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When is Relaxing, Not Relaxing?

Updated: Nov 7, 2018

Getting a balance between stress and recovery is essential for building resilience. But, many of the activities we think are relaxing may actually be the opposite.



Modern living can be stressful and tiring. So, it’s not surprising that many people are becoming interested in the topic of resilience building. Resilience is often defined as the ability to rebound from setbacks, adapt well to change and keep going in the face of adversity.


Beneath the mountain of ideas and life hacks around resilience building, there sits a basic premise that we are more likely to become resilient if we allow ourselves to properly recover from periods of stress or exertion. Knowing how to properly relax and recover is increasingly important in our always-on world.


As Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz highlight in The Power of Full Engagement, the greater the level of exertion (e.g. putting in long shifts to meet a project deadline) then the more we need to allow for recovery time or else we risk burnout.


A lot of this is common sense, but sadly it is not common practise.

An important question might therefore be…


Why do we find it so hard to recover properly?

An obvious answer would be that we find it difficult to change the unhelpful habits that cause ongoing tiredness. For example, over-working, over-playing, eating foods that don’t energise us, not exercising enough etc.


A less obvious answer however, could be that we find it difficult to recognise that some of the things we do to relax may not be very relaxing. Put another way, we think we are relaxing but in effect, we are not recovering from our exertions.


Proper recovery can only occur when we engage the parasympathetic nervous system. To use a motoring analogy, this is like an inbuilt braking system. When we are striving to perform at work, we are activating the sympathetic nervous system (using the accelerator). This is also the case if we are anxious or angry.


Take Your Foot Off the Pedal

The reason why many people struggle to recover in their free time is that some ‘relaxation’ activities actually continue to activate the sympathetic nervous system. These include doing an intense gym workout (or other active sport), watching a sports match, having a big night in the pub, going to a rock gig or spending too long on social media. Whilst these activities might be a lot of fun they do not usually engage the parasympathetic nervous system and therefore they do not give us recovery.


The parasympathetic nervous system prefers activities that create a sense of inner calm or a sense of deep connection with someone or something else. This explains the recent popularity of mindfulness based activities. It also explains the wisdom behind yoga which proposes physical stretching followed by a period of deep relaxation on the mat (known as shavasana or corpse pose).


Our prevailing state of mind when engaging in seemingly calmer activities is very important for stress management. For example, going for a walk and constantly checking our phone for social media updates or rehashing a recent conflict in our heads, will not lead to recovery. However, walking the same path and being fully present to the sights and sounds around us can be very nurturing.


Finding Your Recovery

It can take some conscious effort to discern the impact of some activities on our nervous system.


Watching television for example can be an either/or activity. If we watch something that is suspenseful, fast paced or violent then of course we are engaging the sympathetic nervous system. Watching the news can often do the same thing. On the other hand, watching an interesting documentary (but not one that makes you mad!) or a feel-good comedy can create the desired calming effect. It’s worth noting that TV content by its nature is designed to stimulate so it can be difficult to find programmes that create inner calm.


So, if TV is tricky territory then what other options do we have? Our client work, using the Firstbeat Lifestyle Assessment tool has revealed the diversity of activities that can switch people into the parasympathetic (or recovery) mode. Simple activities like indulging in a creative hobby, reading a book, meditating, playing an instrument or cooking are common. Even just spending 10 minutes with a child or loved one has been shown to be positive.


Resilience is as important as good nutrition

Remember, activities which create deep connection can also have a very nurturing impact. Dr. Barbara Fredrickson, a leading researcher in the power of emotions, suggests that connection is as important to our wellbeing as vitamins. This might explain why loneliness is considered by some researchers to be as damaging to our health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day (Holt-Lunstad, 2015).


So, making an effort to reconnect sincerely with an old friend or family member can be very beneficial for both of you. Likewise, opting to read your kids a bedtime story instead of watching TV or doing household tasks can create the type of connection that allows our nervous system to switch to that all-important recovery phase.


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