Recovery is something we often think about in the context of physical performance. When working out, it is well known that the ‘more is more’ mentality is not really beneficial when looking for optimal health. Muscles, and everything else that moves us, need rest to repair and rebuild. This is the only way to get long-lasting results and avoid overexertion or over-training. Once your body has given a lot, it deserves care and rest.
Our mind deserves a break, too. In this blog article, I’m going to write about psychological recovery, particularly from the perspective of recovering from work. So how does one know their mind is overloaded? The signs are individual for each person. Does the following sound familiar to you?
Do you get triggered easily? Do you go from zero to hundred at such speed that you yourself can’t even keep up with? Are your energy levels after work mostly a match for a couch and a TV? Do you find it difficult to focus on your work, get easily distracted and start doing other things? Do you catch yourself thinking about work during your free time? Does thinking about work keep you up at night and affect your sleep?
Such remarks related to emotion regulation, efficacy, concentration, thinking and sleep may – if happening on a regular basis – be signs that your headspace needs a break.
The mind and the physical body are one. What supports your body’s physiological recovery also supports the psychological recovery of your mind – and vice versa. Your mind appreciates a good sleep, nutrient dense food, and appropriate exercise just as much as your body. However, there are also other proven methods you can use to actively promote your mind and brain’s health.
The following tips for recovering after work are based on the DRAMMA model (Detachment, Relaxation, Autonomy, Mastery, Meaning, Affiliation) that presents six psychological needs that, when met, promote optimal functioning and recovery. The model is developed by the US researchers David Newman, Louis Tay and Ed Diener.
Tips for recovery
1 Detachment from work
Detachment here refers to a situation where you not do anything work-related or even think about work. This contributes to recovery. For many of us, this is easier said than done, since it is common that work-related thoughts take over our free time, too. Dwelling on such thoughts maintains a stressful state in the body and mind, especially if the thoughts are perceived as negative or stressful. However, trying to control our thoughts is a set-up for failure. Remember what happens to that pink elephant you try not to think about?
Try journaling your thoughts
If unwanted thoughts are spinning in your head, try writing them down on paper. Include alternative courses of events: Might the thing you worry about get resolved and not end up in a catastrophe? How can you influence the unraveling of the matter? Make sure to also write down the next time you plan to return to the topic and from whom or where you can seek support and advice. If you have certain things you need to remember, write them down as well. This way, you have a checklist with you when you return to work. Your short-term or working memory is free to recover for the night, and it may help you to sleep better.
Holistic relaxation takes place in moments when both the mind and body are given the opportunity to rest. Often these moments are associated with a peaceful sensation and experiencing a union of body and mind. Relaxing looks different to each person, some common methods being heath bathing in a sauna, getting out into nature, or doing yoga. Reading a good book or watching a series can also be great ways to unwind and decrease stress, although it is advised to enjoy screen time in moderation.
Breathing exercises to support relaxation
During relaxation, the parasympathetic nervous system, which calms the body’s functions, is activated, restoring our mind and body to a state of balance. The vagus nerve is a key part of the parasympathetic nervous system. Its route passes through diaphragm, our central respiratory muscle.
Thus, it is possible to support the vagus nerve by breathing calmly. You can try out the following breathing exercise: pay attention to your exhale, lengthening it slightly. Let the inhale occur by itself. Repeat.
Alternatively, you can simply focus on observing the movement of breath in your body: in and out, again and again. There is no attempt to change the breath in the latter exercise, the breath is simply observed and accepted as it is. Five minutes is a good start for both exercises.
Self-reliance is one of the basic needs of a human being. It means, among other things, to be able to live an authentic life, based on one’s values and basic needs. Life has its demands, both in terms of work and personal time. It is normal to have responsibilities and duties, even somewhat necessary. At times, however, it is good to pause and put your own needs first.
Autonomy can be experienced both alone and with others. Therefore, it does not imply that we should completely ignore the needs of others. From the point of view of recovery, autonomy can mean doing something simply because it is enjoyable, without it having to be useful.
How much of your free time is spent doing things that feel authentic and worthwhile to you? Do you have enough time for things that genuinely light you up – instead of just reacting to other people’s hopes and expectations?
If your answer was no: What would be the first small step towards the life that feels and looks like you, a step you could already take within the next week? Start by choosing something that is easily actionable and sends a signal to yourself that you respect your own needs.
4 Mastering a new skill and experiencing flow
For mastering or learning a skill to be restorative, it is a good idea to find the exact things that touch you the most. One way to approach this is to start doing things that bring you to a flow-like state. In a state of flow, you are fully engaged and immersed in what you are doing – to the point where you lose track of time. Besides when learning new skills, this can also happen when visiting a museum, watching the hustle and bustle of city life from a coffee shop window, or with other mundane activities.
Try a new skill or have an everyday adventure
Do you have a skill in mind that you have only dreamed of learning so far? Go give it a try! Are there nice places in your neighbourhood that you often pass but never take a closer look? Take off for a little adventure and visit a new café, fishing specialty store, antiquarian bookshop – it’s up to you. The more you are able to indulge all of your senses in the experience, the more you get out of it.
According to philosophers, a meaningful life on one hand includes connecting with other people and working for a greater good, and, on the other hand, connecting with the self. It is important that we feel like we have control of our lives, at least to some extent, and that we can live a fulfilled life. Staying true to one’s values adds to a meaningful life. Living this way may not be effortless, but it feels meaningful.
How does your life and the actions you take impact other people? What feels important and meaningful to you? What adds more meaning to your life and keeps you going even when facing adversities? The ingredients for your psychological recovery can be found in these answers.
6 Affiliation or social cohesion
The sense of community and being seen by others is a fundamental human need. Meaningful and satisfying relationships enrich our lives and help us to recover from work-related stress.
What concrete actions could you take in the near future to support and strengthen your relationships? Perhaps call a friend, set a date night with your partner, or take on a fun hobby to get to know new people? How could you experience a deeper connection also with people you encounter casually?
Which recovery method is right for you?
The tips presented here cover a massive slice of human life. The tips are intended to give food for thought and provide a wealth of ideas to help you better balance your work-life equation. When dealing with issues at such a scale, it is best to take all the time needed and avoid getting into the mentality of checking off boxes. Start by choosing one recovery method that speaks to you the most. Reflect on how it currently shows up in your life and try to move forward with it, little by little.
Here at Auntie, we often discuss with our clients about different aspects of recovery and actionable steps towards a meaningful and good life. The Stressed Out and Sleepless in Seattle packages are great for reflecting on recovery-related topics.
Anniina Virtanen: Psykologinen palautuminen (2021)
Frank Martela: Elämän tarkoitus. Suuntana merkityksellinen elämä (2020)
The author of the blog is Auntie professional Pirkko Järvenpää, who is a social psychologist (M.Sc.), a physiotherapist and a solution-focused therapist.