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Power Through or Rest? How to Make the Right Choice

Do you need a nudge—or a nap?

“I’m tired” or “I just don’t want to?" So many of us struggle with differentiating between the two. On the one hand, taking care of ourselves and listening to our body when we’re tired is important. But on the other hand, sometimes what we justify as self-care becomes an excuse.

So how do we know when to push versus when to rest? When are we best served by a pep talk and diving in, and when are we best served by a face mask and curling up?

To further complicate matters, if you live with anxiety, depression, or chronic pain, it can be particularly challenging to know if you need a nudge or a nap.

Therefore, 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 slow down and 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 part of your everyday—you experience 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 stamina 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 persistent—you’ve felt tired and sluggish all winter and now it’s March, you always get the urge to bail before hanging out with a friend, 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 worn out when faced with social decision-making. When her roommates asked her to join in planning their next group trip, she told them she was exhausted and kicked the can down the road until they got fed up and 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 with him.

But once Ana realized that her mysterious energy drains were a form of avoidance, she was able to turn it around and push through her dread and resistance. In other words, her tiredness fell into the “chronic” camp—it was the consistent and predictable rule, not the exception. Therefore, the answer was to push rather than avoid.

The same may apply to you. In sum, 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, say, take a spin class, search your past experiences for information. Do you usually enjoy spin class? Are you usually glad you did it when you’re done?

In general, if you’ve previously enjoyed whatever you’re feeling ho-hum about, give yourself a gentle push to go. On the other hand, if you’ve always hated it, stop torturing yourself. It’s fine to bail.

Question #3: Can I picture myself there?

Let’s say you’re trying to decide whether or not to go to kickball practice. It’s been a long day, you’re tired, but it’s unclear whether skipping practice is just what the doctor ordered or a cop-out.

Try this: Picture your activity in your mind’s eye. Bring it to mind with all your senses. Visualize the field, smell the grass, hear the pop of your foot making contact with the ball, feel your legs running the bases, and picture chatting with your teammates.

Once you’ve pictured it vividly, ask yourself how you feel. If every ounce of your being is saying no, it’s probably genuine. Go home and rest. But if you feel motivated or energized or enjoy the visualization—even just a twinge—go ahead and go. You’ll probably be glad you did.

Now, notice I didn’t say, “Imagine yourself bailing.” If you tend toward avoidance, picturing letting yourself off the hook can be a slippery slope. Avoidance is a potent reward—it’s a relief to get out of something you dread. Imagining bailing makes it less likely you’ll turn around, lace up your sneakers, and put on the team t-shirt. Therefore, when it comes to visualization, picture doing the activity, rather than avoiding it.

Question #4: Is this in line with my values?

If you’re still not sure if you’re genuinely tired or just being avoidant, consult your values.

Is the activity you’re considering important to you? Would doing it solidify your idea of yourself? For instance, putting a high value on your health means you should probably head to that spin class. Valuing your relationships and reliability means it would behoove you not to miss kickball practice.

In the same vein, is it important to someone you love? If you just want to stay home but your partner has been looking forward to a weekend hike with you, then go. If it’s really important to someone you care about (and you’re in a healthy, not manipulative, relationship) it becomes important to you, too.

Then again, if your friend invited you to a political rally but you’ve never heard of the candidate, your book club is seeing the movie version of that novel you didn’t like, or no one would notice your absence from the class picnic, it’s fine to sit this one out.

A final note: If you do decide to show up, commit. Make your decision a waffle-free zone. Throw yourself in wholeheartedly and you’ll have a much better time than if you’re there with one foot in, one foot out.

To sum up, next time your wheel is off and your axle is dragging, ask yourself if this is the rule or the exception, have I enjoyed this before, can I picture myself there, and is this in line with my values. After that, regardless of whether you decide to push or rest, you’ll know you made the right choice.

More from Ellen Hendriksen, Ph.D.
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