It happens to everyone. You’re supposed to go out, work out, or otherwise be active, but your energy is lower than a three-watt bulb. Are you actually tired? Or just being lazy or avoidant? This week, Savvy Psychologist Dr. Ellen Hendriksen offers four ways to tell when you should push and when you should rest.
Courtney from Melbourne, Australia wrote in and said she struggles with differentiating between "I’m tired" and "I just don’t want to."
Courtney notes that she prioritizes getting sufficient sleep and taking care of herself. But sometimes, she notes, what starts as self-care becomes an excuse, resulting in her not achieving other goals. How can she know when to push and when to rest?
Courtney, I’m so glad you asked this question because it’s something that so many of us struggle with. Particularly if you live with anxiety, depression, or chronic pain, it’s challenging to know if you should give yourself a nudge, or if you’re actually tired and should take a breather.
It’s a dilemma because each choice can backfire. On the one hand, sometimes pushing through is sheer folly. We check every last box on our to-do list, muttering “No pain, no gain,” but end up in a deeper hole of exhaustion or pain. We push, but then we pay.
On the other hand, in a culture that fetishizes productivity and achievement, deciding to rest can feel like we’re making excuses or being lazy. Our inner critic gleefully flogs us. Our rest is ruined with second guessing and regrets.
Things get even more confusing because sometimes we overdo the rest. Everything feels overwhelming, so we end up binge-watching Netflix and eating aerosol cheese straight from the can. But too much time on the sidelines amplifies our pain, worsens our mood, and makes getting out of the butt-shaped dent in the couch that much scarier.
Therefore, this week, here are four questions that answer the question: Should I power through or power down?
Question #1: Is This the Rule or the Exception?
First, let’s take a page from the chronic pain literature to help us decide when to push and when to rest.
Usually, pain is a sign to rest. If you’re hobbling around on a sprained ankle or you got a concussion two days ago, definitely take time out.
But when pain becomes chronic, the equation flips like a pineapple upside down cake.
When pain is the norm—chronic low back pain, stiff knees, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue—too much rest can make you feel worse. Here, it pays to push a bit. Pace yourself, of course, but in general, moving your body and engaging with life actually builds your strength and energy rather than draining it.
The same wisdom can be used when it comes to mood. If your day was the emotional equivalent of an acute injury—your cat died, you had an isolated panic attack—go ahead and rest and recoup.
But if your low mood or anxiety is chronic—you’ve felt tired and sluggish all winter and now it’s March, you always get the urge to bail before going out with friends, or you had your third panic attack this week—err on the side of pushing through.
For example, a former client with social anxiety—let’s call her Ana—would get mysteriously tired when faced with social decision-making. When her roommates asked her to join in their spring break vacation planning, she told them she was too exhausted right then, and put it off until they made plans without her. When a male friend hinted he might have feelings for her, Ana felt the energy drain out of her to the point where she couldn’t even engage in conversation.
Once she realized her sudden tiredness fell into the “chronic” camp and that her energy drain was actually avoidance, she was able to turn it around.
Same for you—if your distress is out of the ordinary, rest. But if it’s the norm, give yourself a nudge, especially when considering the next clue. Which is...
Question #2: Have I Enjoyed This Before?
If you’re feeling too tired to go to, say, spin class, search your past experiences for information. Do you usually enjoy spin class? Are you usually glad you went?
In general, if you’ve previously enjoyed whatever you’re feeling ambivalent about, nudge yourself to go. On the other hand, if you’ve always hated it, stop torturing yourself. It’s fine to bail.