Neuroscience nugget – Put your oxygen mask on first using active recovery

I find myself less driven lately and that’s OK. Three weeks after leaving the corporate world and I have mostly been doing household chores, dropping the kids off and picking them up from school, and puttering around fixing stuff. It’s been insightful and valuable in my transition from a fast-paced, outcome-focused work ethic to a slower-paced lifestyle. When I walk the dog, I am only walking the dog. When I am taking my younger son to school, I am present and engaged with him. I have a backlog of impactful work waiting for me to work on, but I am choosing to use a long period of active recovery after a long career. When the day is done, I am less focused on what I got done and more focused on how I feel. I am taking care of myself physically and mentally before I take care of others. This wasn’t always the case during my career.

I have learned there is a limit to how hard you can push yourself while still remaining healthy mentally and physically. During the early stages of the pandemic, I shared with my team that our communities, our team, our families need us to be excellent at what we do. I was working in cyber security and the threat environment, political environment, and the pandemic was creating difficult challenges for organizations around the world. I felt we needed to do better. However, the situation in 2020 (and 2021 for that matter) was also difficult for everyone personally and I was missing the impact on my team members. This message wasn’t the right message to send to myself or my team and it was burning me out. I took this snapshot in the middle of a long incident response and it captures how I felt at the time:

It’s always a good time to be excellent and to be present for your family, team, and community. Taking care of yourself mentally and physically is essential to sustainably take care of others. I changed my approach in late 2020 and started sharing with my team how I was feeling, where I was OK and where I wasn’t and what I was doing to move forward. I backed off on excellence in execution and focused more on compassion, empathy, and self-care. I don’t know if I struck the right balance but I do know that team members reached out and thanked me for sharing my challenges openly and no one thanked me for telling them to be excellent!

Athletes have known about the benefits of active recovery for a long time. For example, doing low-intensity exercise after strenuous workouts to flush lactic acid out of the muscles for a better recovery (Menzies et al., 2010). In strength supports, such as weightlifting, optimal performance can be achieved using targeted stress and recovery programs, timed to the competitions (Story et al., 2012). When the body is stressed appropriately, and time is given to recovery and the right type of recovery, the body adapts to a new homeostatic line and a new level of ability:

Corporate athletes can benefit from the same approach and reset their neurobiology, solidify learning, and return to deep work successfully. According to the Gallup 2022 Workplace Report, 79% of corporate athletes are disengaged, 60% are emotionally detached, and 59% are stressed on a daily basis. Chronic stress can cause an excess of cortisol, resulting in increased likelihood of heart attack, stroke, or and hypertension (Power et al., 2020). According to Gallup, the amount of stress and worry facing corporate athletes continues upwards. Active recovery protocols can mitigate the effects of chronic stress, helping the corporate athlete perform better with less damage to their mind and body.

There is an additional benefit for the mind from active recovery. Peak mental performance is driven by neurobiology, with dopamine playing a role in achieving goals and motivation (Mohebi et al., 2019). If you drive too much dopamine through achievement, you risk neglecting the serotonergic system, which is involved in learning, memory, and happiness (Serotonin: What is it, Function & Levels). Spend time in active recovery to solidify learning and to feel the powerful benefits of what you have just accomplished.

Here are some of the active recovery activities that I have found useful when I have been executing for long periods without rest:

  • LovingKindness and mindfulness meditation – I alternate during the week between mindfulness and lovingkindness mediation. Don’t forget to include yourself in the list of people you wish joy, safety, and love.
  • Nature immersion – this can drop you into a divergent mental state, opening you to possibilities that you didn’t think about.
  • Walk – only walk, don’t listen to music, a podcast, or the news. Be aware of your steps, your breathing, and your thoughts. Meet new trees, new neighbors, and especially new dogs.
  • Breathwork – it’s amazing what you do to calm or excite your central nervous system using breathing. Sometimes you need energy, sometimes you need to calm yourself and both are possible with the right techniques.

Other techniques you should consider include hot baths, saunas, showers, cold immersion, sensory deprivation, nature immersion, massage, aimless play, stretching, meditation, light exercise, and sleep. When experiencing stress at work or at home, treat it as a sign that you need to engage in active recovery, even for a couple minutes. Choose your favorite activities from the list above and schedule blocks into your work week for active recovery – walking around the block, stretching at your desk, or nourishing and hydrating yourself. Put your oxygen mask on first and you will be much better able to help others during the day.

Resources

Menzies, P., Menzies, C., McIntyre, L. , Paterson, P., Wilson, J., Kemi, O.J. (2010). Blood lactate clearance during active recovery after an intense running bout depends on the intensity of the active recovery. Journal of Sports Sciences, 28:975:982. https://doi.org/10.1080/02640414.2010.481721

Storey A., Smith H. K. (2012). Unique aspects of competitive weightlifting: performance, training and physiology. Sports Med. 42, 769–790. 10.1007/BF03262294 

Power, N., Deschênes, S., Ferri, F., Schmitz, N. (2020). Job strain and the incidence of heart diseases: A prospective community study in Quebec, Canada. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, Volume 139. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jpsychores.2020.110268

Mohebi, A., Pettibone, J.R., Hamid, A.A. et al. (2019). Dissociable dopamine dynamics for learning and motivation. Nature 570, 65–70. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-019-1235-y

Serotonin: What is it, Function & Levels (no date) Cleveland Clinic. Available at: https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/22572-serotonin

One response to “Neuroscience nugget – Put your oxygen mask on first using active recovery”

  1. Thank you, Eric, for sharing some of your journey and how you are using “active recovery” to find your new homeostasis! It is so true that we we can only be of service to others if we ourselves are OK. I’m looking forward to meeting a new tree tomorrow on my morning walk and thank you for giving permission to the selfless act of self care.

    Like

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