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The concept of yin and yang is a familiar one: It’s a natural state of balance where two opposite phenomena are harmoniously interconnected. Rest and stress are similarly connected — you need stress to grow, but you won’t reap the benefits (and actually grow) unless you also have sufficient rest.
If you’re like most adults, you’re probably very good at applying the stress side of the equation, but it can be hard to remember (and make time) to balance it out with rest and recovery. Read on to learn five recovery strategies for adding inner calm to your life.
Modern Maladaptive Stress
When humans were hunting, gathering, and farming for survival, they were subject to a much higher level of physical stress than you are likely to experience day-to-day. If you were to describe feeling stressed today, you’d probably cite mental fatigue and burnout as the most prevalent symptoms. This is largely due to an inability to take a mental (and sometimes physical) break from chronic stressors.
Left unchecked, chronic stress can impact your sleep, exercise, and nutrition habits, and ultimately lead to accelerated aging and lower life expectancy. Vacations are one way you can balance out stress with rest, but biannual breaks from your daily routine are not enough. Chronic stress requires you to build rest and recovery into your everyday life, which means you need rest and recovery strategies.
Recovery Strategies to Enhance Rest and Restoration
There are several recovery strategies that you can adopt to better balance your daily stress-to-rest ratio. The five you see below are based on researcher-led recommendations, but you don’t need to do them all; rather, you should select those that appeal to you and that you are able to work into your current lifestyle. After all, consistency is key, so be realistic about what you can commit to. Then go forth and rest!
#1. Active Rest
Low-intensity movement, otherwise known as “active rest,” is a wonderful way to reduce stress and enhance recovery. Active rest includes light activity that raises your heart rate to no higher than 50% of its maximum (i.e., staying lower than zone 2 exercise) and should not produce noticeable change in your relaxed breathing rate. These types of activities enable your body to regulate hormone levels and distribute nutrients by stimulating blood flow. This helps nourish and restore your body’s muscles and joints following physical stress (i.e., exercise) and provides a reprieve from psychological stress.
Try it: Take a brief walk, go for a leisurely bike ride, practice low-intensity yoga, or even foam roll achy muscles.
It’s no secret that healthy foods facilitate recovery from things like physical stress and illness, but your diet also plays a large role in improving your resilience to psychological stress. Each meal can signal your body to be on guard by generating inflammation, or it can help your body recalibrate and find balance. Research suggests that consuming inflammatory foods, such as refined grains, starchy vegetables, processed meats, or items with added sugars contribute to higher perceived stress and depression. On the other hand, emphasizing foods such as apples, berries, tomatoes, nuts, and poultry can have an opposite, protective effect by reducing stress levels in the cells throughout your body.
Try it: Replace lunch meat with cooked, sliced chicken; pastries with fresh fruit; and processed snacks like chips or pretzels with lightly salted nuts.
Meditation is a great way to rest and recover your mind and body simultaneously. Engaging in a meditative practice like yoga nidra can help your body recover from sleep debt while also providing you with an opportunity to “check in” with yourself. It’s easy to stay so busy that you miss the subtle signals your body is sending. Meditation requires that you physically pause and gives you the mental space you need to receive those signals and evaluate your overall physical and mental condition.
Mindfulness pairs well with meditation, but they are not the same thing. Notably, mindfulness can be combined with almost any action you take during your day because it’s about noticing what is external to your body, whereas meditation is meant to focus your attention internally.
At its essence, mindfulness means being present — directing your attention to your body’s sensations and the unique experience you’re having in a given moment. Whether you are preparing a meal, walking your dog around the block, or just stretching at your computer, focus on the sights, sounds, and smells of your environment.
A mindfulness practice can be as brief as a few moments each day; no matter how long it lasts, intentionally directing your focus to what you are experiencing in the external environment is an effective way to generate calm, which benefits your body’s rest and recovery circuits.
Try it: If it’s available to you, try spending a few minutes outside to experience the stress-reducing power of nature. Feel the warmth of the sun on your skin or the breeze rustling your hair. Eventually, you’ll be amazed at what you notice.
Taking intentional breaks from screen exposure can help you sleep better — a crucial part of rest and recovery! Unplugging can also break chronic stress cycles often associated with the constant flood of information, news, and sensationalism that tends to dominate the internet. Rejuvenating effects of a regular digital detox include better health, reduced stress, and improved productivity.
Try it: Rather than attempting a week or even month-long detox straightaway, incorporate unplugging into your regular evening routine. Put your phone away after dinner and close your laptop for the night when you start your evening fast. The more you practice being offline, the more natural it will feel!
Take a Balanced Approach to Combating Chronic Life Stress
Combating stress is similar to fighting an extended boxing match. Stress, as an opponent, is excellent at applying the “rope a dope” strategy: If you push too hard and exhaustion takes hold, stress wins. Instead, you need to use recovery strategies and be intentional about when and how you rest and restore between rounds.
This is easier said than done, of course, since humans are still hardwired for a “fight or flight” response. While all stress elicits a spike in adrenaline and energy output, chronic stress is not like tigers or avalanches — it’s not something you can effectively fight or flee. Instead, you must use your brain and body to bring your stress-to-rest equation back in balance. When you succeed at balancing stress and rest, you recover, recharge, and enable your body and mind to go the distance and live a longer, healthier life.