We are surrounded by it.
We often create our own.
Some of us theoretically perform better when deep in it!
In a busy corporate existence, it's pretty unavoidable...
But - what if there was a way to balance it??
Purposeful rest and recovery.
It’s an important part of the fitness equation. Yet it’s the one most of us neglect. Building in restful, parasympathetic activities will help keep stress in its place.
The art of de-stressing
One of my favourite quotes is this one:
“The best time to relax is when you don’t have time for it.”
And while it’s true that the best time to relax is when you don’t have time for it, it’s also true that most people have a mistaken view of relaxation. Indeed, we consider our 1 or 2 annual vacations our “time to rest.” Unfortunately, these vacations are too few and far between. And as most of us fill our vacation days with just as much “stuff to do” as when we’re at home, and some will still be 'keeping an eye' on things in the office thanks to the ever-connected world we now live in!!
The important question is this: are we really resting at all?
You see, the ideal way to rest is this: build in some daily recovery time.
Interestingly, athletes tend to do this best. Even though they train very hard, and with very high volume, they also tend to schedule regular, daily naps and other forms of rest in order to promote recovery. They also make sure to “cycle” their stress (training) so that they never burn out. We could all definitely learn a lesson from this approach!
The physiology of stress and relaxation
So, why do we want to build in daily rest time?
Well, to understand this, we have to understand something about our brain. Basically, one way to categorize our brain function is to break it down into the following two categories:
Sympathetic activity – which is often called “fight or flight” activity
Parasympathetic activity – which is often called “rest and digest” activity.
As you can imagine, most of us tend to be much too “sympathetic.” It might be our jobs, our homes, our bills, our relationships, traffic, a global pandemic (!) or any other stressor that throws us into a “fight or flight” state. But whatever it is, chronic sympathetic activity leads to high levels of circulating cortisol and adrenaline, both produced by our adrenal glands (located adjacent to our kidneys).
When stress is chronically high and the adrenal glands continue to pump out cortisol and adrenaline, our “non-critical” functions are inhibited – things like digestion, liver metabolism and detoxification, cellular repair, immune function, and reproduction.
In essence, through several physiological interactions, we end up with:
Poor blood sugar management and insulin resistance
Depression, sleep disruption, and carbohydrate craving
Decreased thyroid conversion and a reduced metabolism
Altered sex hormone activity
Amino acid loss from skeletal muscle
The net result of all of these is hormonal havoc, reproductive dysfunction, muscle loss, and fat gain. Not something we’re after.
But what many don’t understand is that it doesn’t stop there.
With all this cortisol and adrenaline pumping out, eventually, the adrenal glands begin to slow the production of cortisol and adrenaline. Until chronic fatigue sets in. Not a happy prognosis.
Promoting rest and recovery
So, what can we do to prevent this cascade of negative, stress-related outcomes?
Well, the key here is balance.
We’re never going to reduce all of our stress. The job, the relationships, etc. Hopefully, they’re all sticking around. And, truth be told, a certain amount of stress is really good for us.
So instead of focusing on the sympathetic side of the equation, we need to focus on the parasympathetic side.
In other words, we need to engage in more activities that help us create our own parasympathetic state.
What types of activities help us achieve a restful state of relaxation and recovery? Well, there are all sorts of activities that can help with this.
Yoga and Pilates
Popularized in the last few years, certain types of yoga and Pilates are very parasympathetic.
Meditation & Breathing exercises
This type of activity is also a huge help with rest and recovery.
Spa treatments often help achieve that deep parasympathetic state.
This can also help in the war on stress.
Now, don’t get me wrong. You don’t have to visit a Tibetan monk, drop thousands of dollars, or even leave your house to achieve deep relaxation. The following activities can also work well and can be done at home:
Reading in a quiet spot 30 minutes before bed
Drinking warm tea and staring out at a sunset
Chilling out to some calming music before bed or even as we work
Go for a walk
Getting outdoors in fresh air and Vitamin D and moving the body can help calm things down.
Bath and Candles
As 'herbal' as it may sound, creating a calming environment by lighting a few candles and sliding into an Epson salts bath can be a great remedy. Burning the candle at both ends, however, is NOT such a great way to manage stress...
Heck, I’ve even seen quite a few high-level athletes smoke marijuana to achieve this relaxing, parasympathetic state. Now, this isn’t something I necessarily recommend. But in talking to a number of athletes over the years, I’ve noticed a trend. Many male strength and power athletes tend to turn to small amounts of marijuana for recovery purposes. Hence the rise in the popularity of CBD products.
Granted, there are better ways to achieve a parasympathetic state. But that’s the point...
Conversely, some of the things we've naturally turned to in order to relax (such as alcohol or food), whilst providing a relatively immediate response, can have a much more detrimental effect in the long term. They may help with an initial mental calming, but physiologically excessive alcohol or poor food choices can actually put the body under more stress.
What about a full-on workout or going at it on a punching bag for 30mins???
This depends on your current state of stress.... Whilst exercise is commonly known as a great stress reliever, it can push you too far if you're under too much undue stress. Better off finding 30 minutes to create a calm state in order to ease the mind, therefore:
Meditation and/or breathing exercises can both create an excellent parasympathetic stimulus.
It’s all about the state
Just keep in mind the activity you choose doesn’t really matter. It’s the state you achieve. One person could achieve a deep parasympathetic state while relaxing in an epson salts bath. While another might simply lay there and think about all their worries and concerns. Again, it’s the state, not the activity.
In summary, when you get that stressed, overwhelmed, anxious feeling - stop!
Another favourite quote is
"If you don't know where to start..... then stop"
Take a moment to pause and regroup, then prioritise your next steps. In the meantime, take a moment to choose an activity that can help you get 30 minutes of quiet, restful, worry-free parasympathetic activity - ideally every day.
That’s the absolute best way to get control of stress.