Feeling Restless? Read this Definitive Guide.

by Scott Jeffrey

Restlessness. It’s so common that it often avoids our detection.

Put simply, feeling restless makes us irritable. And we’ll do anything to get rid of this feeling.

For this reason, restlessness is at the core of most of our irrational behaviors and addictive tendencies.

Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung called restlessness the primary neurosis of our time—and he made that observation over 60 years ago.

I believe his observation is even more accurate today than it was then. And global research on anxiety disorders published in Psychological Medicine confirms this: Anxiety is on the rise around the world.1Baxter, A., Scott, K., Vos, T., & Whiteford, H. (2013). Global prevalence of anxiety disorders: A systematic review and meta-regression. Psychological Medicine, 43(5), 897-910. doi:10.1017/S003329171200147X

So what’s going on here? And what can you do about it?

By the end of this guide, you’ll be armed with practical and effective strategies to combat restlessness without medication, sedation, or escape.

Let’s dive right in …

What is Restlessness?

Restlessness is a form of neurosis. Neurosis is excessive and irrational anxiety or obsession. It’s a sign of mental imbalance. That is, the root problem is in the mind itself.

Neurosis produces unnecessary stress that often leads to depression and feelings of helplessness.

Restlessness implies an inability to be still—to come to rest, to be able to stay present or to fully enjoy periods of reverie, wandering, and inactivity.

Are You Feeling Restless? Here are the Signs …

Signs of restlessness abound in our modern world:

  • A continuous need to be doing something (working, eating, drinking, watching, checking your phone or social media, etc.)
  • Tossing and turning at night, having a restless sleep
  • An obsession with the new and novel
  • Edginess and agitation that leads to emotional outbursts
  • Physical pain and numbness in various regions of your body

We can observe cultural trends that reinforce our restlessness. To call out a few:

  • A materialistic, consumer- and brand-driven culture
  • An obsession with image and bodily appearance
  • The eternal pursuit to accumulate more money, titles, and things
  • Parents chauffeuring their kids to an endless procession of activities
  • A collective addiction to social media

It’s profoundly difficult to avoid feelings of restlessness in modern life.

Discovering the Source of Restlessness

Most medical websites suggest that the cause of restlessness is some biochemical imbalance or medical-related issue.

While that’s possible, in my experience, biochemistry is more often an effect and not a cause. Disorganization in the psyche itself is usually the root cause of these mental disturbances.

Jung believed that restlessness is a symptom of people who are not actualizing their potential, people who are living in discord with their true self.

In The Way of the Dream, Jungian analyst Marie-Louise von Franz explains,

“Restlessness is caused by a surplus of bottled-up energy, which makes us fuss around all the time because we are not connected with the dream world or the unconscious. That energy can take the form of an all-pervading anxiety, a fear that somewhere, something dark is lurking and might happen at any minute.”

We become anxious about nothing at all. Underlying anxiety becomes a standard part of our daily existence, often accompanied by feelings of irritability, aggressiveness, or meaninglessness.

Disconnection from Dreams: The Cause of Restlessness?

Can von Franz be right? Can being disconnected from the dream world be the source of our restlessness?

To better understand how this might be so, we need to take a quick look at how the Buddhist and Hindu traditions view dreams.

levels of reality dreams

From their understanding, there are four basic levels of reality:

  1. The Gross: The physical realm
  2. The Subtle: The dream world
  3. The Causal: Deep Sleep
  4. Nonduality

We are most familiar with the gross world. It’s the 3-dimensional plane from which our egos operate in the waking state.

The subtle realm is the dimension of our dreams and imagination.

So here’s where things get interesting: while we might believe dreams “aren’t real,” from the perspective of these traditions, the dream state is more real than our physical reality.

Consider if this is true, and we’re primarily disconnected from this dream world, wouldn’t that be an obvious source of our restlessness?

How the Jonah Complex Induces Restlessness

Interestingly, psychologist Abraham Maslow’s findings are consistent with Jung.

While Maslow’s field focused on treating mental illness, he chose to study positive mental health. But he ran into a problem.

He had a difficult time locating enough subjects that exhibit signs of positive mental health.

As he formulated his theory of human behavior based on the hierarchy of needs, he slowly discovered a select few subjects who he termed “self-actualizing individuals.”

You see, from the perspective of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, anyone who is still actively pursuing their basic needs—biological, safety, belonging, and esteem—are, by definition, neurotic.

These unmet needs create internal tensions that trigger anxiety, depression, and listlessness. (For a detailed look at how these tensions operate in us, see this guide.)

