Finding Your Optimal Recovery Zone

What is a recovery zone and how do we optimize it?

For one, it’s a term I use with clients to help them understand the relationship between stress and recovery and how it’s ever evolving and unique to each person. And before you say, “oh god, not another stress article”, my aim in writing this is to actually give you a new way of looking at your wellbeing and to also give you confidence around achieving more motivation and willpower.

For two, in order to do that, we do need to go over stress a little bit. Let’s do that now.

Stress is essentially anything that triggers the part of your nervous system that makes you focused, driven, task-oriented, alert, etc. That part of the nervous system is called the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS), also known as the “fight or flight” system. In more historic times, that system would turn on in moments that involved self-preservation, like running away from danger, going hunting, battling, and even sleeping “alertly”.

In more modern times these threats aren’t as apparent, but the triggering of the SNS happens just the same, except more subtly. Examples of this are: taking tests, presenting a thesis in front of peers, going dancing, meeting a new partner’s parents, working out, performing in sports, slamming on breaks to avoid an accident, running late for work, being in debt, walking in a sketchy area at night, etc.

When our SNS is triggered, a number of events happen within the body that allows us to become more present, focused, and alert so that we can accomplish the task at hand. In fact, when it’s operating appropriately, it propels us forward and helps us reach our goals. It is a healthy and necessary part of life.

In the examples above, you’ll see that exercise and enjoyable activities like dancing are in there too. This is done intentionally to illustrate that all activities that “rev us up” are still considered stressors for the body and mind. Whether we consider stress as good or bad doesn’t matter physiologically. In other words, stress is still stress and our body doesn’t discriminate, even if we like a particular stressor over another.

So, if it’s not already a little obvious based on that last sentence, or from your own experiences in life, when our SNS is in overdrive, or in a state of chronic elevated stress, it can be a problem. Long term elevated stress will make you moody, craving, unmotivated, indifferent, depressed, unfocused, lethargic, tired, resistant, etc.

To summarize it more concisely, when we experience appropriate levels of stress, we can actually excel and achieve many things we want. When we have too much stress, however, we are more likely to crash or get nowhere.

The volume of stressors that we are dealing with at a given point is called allostatic load.

This is where the optimal recovery zone comes in. This recovery zone is essentially the sweet spot between not enough stress (low allostatic load) and too much stress (high allostatic load). When we’re in this zone, we will typically feel energized, motivated, flexible, interested in learning or growing, full of willpower.

Where this zone sits is different for each person, is ever fluctuating within his or her lifespan, and is influenced by many factors within a his or her experiences. Factors like:

– Attitude and outlook

– Support network

– Environment

– Genetics

– Management of emotions

– Life experiences

Despite these, there are many ways we can find our the optimal recovery zone. In order to do this, we need to re-define what good and bad stress looks like first.

Good stress, aka eustress, is typically:

– infrequent

– short lived

– lasting less than a few hours

– inspiring

– bettering you as a whole

Bad stress, aka distress, is typically:

– chronic or ongoing

– demoralizing, depressing

– anxiety provoking

– de-motivating

– long duration (days to years)

To take this a step further, let’s look at exercise as an example. Exercise would be considered good stress based on the list above as it is short lived, lasts less than a few hours, is bettering you as a whole, and is inspiring. All signs point to adding it into your life. If you are someone who does not exercise at all, however, and are living in a state of moderate to high stress — say, a 7 out of 10 on a subjective scale — and you add exercise 3-5x a week into your routine, then you are actually adding to your overall bucket of stress.

This is important to understand. Exercise may be considered good stress, but it is still stress. It is not to say you should not exercise. Rather, it is important that you do for its overall benefits, but you should not stop there. In fact, when our stress bucket gets fuller, we have a couple of necessary options if we want to live a healthier, more enjoyable life:

1) Fill up your recovery bucket, and/or

2) Reduce your total stressors, particularly the bad stressors

If you are somebody who is imbalanced in your stress and recovery buckets, then you must intervene. Below are examples of proven activities that help us recover from stress, and are worth applying in your life when you feel out of balance:

– Go on walks

– Get out in nature

– Meditate

– Have sex

– Get a massage

– Socialize with people you are comfortable around

– Snuggle a loved one

– Restorative exercise

– Expressive writing

– Get creative or make things

– Sleep and nap

Things that involve a screen, such as social media scrolling, watching movies or news, surfing the web, etc. are not considered recovery activities because the screen and light stimulate your nervous system behind the scenes. For this reason, I would recommend scheduling down time away from devices, especially in the evening, as doing that will also promote presence, socializing, calm, better sleep, etc.

With our current society operating at a baseline of rapid speed, the majority of folks are tilting the seesaw towards the stress side. Knowing this, I spend most of my time with clients implementing individualized recovery activities so their recovery bucket tilts that seesaw back to balance.

With that said, if you find yourself feeling lethargic, rigid, resistant, unmotivated, lacking willpower, depressed, or negative in your mindset, it is likely you are imbalanced and need to dedicate yourself to some deliberate recovery. Your goal is to implement recovery activities until you begin to “organically” feel more balanced in your energy, motivation, and interests in pursuing goals or learning. This can take days, months, or even years, depending how long and how intensely you’ve been in your state of stress.

The type of recovery you will need can also be very specific depending on what your primary stressors might be in your current phase of life. For that reason, it is prudent that you take inventory of your life and see where you need to intervene. If this part is something you are struggling with, or aren’t sure how to do, I am happy to get you started and support you as long as you might need. It is entirely doable with good strategy, support, and commitment, which is something I can show you (without it adding stress to your life)!

Dr. Meg

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