stress, anxiety, brain fog, sugar cravings, fatigue, weight gain, inability to focus, low sex drive, insomnia, low immunity, digestive issues, feeling frazzled, depression, the afternoon “crash” or dark circles under your eyes. Of course if you have any of these symptoms in severity, please go and see your doctor. But as a society with the current pressures (and excitements) of urban technology fuelled dwelling, many of us aren’t making enough time to allow our bodies to rest and digest.

In order to get into this state from a biological perspective we need our adrenaline and cortisol levels to be down. It’s very easy to get these levels up, we just need to think of something stressful. But getting into our parasympathetic nervous system requires a bit more, and if you are used to being in “fight or flight” mode all the time, you need some patience and some dedication.. You need to relax.


  1. Spend time in nature – even if you live in a city, there is so much beautiful nature to experience. Parks to walk in, trees to sit by, fresh air to breathe. Nature is naturally healing. Make time to savour it every day even if it’s making your journey to work a little bit longer. Nature attunes us to ourselves and that which is bigger than us, so even picking one tree near your house and noticing how it changes every day and through the seasons can teach us something. If you do live in the city, try and get out into the countryside at least once a month so you can go somewhere quiet and re-charge.
  2. Get enough sleep – scientific studies have shown that we all need 7-9 hours sleep a night in order to function clearly. According to a recent study, if you have six to six and a half hours every night for three nights, your cognitive abilities are the same as somebody who has been awake for 24 hours.. I know there are some famous exceptions to this rule, but we don’t really know how their physical bodies were functioning and some might same that Margaret Thatcher didn’t make “sound” decisions…
  3. Reduce your time with technology – as a self confessed phone addict (this is my confession), I know this one is hard. But turning it off at least 45 mins before you go to sleep can really improve the quality of your sleep. This includes computers, televisions, even kindles – anything that glows. And try and schedule time every day when you don’t have your phone out. I am currently working on not turning it on until I have got up, done my morning practice, showered and eaten breakfast. Having a tech free day every weekend, or at least once a month can be really liberating…
  4. Drink enough water – our bodies are about 60% water and we are constantly releasing water. There are different views on how much to drink. Something between 2-3 litters of room temperature water a day but it depends on your body. Don’t wait until you are thirsty. Create a routine and keep sipping water throughout the day, ideally between meals. Often when we are hungry we are actually thirsty, and many of us mostly drink water when we eat. It slows down our digestion, so it’s better to hydrate separately. Starting the day with hot water and lemon is a brilliant way to wake up our bodies and kick start out system.
  5. Eat well – create a diet that is nourishing for you based on your beliefs and lifestyle. Eat often, don’t skip meals. Avoid processed foods and eat fresh fruit and veg. Eat as many home cooked meals as possible, this way you know they don’t have too much salt like many restaurants and takeaways.  Look into what vitamin and mineral supplements might be beneficial for you. There are many great books and nutritionists that you can consult to work out exactly what you need. Be mindful when you eat. Eat when you are eating.
  6. Reduce your consumption of any ‘dietary stressors’ – alcohol, cigarettes, caffeine, sugar, some diets and overeating. Just being aware of the stress that it puts on our bodies makes a difference. Of course, life is short, so enjoy that cake or drink when it feels right.
  7. Start to understand what is causing the stress in the first place – work on the root cause. You can do this with the support of a good therapist or energy healer. Only 5% of our reactions are to do with the present situation, the other 95% is to do with our patterning from past events or fears we may have. Understanding and resolving the underlying issues is key. Stress and addiction are strongly linked and both are reactions based on our conditioning.
  8. Find relaxing activities that you can do regularly – make a ritual out of it for example blocking out time for a weekly bubble bath with epsom salts (no matter what is going on that week), or to play music, read a book, cook a meal, or go to a yoga class. Book a regular massage. Make time to go on regular holidays so that you can deeply unwind.
  9. Find relaxing activities that you can do daily – it helps to have a daily practice especially first thing in the morning. Giving yourself time to wake up and set up the day. It could include yoga, meditation, a run, cuddles, deep breathing, writing, eating a good breakfast, setting intentions… It’s nice to have an evening and bedtime ritual too. Nourish yourself every day.