Maslow’s findings along with entire fields of research from humanistic psychology, developmental psychology, and transpersonal psychology suggest that positive mental health and mature adulthood is rare.

So now we can see a more clear picture:

Most individuals around the world are feeling restless right now.

Maslow had a term for individuals who weren’t living their potential. He called it the Jonah Complex. He often warned his students:

“If you deliberately plan to be less than you are capable of being, then I warn you that you’ll be deeply unhappy for the rest of your life.”

I feel Maslow’s warning in my body each time I read it.

feeling restless

Restlessness Triggers These Behaviors …

When we fail to understand the source of restlessness, we invariably seek remedies in the usual places:

  • Consumption (food, drugs, alcohol, sugar, products)
  • Distraction and diversion (television, social media, porn, etc)

In truth, we’ll do almost anything to avoid feeling restless.

These behaviors, again, are symptoms. And unfortunately, these behaviors are habit-forming.

(See this guide on impulse control and breaking bad habits for practical strategies.)

Restlessness, then, can lead us on a downward spiral.

How to Resolve Feelings of Restlessness Once and For All

Okay, now that we have a clearer understanding of the restlessness problem, let’s highlight what we can do about it.

Not surprisingly, all of the following solutions are inter-related.

Strategy #1: Follow Your Bliss So You’re Doing What You Enjoy

Grab hold of a powerful insight from the late mythologist Joseph Campbell who often suggested to his students that they “follow their bliss.”

Here’s the original quote from Campbell’s famous interview with Bill Moyer captured in the Power of Myth:

“I even have a superstition that has grown on me as the result of invisible hands coming all of the time—namely, that if you do follow your bliss, you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living. When you can see that, you begin to meet people who are in the field of your bliss, and they open doors for you. I say, follow your bliss and don’t be afraid, and doors will open where you didn’t know they were going to beWherever you are, if you are following your bliss, you are enjoying that refreshment, that life within you, all the time.

Maslow often had a similar remark for his students:2Maslow, Abraham H. (1943) “A Theory of Human Motivation.” Psychological Review, 50, 370-396.

“A musician must make music, an artist must paint, a poet must write, if he is to be ultimately happy. What a man can be, he must be. This need we may call self-actualization.”

The essential message is to find what you enjoy and immerse yourself in it.

Strategy #2: Explore Your Dreams to Connect with the Unconscious

Freud saw dreams as merely a rehashing of events from prior days and memories from childhood. Jung discovered an extraordinary third source of dream content: the wisdom of the two-million-year-old human being, the “age-old unforgotten wisdom stored up in us.”

Jung saw our restlessness and other neurotic behaviors as symptoms of being disconnected from one’s dream life—from the wisdom of our inner world.

This wisdom, according to Jung, exists as a living potential within each of us. We access this wisdom through our dreams, which provide a bridge between the ego and our inner world every night when we enter REM sleep.

Neurotic tendencies like restlessness are often a result of what Jung called one-sidedness—holding fixed, rigid, and sometimes extreme perspectives about yourself, the world, and life.

Jung found that our dreams (and imagination) can help us adjust from our one-sidedness. They can help us see and embrace new perspectives and open up new doorways for internal and external exploration.

Modern research supports Jung’s findings. For example, Rosalind Cartwright, a sleep researcher at Chicago’s Rush Medical Center and author of The Twenty-Four Hour Mind, has shown that individuals who recall their dreams heal more quickly from depressive moods associated with divorce.3D. Cartwright, Rosalind. (1996). Dreams and adaptation to divorce. Trauma and dreams.

By keeping a journal by your bedside and recording your dreams upon awakening, you take the first step in reviving your dream life and putting an end to your restlessness.

See also: How to Access Your Imagination

Strategy #3: Cast Your Vision to Clarify Your Future Self

Your personal vision for your Future Self links to your bliss and dreams.

As a coach and guide to others, I’ve found the most significant challenge with vision is casting one that’s your truly your own.

What do I mean?

We’re conditioned through early childhood to follow orders. Our parents and teachers are always telling us what to do, sometimes overtly, but always subconsciously through their behavior.

And this programming has a way of stripping us of our innate spontaneity.

So when we’re tasked to clarify our vision, we invariably turn our attention to what our parents and society expected of us—and we don’t even know it!

The result? Resistance.

When you elect to do things that go against your interests, your unconscious lets you know it.

Do you want to establish a vision that inspires you?

The Life Path Builder is designed primarily for this purpose. In this online course, I walk you step-by-step through a proven coaching process to clarify your vision and establish a dynamic life plan.

