Wanting to feel more rested and alive? Get into some active recovery.

Recovery is the process of reversing the adverse impacts of stress. There is an important distinction between recovery activities (what you do during leisure time) and recovery experiences (what you need to experience during and after those activities to truly recover).

Recovery activities can be passive (such as watching TV, lying on a beach, reading, internet browsing or listening to music) or active (walking, running, playing sport, dancing, swimming, hobbies, spiritual practice, developing a skill, creating something, learning a language and so on).

How well these activities reduce your stress depends on the extent to which they provide you with five types of recovery experiences:

  • psychological detachment, which is fully disconnecting during the non-work time from work or school-related tasks or even thinking about work/school issues.
  • relaxation: being free of tension and anxiety.
  • mastery: challenging situations that provide a sense of progress and achievement (such as being in learning mode to develop a new skill).
  • control: deciding yourself about what to do and when and how to do it.
  • enjoyment: the state or process of deriving pleasure from seeing, hearing, or doing something.

The numerous benefits of mentally disengaging from work or schoolwork during your downtime include reduced fatigue and enhanced wellbeing. It has been found that inadequate psychological detachment leads to negative thoughts about your life and exhaustion.

Here are five tips, drawn from the research, to feel more rested and alive.

1. Follow the evidence

There are mixed findings regarding the recovery value of passive, low-effort activities such as watching TV or reading a novel.

More promising are social activities, avoiding work-related smartphone use after work, as well as engaging in leisure activities such as attending a concert, game or cultural event or designing and making something or expressing yourself in a creative way.

Spending time in green environments (parks, bushland, hills) is restorative, particularly when these are natural rather than urban settings. Blue environments (the beach, rivers, lakes) are also highly restorative.

Even short lunchtime walks, and nature exercises lead to feeling more recovered during the afternoon.

Two of the surest ways to recover are to engage in physical exercise and getting quality sleep.

2. Assess how you manage your boundaries

Your boundary management style is the extent to which you integrate or separate your work and life beyond work.

3. Cultivate your identity beyond work

Many of us define ourselves in terms of our profession (“I’m an engineer”), employer (“I work at …”) and perhaps our performance (“I’m a top performer”).

We may also have many other identities related to, for instance, (“I’m a parent”), religion (“I’m a Catholic”), interests (“I’m a guitarist”), activities (“I’m a jogger”) or learning aspirations (“I’m learning Portuguese”).

Here are two useful ways to prevent being overly fused with your work identity.

First, reorganise your physical space to reduce visual reminders of your work-related identities (e.g., your laptop, professional books, performance awards) and replace them with reminders of your other identities.

Second, do some identity work by reflecting on the identities you cherish and experimenting with potential new identities.

4. Make time for better recovery experiences

Document what you do when not working. Ask yourself how much these activities enable you to truly experience psychological detachment, relaxation, mastery, control, and enjoyment.

Then experiment with alternative activities that might provide richer recovery experiences. This will typically require less time on things such as news media (pandemic or climate change updates and doom scrolling), TV, social media, online shopping, or video games to recover.

You will make it easier to give up activities with minimal recovery value if you supplant them with more rejuvenating alternatives you enjoy.

5. Form new habits

Habits are behaviours we automatically repeat in certain situations. Often, we fail to develop better habits by being too ambitious. The ‘tiny habits’ approach suggests thinking smaller, with “ABC recipes” that identify:

  • anchor moments when you will enact your intended behaviour.
  • behaviours you will undertake during those moments.
  • celebration to create a positive feeling that helps this behaviour become a habit.

Examples of applying this approach are:

  • After I eat lunch, I will walk for at least 10 minutes (ideally somewhere green). I will celebrate by enjoying what I see along the way.
  • After I finish work, I will engage in 30 minutes of exercise before dinner. I will celebrate by observing how strong my kicks are or how fast I have become.
  • After 8:30pm I will not look at email or think about work. I will celebrate by reminding myself I deserve to switch off.

Perhaps the most essential ingredient for building better recovery habits is to steer away from feeling burdened by ideas about what you “should” do to recover. Enjoy the process of experimenting with different recovery activities that, given all your work and life commitments, seem most promising, viable and fun.

Carly Dober - School Psychologist