Finding ways to recharge this past year has been difficult. Many of the ways people used to relax, such as going to the gym or grabbing coffee with a friend, weren’t possible. But especially in times of high stress, prioritizing time for mental and physical relaxation is essential if you want to feel your best.

BeWell spoke with Jordana Harshman, wellness manager and certified wellness coach at Stanford Children’s Health, about what it means to relax, how to choose relaxation activities, and tips on fitting relaxation into your day.

What does it mean to relax?

Relaxation and rest are often used interchangeably to mean

  • A state of being free from tension and anxiety
  • Recreation, especially after a period of work
  • The loss of tension in a part of the body, especially when it ceases to contract

Harshman explains that relaxation is not about doing more to do less, or about pursuing a specific form of relaxation that you may not like. Instead, relaxation is giving your mind and body a break to restore your energy, support your cognitive function and regulate your mood.

Check-in with yourself

If you think you’re too busy to make time to relax, or that you don’t really need it, Harshman advises checking in with yourself. Are you feeling your best?

“Noticing how you feel – let alone doing something about it – may seem like a luxury these days, especially after a long and uncertain pandemic year that fundamentally changed or exacerbated workload and other responsibilities. The most important action you can take is checking in with yourself to determine how you feel energetically and develop priorities based on your needs,” she says.

Choose the rest that’s right for you

Harshman cites Saundra Dalton-Smith, author of Sacred Rest: Recover Your Life, Renew Your Energy, Restore Your Sanity, who maintains that we need both sleep and rest in order to maintain our energy throughout the day. According to Dalton-Smith, different kinds of rest can satisfy this need:1

  • Physical: activity that’s somewhere between quiet wakefulness in a hammock and gentle physical movement like yoga, walking or stretching
  • Mental: short, intentional breaks, and stopping to record small wins or three good things that happened during the day
  • Sensory: breaks from screens, noise or other environmental stimuli
  • Creative: taking in wonder and awe through nature, art, or music
  • Emotional: checking in on your own needs, emotions and pausing on attending to others first
  • Spiritual: nurturing a feeling of belonging or connection to something beyond the logistical realm of daily life

Don’t feel like you need to make time to get in all the different types of rest, Harshman says. Choose the one that feels most relevant to your needs. How you rest may vary day to day, and you may include different types of rest into a single day.

Pay attention to your energetic domains

In addition, Harshman says focusing on energy management in lieu of time management, a concept introduced in the book The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working by Tony Schwartz,2 can help you choose the most effective ways to relax. The idea is that time is finite, but energy can be created and expanded. Examples of energetic domains include:

  • Work/career/calling
  • Financial success
  • Partners/spouses
  • Children
  • Family
  • Friends
  • Physical activity
  • Creativity/self-expression
  • Enjoyment/happiness
  • Learning/growth
  • Service to others/community

You might notice that much of your energy is devoted to areas that are obligations. Notice which domains feel energizing, which feel depleting and which feel neutral, and consider how shifting your priorities would change the way you feel.

It’s normal to feel resistant to changing your priorities, especially when you have competing needs that require attention. If you have been managing beyond your capacity for an extended period of time, that might mean you need some additional support. Enrolling in Multi-session Coaching through Healthy Living, seeking support through the Stanford Faculty Staff Help Center, or moving forward with counseling through your health insurance are effective actions that can help you determine what you need, which boundaries are needed to protect your priorities, and how to develop social support to affirm your commitments.

There are no rules when it comes to relaxing

There is no formula for how much time you should spend resting and no rules about what counts as rest, except that it shouldn’t feel like a chore. It’s important to choose something you enjoy so that you’ll stick with the activity and experience positive results. It might be as simple as putting a device away and watching your children or pets or taking a few breaths and lengthening your exhalation.

“To simplify further, you could think of relaxation as a type of pause that leads toward the expression of your best possible self,” says Harshman.

Prioritize rest and sleep

When you find yourself rejecting an act of self-care in order to knock more things off your to-do list, think about whether an external obligation is conflicting with an inner need.

“Prioritizing a never-ending list of tasks can become a default mode that interferes with relaxation and the enjoyment of life,” Harshman says.

If your external obligations are not aligned with the energetic domains that feel personally relevant, consider delegating, rallying support or finding alternative solutions to free up time for relaxation.

And if you’re too tired to engage in self-care activities at all, that may be a sign that you need more sleep. Sleep deprivation is associated with burnout and poor health outcomes, and Harshman recommends prioritizing sleep above other activities.

“Living in a state of relaxation deprivation is not a long-term strategy. It isn’t motivating. Accepting that relaxation will provide you with more energy to meet life demands can help buffer the idea that you should be doing more. Relaxation truly fuels us to be our best selves.”

Healthy Living is offering a two-session class, The Rest of Your Life, that teaches you skills for incorporating rest into your lifestyle.


  1. Dalton-Smith, S. The 7 types of rest that every person needs. January 6, 2021.
  2. Schwartz, T. The way we’re working isn’t working. New York, NY: Free Press. 2010.
  3. Huberman Lab at Stanford. Master stress: Tools for managing stress & anxiety | Episode 10. March 8, 2021.
  4. Stanford Medicine, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. COVID-19 Q&A: Dr. Rachel Manber on sleep disturbances.