Strategy #4: Clarify Your Values to Align Yourself

Values are another powerful tool we often discuss here that can help remedy restlessness.

When you’re living in discord with your values, you’re going to feel restlessness. For example, if you’re selling yourself out in some way, you’re going to be fidgety.

And when you don’t know your values, you won’t be able to identify the source of your restlessness.

So what do you stand for? You can go through this core values discovery process here.

Or, if you’re serious about discovering your core values and integrating them into your daily behavior, see the Core Values Workshop.

Strategy #5: Improve Your Sleep to Restore Your Energy

Restless sleep is another common problem.

While the internal terrain is vital to address, our external environment often works against us too.

From over-stimulation from watching TV to the blue light and EMF infiltrating our homes and bombarding our biology, it’s becoming more difficult to have a restful night’s sleep.

I cover a host of strategies to address these environmental issues and restore your sleep in this in-depth sleep guide.

Strategy #6: Find Your Center to Get a Grip

When you’re feeling restless, there’s an archetype in the driver’s seat of your consciousness.

For example, it might be …

  • A Tyrant who is demanding service with some exotic form of entertainment.
  • An Addicted Lover seeking a specific kind of stimulation.
  • A Romantic looking to fall in love and experience passion and drama.
  • Or a sadist aching to torture someone.

The psychic landscape is vast. And even though you may not know what archetypes are giving you the feeling the restlessness, you can always return to your Center.

The Center is an internal space that’s calm, empty, active, and alert. From here, you can observe what’s happening within yourself from a state of neutrality.

From your Center, you can rise above the feeling of restlessness and merely witness it.

Strategy #7: Stand Still to Sink Your Energy

What do I mean here?

You already feel restless, and I’m suggesting you stand still? Am I sadistic?

Perhaps. But as Marie-Louise von Franz noted above, restlessness is a result of stored up energy.

From a qigong perspective, we might amend her statement to say energy that’s blocked and not flowing naturally throughout your body.

So instead of trying to do something about your restlessness, stand still. Stand, let go, open your body, and witness what’s happening inside of you.

This form of standing is, in my experience, one of the most potent practices an individual can use. The method itself is thousands of years old, and it’s the foundation of qigong and all of the internal martial arts like Tai Chi.

If you’re interested in exploring this topic more deeply, see this guide on a standing practice called Zhan Zhuang.

Strategy #8: Own Your Rage and Envy to Keep it From Building Pressure

What does rage have to do with restlessness?

Well, we live in a System that generates certain projected ideals of image, wealth, beauty, and status.

Those who have more, consciously or unconsciously tease or look down upon, those who have less. And there’s always someone who has more—and others who have less.

Conversely, those who have less, invariably envy those who have more.

So by the end of childhood, we’ve all been subjected to a fair amount of teasing, bullying, and cruel behaviors. Some of it is conscious, but the vast majority of these traumatic experiences store up in the body (the unconscious).

This teasing creates a reservoir of repressed rage within each of us. Emotional outbursts and tempers occur when the pressure cooker goes passed containable levels.

What can we do with this rage? Often, we can just acknowledge it and experience it to a degree, but without becoming overwhelmed by it.

Doing so can often lower the volume on the edginess this repressed rage creates within us.

Strategy #9: Confront Your Shadow So You Can Stand Your Ground

We also feel restless when we’re running away from our shadow. What does that mean?

The personal shadow is everything about ourselves we don’t fully know, see, or acknowledge.

If you find that you frequently …

  • Judge others,
  • Envy others,
  • Become emotional reactive,
  • Can’t look at yourself in the mirror, or
  • Observe recurrent patterns in relationships

Then your restlessness could be a sign of avoiding the hidden aspects of yourself.

The answer? Turn and face your shadow.

See this complete guide to shadow work for more details.

Playing with Restlessness

Restlessness is merely a sign or symptom of something out of alignment within you.

We can perceive the source of neurosis as being physical, biochemical, emotional, mental, or spiritual. And we can approach this issue from many avenues simultaneously.

When you’re feeling restless, you can:

  1. Connect with your interests and follow your bliss.
  2. Explore your dreams and imagination.
  3. Cast your vision of your future self.
  4. Clarify and reaffirm your personal values.
  5. Improve and restore your sleep.
  6. Find your center and observe yourself.
  7. Stand still and open your body.
  8. Acknowledge your rage.
  9. Confront your shadow.

Play around with the above strategies and see what opens up within yourself.

Now It’s Your Turn

I hope you enjoyed my guide to overcoming restlessness.

What did you think? Or perhaps you have a question?

Either way, let me know by leaving a brief comment below right now.

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