As we finish up our series on reinventing our relationship to stress, I wanted to be sure that one of the most important aspects to building stress-resiliency isn’t forgotten about: Rest and Recovery.
Despite all kinds of messaging from productivity podcasts, books on achievement and motivational “experts” telling you that constant hustling is the only way to get what you want in life, I want to offer an alternative. Restorative downtime is just as crucial to our success as hustle.
Because even the Energizer Bunny needs a recharge every once in a while!
Just as your muscles need downtime when you’re working out, so does your brain!
I used to drive 3-hours, each way, all in one day, for keynotes and corporate mindfulness trainings in our closest metropolitan city. I wanted to power through these insanely long days so that I could make it home to my family in record time. But after enough times of being on high alert, and feeling like I was in an all-night video game playing frogger with the local deer population, I thought it would be best to change some habits that would take less of a toll on my brain and body. So I built in a lot more recovery time into my schedule.
Despite what energy drink ads might try to convince us of, we are not meant to pull an all-nighter every day of our lives.
The part of your brain that has you revved up and ready for whatever emergency gets thrown your way is called the Sympathetic Nervous System. This system helps in an emergency, or when you need some energy, but it needs to return to baseline so it doesn’t become detrimental to your health.
What’s the alternative to overusing your sympathetic nervous system?
Well, it’s the parasympathetic nervous system, affectionately knows as the rest and digest antidote to fight or flight.
Engaging your PNS is like getting a spa treatment for your brain. It’s what gives you a feeling of relaxation and contentment.
Having a more active SNS helped us out tremendously when we were dodging tigers and only living to be about 40. But a life of longevity means that we need to return to baseline often and maintain a good balance between the two systems. This is something that today’s 24/7 culture of living life in the express lane doesn’t exactly encourage.
With a jam-packed schedule, I have learned that I need adequate recovery time in order to be successful, balanced and not a raving lunatic in all areas of my life.
A few years ago I was feeling pretty resentful about my work travel. I was in too many time zones, and I was struggling being away from my kids and holed up in another hotel room (cue Jackson Browne’s song “Stay”).
To avoid having each business trip feel like a perpetual stint in the movie “Ground Hog Day”, a friend of mine, who is a CEO of a global company, gave me some key advice. He told me to plan something fun for myself the day after every keynote or corporate training I am doing.
He said it was a game changer for his own crazy travel schedule. And on one trip, he even found a way to combine two of his loves: running and architecture by booking a jogging tour around the city of Prague.
Now when I travel for work I make sure that I build in this key parasympathetic nervous system rest and digest time for myself. I rarely take the red eye and, instead, visit an exotic restaurant that we would never have in my small town. I take in a museum exhibit, visit some cute boutiques, see the sites or just savor a good cup of joe in a cool coffee shop. These are simple pleasures that I never used to allow myself, as I always thought I needed to adrenaline my way home, after already giving it my all on stage.
Even if you don’t travel for work, you probably still are making your prefrontal cortex perform way past its bedtime.
Those work emails you habitually check and answer at 11 pm rob your PNS just as much, if not more, as my old crazy travel schedule. A high allostatic load isn’t too kind to existing neurons, inhibits nerve growth, impairs memory, affects innovation, and decreases self-regulation.
So if you’re not firing on all synapses and only refueling by mainlining sugar, potato chips or caffeine, it might just be time for a more restorative recharge.
Here are a few quick and easy ideas to get you started:
- Take a 5-minute walk outside
- Listen to a relaxing song that you love
- Take 3 mindful breaths between phone calls or meetings
- Make time for your unplugged hobbies in the evenings and weekends
- Set a daily time for digital sunset and power off for the rest of the night
- Practice mindful breathing – inhale to a count of 4 to activate your SNS then exhale to a count of 7 to activate your PNS. You need both and this is a great way to bring them both into balance.
The key to rethinking our relationship to stress truly is balance.
As with our whole series on rethinking our relationship to stress, I want to emphasize that our bodies are intelligent. We need all aspects of our stress response, but in different doses, then we are currently using.
As Dr. Rick Hanson says, we use our PNS to have our days feel less frenetic and more at ease, but we also need a little bit of SNS to give us a boost of enthusiasm and vitality for projects and passions, and then we turn on the SNS full bore when we’re dealing with a true emergency.
Our mindful awareness practice is what helps us to discern which response to use and how much of it will be helpful instead of harmful.
Kristen Race, Ph.D.
and the Mindful Life Team
P.S. Worried that this sounds far-fetched and you’ll never be in a situation where everything on your ever-growing work list will get done so that you can relax? Then you might want to take our upcoming Mindfulness and the Workplace course. It’s an online course and system designed to make you less distracted and more productive, using brain-based mindfulness techniques for a happier, healthier work/life balance. Sign up to be on the VIP notification list to be the first to save your spot (and get a discount!).
For the ultimate rest and digest mindfulness activity – join us for a Mindful Life retreat!