A Black Girl’s Call to Action: Let Yourself Rest

By Jessica Orenstein

Within the first two months of graduate school, I ended up in the emergency room with a rapid heartbeat, shortness of breath, chest pain, and headaches. The doctors sent me home with a heart monitor and a month later told me the cause of my problems was academic stress. The unrelenting hours spent studying, writing papers, taking the lead on group projects, and getting to know my professors in hopes of internship or research opportunities—in addition to trying to maintain a social life—with no rest in between caused an arrhythmia in my heart. The cure, they said, was to slow down. As a Black woman, that was not something I had ever considered an option.

The standards it takes for me, and other Black people, to enter—and remain in—certain spaces are often unrealistic but necessary to advance professionally. These societal norms led me to live a life that felt forced on me—a life where I was always on the go and, consequently, in a state of constant anxiety. The pace I was trying to keep was set long before me. For centuries, Black people in America have been required to work harder than their counterparts, pull themselves up by the proverbial bootstraps, and find workarounds to problems we didn’t create—all while in the face of unfathomable adversity and being painted as lazy. Rest has not been safe for us, so I didn’t rest. 

I ignored the doctors’ advice and went right on overextending myself academically, professionally, and personally. Like many of my Black peers, I also felt the pressure to support my community at all costs. The strong Black woman stereotype, a trope that plagues Black women across the world, was not only placed on me, but was also perpetuated so much across the culture that I had adopted many of the characteristics that inhibited me from taking time for myself.  

I believed that if I didn’t extend help to others all the time, I wasn’t honoring those who helped me get to where I was, I didn’t care about those around me, and I was selfish. And so, years after that first emergency room trip, I experienced a second physical crash—another bout of rapid heart rate and shortness of breath that lasted a few weeks and required a short leave from my second job post–graduate school. 

That is when I said to myself, “I have to make a change.”

Luckily, there is a growing movement to support me and anyone else craving rest. Nap Ministry, an organization that examines the power of naps, is a pioneer in it. The Nap Ministry’s core belief is that rest is a form of resistance. The organization is committed to creating a culture where people within the African diaspora have access to—and feel comfortable with—rest. It is a radical and powerful concept made by and for Black people.  

Embracing rest as an act of self-care can be mentally uncomfortable and challenging at first, not just because of the pressure to work harder than our white peers or because we are fighting a stereotype of laziness, but because as Black Americans, many of us are raised to put our community first. Giving and seeking support in the Black community has been an essential component of our ongoing success despite adversity. It’s the reason I couldn’t slow down the first time the doctors told me to. So my body took matters into its own hands, telling me in no uncertain terms that resting my mind, body, and spirit had to take priority over everything else. 

As the old saying goes, “You cannot pour from an empty cup.” We cannot be productive, supportive members of our communities if we are not also supported. And the best part:

  • Black excellence can still be obtained—if not amplified—by giving as much to our bodies, minds, and souls as we do to our community and our professional and academic lives.
  • We can honor those who came before us, those who were not able to rest, by resting ourselves.

Here are three simple steps you can take to join me in the rest resistance:

1. Take a nap

Depending on your daily responsibilities, it may be difficult to take a break and sleep, so I encourage you to start small. Find a time in your schedule when you can rest, preferably before 2 p.m. to avoid disturbing your sleep cycle at night. Block it out on your calendar, and be sure to set an alarm

2. Get enough sleep

Getting good sleep is one of the best things you can do for your mental and physical health. Days can get busy and revenge bedtime procrastination is real, but the restful reward that comes from getting enough sleep can be profound. Start with the time you need to wake up and work backward to set a bedtime that will allow you to get the amount of sleep recommended for your age

Check out these articles for simple tips to help you fall and stay asleep:

3. Set boundaries

In our fully interconnected, wireless world, many of us approach our personal, academic, and professional responsibilities with a sense of urgency that leaves no room for rest or time to think. Responding to a text or email within seconds after it is sent has become reflexive. Digital availability 24/7, due in part to the constant use of smartphones, has led us down a path of thinking that people are readily accessible at any time of day. It’s unreasonable and the exact opposite of rest. 

Here are some items to include in your boundary-setting starter pack:

  • Block out time on your calendar for rest, refocus time, or a nap.
  • Put your phone on do not disturb/DND. This is customizable to your schedule but can be set up during study or work hours, when you’re sleeping, or when you feel like being alone.
  • Have open and honest conversations with family and friends about your need to rest and prioritize yourself.
  • Use a daily affirmation, such as: “I am worthy and deserving of rest.”

I am not saying that any of this will be easy. You may feel guilty at first for not being there for others as much as you once were. It’s going to take practice and time to undo decades and even centuries of overwork. Over time, and with the support of my community, I have been able to shift my mindset to include space for myself without feelings of shame and guilt. I now know that my community and I both reap the reward of a rested me. Join me in the resistance.

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