To successfully recover from stress, it’s important to do more than just substitute work with a different activity as part of ‘recovery time’. (Going to the gym is not recovery if it takes extra energy to make yourself go in the first place!) Incorporating genuine recovery (described in more detail below) into our daily routines makes us less overwhelmed and anxious. This improves our ability to cope with stress when it is unavoidable.
In this series of four blogs, psychologist and resilience specialist Dr Lindsay Joyce will talk about managing job change stress when transitioning between different roles. Lindsay has a consulting background herself but retrained as a psychologist when she realised that she was becoming hindered by stress. With her colleagues at The People Project, she now works with individuals and organisations to help them to discover their own resilience. Connect with her at the-people-project.com
In this instalment, we’re going to be thinking about how to utilise our recovery system in order to ensure that we are fit and powerful stress sprinters, rather than overwhelmed and injured stress marathon runners.
The body’s restorative process
At its most basic, recovery is the body’s restorative process. It’s when the calming parasympathetic nervous system is in control, as opposed to the ‘accelerator pedal’ that is the sympathetic nervous system. You might have heard of this recovery state referred to as the ‘rest and digest’ mode.
At a physiological level, this makes perfect sense. Athletes take rest days in order to avoid over-training. They know that the threat and drive systems require lots of energy, which the recovery system then replenishes.
But, in psychological terms, it’s in the recovery phase where the ‘cognitive’ brain can cause disruption.
I work with many clients who tell me that they’re already engaging in recovery time. For example, they watch TV in the evenings, go training at the gym, or they spend time browsing online. But, when we explore this further, the client notices that the activity they’re engaging in actually places more demand on their drive or their threat systems. A simple example would be the amount of drive system that I require to get me to the gym. I feel great afterwards, but I’ve still been depleting my energy reserves and placing stress on my body. Or, I think I’m recovering and relaxing when I sit on the sofa with a cup of tea and my twitter feed, but as my cognitive brain chatters with self-comparison, I’m actually inadvertently firing up those threat and drive systems again and burning through more of my precious energy.
So, psychological recovery time is about more than being physically still. It’s about finding strategies to trigger the recovery system’s ability to build calm, kindness and safety.
The recovery system is a tricky one to ‘sell’. It’s not motivating and exciting like the drive system, and it’s not overwhelming and unpleasant like the threat system.
But, its effects can be powerful when you want to perform at your best.
The benefits of recovery
You see, when you’re experiencing recovery on a daily basis you are better able to be calm, persuasive, engaged and creative. In fact, probably all the things you want to be when you’re exploring new roles and opportunities.
A good place to start is to aim for thirty minutes of time each day where you can do something kind for yourself. This isn’t exciting, addictive, drive system-y time full of action, adrenaline or booze. This is the grown-up version of tucking yourself in for a bedtime story. Find something calming and engaging to read (anything that captures your imagination works well), get comfy, and stop trying to engage with anything else. One of my clients described it as a moment where you don’t have to “be anything to anyone”. And then just try to relax and enjoy.
Nothing magical will happen. Indeed, you won’t get an adrenaline rush, hear your brain re-wiring, or see your body starting to rebuild and recover. But, little by little, you might start to notice that you feel less overwhelmed on a daily basis, that you’re able to think a bit more clearly, and that you’re no longer being swept along by a marathon.
You might even feel ready for a short, powerful sprint.
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