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Chronic Illness

Rest and Chronic Illness

A lesson from sea anemones.

Katie Willard Virant
Source: Katie Willard Virant

I took a walk on the beach the other day and came across some sea anemones. As you might know, sea anemones contract when threatened, closing up their tentacles to protect themselves. When danger has passed, they open up again, exposing themselves to the environment. As I watched these creatures contract and open, I marveled at their innate flexibility. When they sensed danger, they retracted. When they sensed safety, they re-opened. We humans can learn from sea anemones, as we function best when we react to our environment in a nimble, flexible manner. The opposite of flexibility is rigidity — a state in which we can’t easily maneuver between states of retraction and openness.

Living with chronic illness requires a particularly heightened need for this type of adaptability. When we’re feeling relatively well, we can engage more with the world around us. We can work harder and play harder. When we are flaring, we learn that retracting into ourselves — resting more and engaging less — is a course of action that can contain or minimize symptoms and disease progression.

For many of us, this retraction is emotionally painful. We miss the freedom to work and play and take care of our families. We worry that we are shirking responsibilities and letting other people down. We fear we will be forgotten as others move forward in their lives and leave us behind. We are angry to be burdened with an illness that curtails our freedom and narrows our choices.

As I watched the sea anemones contract and open, I felt a sense of peace. Their retraction was a healthy adaptation to potential danger. It wasn’t a failure; it wasn’t a limitation. It was an asset and a marker of health. What if we were to reframe our own retractions in this way? That is, we don’t slow down because there is something wrong with us; we slow down because there is something right with us. When we listen to our bodies and rest, we are responding to cues in a manner designed to optimize our health. In a way, retracting is a position of strength, rather than weakness.

Yes, but ... There are co-workers counting on us, dishes in the sink, children to be cared for. There are friends we want to see, experiences we want to have, tasks we want to complete. Can we trust that some things can wait? That retraction is a pause rather than a final exile? That we retract in order to gain energy so that we can immerse ourselves more fully in our environment when we re-emerge?

I list below some tips that may make retraction a smoother, less fraught process.

Accept that you require times of retraction. Whether living with illness or not, we accept that we need to sleep nightly without questioning the legitimacy of this requirement. Can we treat retraction as we treat sleep — a rest that is essential for optimal functioning? We needn’t feel ashamed of needing more rest; rather, we can feel pride in responding to what our body requires from us.

Build spaces in your schedule to accommodate retraction. I ask clients to track their sensations and experiences in an attempt to gauge the daily and weekly rhythms of their bodies. Do you tend to have difficult mornings or hit a wall in the late afternoon? Do you need a break mid-week? Do you need a weekend day of rest? The goal is to build in time for rest before the body becomes too stressed. It’s much easier to take that break when you’ve already built it into your schedule.

Acquire support to facilitate retraction. Perhaps you need a nap in the afternoon and are caring for a child. Can you hire a teenage mother’s helper to cover child care? Maybe mornings are particularly hard for you. Will your office allow you to move your hours forward? It can be difficult to ask for accommodation, especially if we have internalized a sense of shame about our illness. Reframing our requests as matter-of-fact solutions designed to improve experience may help. We don’t apologize for requiring glasses to correct our vision, struggling along by squinting because we don’t dare ask for the accommodation of eyeglasses. Similarly, acquiring support to facilitate needed rest periods will enable us to function more productively. We’re setting ourselves up for success rather than accepting mediocrity.

Give up perfection and shoot for “good enough.” During this holiday season, for example, you may not be able to decorate the house, bake five dozen cookies, and shop for your entire extended family. Think ahead to what you can do comfortably and let go of what you can’t. It will be more enjoyable to do one activity with energy and vitality than to do three activities with a feeling of overwhelm and fatigue.

Make retraction pleasurable. It is useful to see rest periods as a “time in” rather than a “time out.” We are gathering our resources and resetting our bodies. Find a place that is comfortable and aesthetically pleasing. You may enjoy a soft blanket, an aromatic candle, and quiet activities to pass the time. As retraction becomes an accepted part of your schedule rather than something to be avoided and dreaded, find ways to enhance the experience rather than just get through it.

Like sea anemones, we need to be able to move between retraction and exposure, between rest and engagement. Let’s normalize the need for rest and celebrate the emotional flexibility we exercise when we listen to our bodies and respond appropriately.

How do you move between rest and engagement? What tips would you share with others who live with chronic illness?

More from Katie Willard Virant MSW, JD, LCSW
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More from Katie Willard Virant MSW, JD, LCSW
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