  10. Learn how to breathe – place your hands on your belly and notice what happens when you breathe in. I see in my classes that many of us breathe in opposite to how is most beneficial. When you inhale, feel your belly expand outwards, and come in on the exhale. Learn to breathe slowly and deeply. Make time for these kinds of breaths every day. Especially when in high stress situations such as on the tube or just before an important meeting or date.
  11. Learn to meditate and do yoga – the reason that yoga, meditation and mindfulness have become so popular in the west in recent years is because when done properly they are very effective at getting us into our parasympathetic nervous systems and equipping us to handle the demands of modern life with more ease, grace and joy. These practices enable us to understand who we are, what causes our “triggers” and to feel more connected both in terms of to ourselves and to our community. Yoga allows you to listen to your body and release stagnant energy and meditation expands your awareness, amongst many other benefits.
  12. Say No – consider the things that you take on and the things that you don’t have to. This also applies to whatever is currently in your life. When you say no to something, you say yes to giving yourself more time and space to focus on yourself and what you love.
  13. Be where you are – don’t put pressure on yourself to always be perfect or happy. We all have access to anger, sadness and grief for a reason. They teach us something and it’s important for us to be comfortable with our full range of emotions. We don’t always have to be happy, positive and energetic. If we feel another way, we can allow it, learn from it, let it be and know that this too shall pass. Find a way to love yourself in every moment.
  14. Spend time in darkness or low light – we are designed to repair in darkness, so sleeping in the total darkness is best (although quite impossible in the city). Spend your evenings in low lighting and candlelight. Try and limit the time you spend under bright fluorescent lighting, your body processes it like incoming data.
  15. Spend time in restful community – it is really powerful to rest with other people. For example spending your “no tech day” with a loved one can make it more fun and as well as connecting deeper with that person you won’t feel the same itch for your phone.. Having a community that supports you relaxing  is very nurturing. I used to wonder why would anyone go and pay to rest in a restorative yoga class, the truth is that it’s easier to go deeper in a room full of other people doing the same thing. Going to retreats, classes and spas with friends or joining a community like 108 London, can make this drop into “rest and digest” easier and more fun.
  16. Stop being “busy”– you can still get things done. But this idea of being busy all the time is a glorification. It’s a state of overwhelm that we talk ourselves and everyone around us into. We all have a lot of things on our plate. Enjoy what’s on yours or give some of it up. I like to think of my life being full as opposed to busy. When somebody asks how you are, tell them what is lighting you up, or what is challenging you. Give them (and yourself) something real.
  17. Believe in something bigger than you – it’s a lot of pressure when the world is just about “me.” Make a relationship with something bigger than you to get some perspective on your life. It could be through a religion or a spiritual practice, or it could just be by looking up at those stars and that big sky and remembering that you are a tiny (but meaningful) part of a giant galaxy.
  18. Enjoy the small things – the purpose of life is to enjoy every moment whether “good” or “bad”. It is all living. Find a way to be present in every moment (meditation helps with this). That way you can find enjoyment out of the most mundane of things from putting on your coat to doing the washing up. Bring your full awareness and presence to whatever you do.
  19. Be of service – donating your time to support the people around you and the environment makes you feel good and connects you to our shared humanity. Find a local cause that you can get involved in, volunteer, make a difference.
  20. Live in a state of gratitude – it literally makes your cells feel calm. Every night before I go to sleep I say out loud three things that I am grateful for from that day, especially on a “bad” day.
  21. Don’t use this list as another excuse to get stressed – so, you read this and you agreed with some or all of it, and then you didn’t do everything every day. Don’t beat yourself up about it. Full disclosure, I don’t do everything on this list every day. Sometimes I do, and sometimes I feel that I can’t. It’s ok. It’s not easy to build new habits and go against the rhythm and culture of our environment. We are all in this together, pick what you want to experiment with first and make a start.

If you want to learn yoga and meditation with me, come to one of my retreats, or get me to your office with my programme, Wisdom at Work.

Or join my Presence Mentoring programme for a six month fully supported journey tailored to you.

For some more inspiration, here are 9 TED talks on Self-Care

And a little note to all my many teachers who (in workshops, in books and over cups of tea) have taught me the above, or inspired me to discover it for myself. Thank you.

Recommended Posts