We too often think of recovery as something only athletes or bodybuilders deal with, but that has little if anything to do with the rest of us and our day-to-day existence.
But that’s simply not true.
Our bodies and brains are miracles of the natural world, but even miracles need to rest and recover, and not just after periods of physical exertion.
Maybe you believe you’re already paying attention to your body. You go to sleep when you’re tired. You take a nap when you feel drained during the day. You’re aware of the tiny aches and pains — and make minor adjustments to help alleviate them — that we all experience at various times.
It’s a good start.
But is it enough? Reacting to the obvious signs — exhaustion, pain, soreness, and so on — is like drinking water only when you feel thirsty.
By that point, you’re already dehydrated.
Our bodies are constantly giving us indicators and hints about our wellbeing. Some are loud and overt, while others are much quieter and easier to miss. A gentle whisper rather than a spotlight and bullhorn.
The trick is to listen.
The Autonomic System
The autonomic system — itself a part of the peripheral nervous system — is responsible for the involuntary processes in our body like rate of breathing, sexual arousal, heart rate, blood pressure, and digestion.
It’s an automatic system that doesn’t require any conscious effort from us (and thank goodness for that!).
It’s made up of the sympathetic system (SNS) — responsible for our “fight or flight” response during times of stress or danger — and the parasympathetic system (PSNS) — in charge of “feed and breed” and “rest and digest” processes — working together in balance.
When everything is humming along as it should, our bodies are in the harmonious state known as homeostasis.
And this is what we — as well as every other living creature — want. This natural balance allows us to function at our optimal performance level.
But sometimes, our sympathetic system gets a little too stimulated. It can kick in and stay on because of the stress of modern living. Sitting in traffic, worried about finances, the toll of the ongoing pandemic, and a million other little things. We’re in a constant state of low-key stress and “fight or flight” response.
This always-on activation of a system meant to get us through short bursts of stress and danger can wreak havoc on our immune system, and cause a host of other issues physically, emotionally, and mentally.
When that happens, we may need to assist our parasympathetic system to calm us down and return us to a state of equilibrium. That’s our happy place.
And we do that by actively choosing to rest and recover.
How do we know when to do that? By reading the signs.
1. Increase in Heart Rate
The first thing you likely notice when faced with a real or perceived danger is an elevated heart rate.
While it depends on your age, a healthy resting heart rate is generally between 60–100 BPM. As your level of exertion increases, so does that rate.
Your SNS releases several hormones to accelerate your heart rate, pumping vital blood and oxygen to your muscles and brain to either run away or defend yourself. The PSNS releases acetylcholine afterwards to bring it back down again.
An elevated heart rate not the result of physical activity means you’re out of balance. Rest. Recover.
2. Dryness of the Mouth
Ever notice how dry your mouth becomes before a big presentation, interview, or other stressful event? We all have.
In this scenario, it’s a symptom of our sympathetic system gearing up. As our “fight or flight” response is the opposite of “rest and digest”, our body begins to divert fluids away from digestion processes and towards our muscles and performance processes.
Hence, dry mouth. If you’re getting enough water but still experience this, it’s a good indicator that you need to rest, recover, and turn down your SNS.
3. Watery and/or Red Eyes
Imbibe a little too much, stay out a little too late, or suffer from allergies, and you may experience watery, red eyes from time to time.
But they can also indicate an overactive SNS. Once initiated, our “fight or flight” response will dilate our pupils and increase blood flow to the eyes so we’re better able to see and focus on the threat.
This can cause red eyes as the blood vessels expand to bring in that extra blood. Watery eyes, perhaps counterintuitively, can be caused by dry eyes as the body attempts to fix the situation. As the SNS does redirect fluids, this too could be a silent hint that you need to take it easy.
If you’re getting enough sleep and generally not overindulging in alcohol or recreational drugs, but still suffering from this, your SNS may be unable to deactivate.
4. Sweating in Your Sleep
When faced with a “fight or flight” situation, you’ll begin to sweat more in order to regulate your body temperature. You may have even noticed a tendency to sweat when you’re stressed or nervous.
This can transfer to your sleeping in an overstimulated sympathetic system. Stress and anxiety can cause night sweats as a holdover from whatever was bothering you during the day (it may even sneak into your nightmares).
There’s obviously no real threat to your wellbeing while you peacefully slumber.
But your SNS may not be getting the memo that a) the threat is gone, and b) it’s time to relax.
5. Upset Stomach/Knot in Stomach
The SNS and PSNS work in opposition to one another to keep the balance. Too much of one inhibits the other, and vice versa.
As mentioned earlier, the parasympathetic oversees the “rest and digest” processes in your body. As its opposite, the sympathetic system is going to hinder those by blocking gastrointestinal secretions and motor activity, and contracting gastrointestinal sphincters and blood vessels.
This is why you rarely feel hungry while dealing with a stressful or dangerous situation. Digestion slows or stops altogether as resources are shunted elsewhere to fend off an attacker, for example.
You’ll notice this phenomenon in low-key moments too, perhaps as butterflies in or a stomach doing backflips.
But when the SNS doesn’t return to “normal” and those resources remain redirected, you may find yourself suffering from gastrointestinal upset or knots in your stomach at unnecessary times.
In general, any symptom of the “fight or flight” response that lingers longer than a couple of hours after the “fight or flight” situation can suggest an overstimulated and overstressed sympathetic system, and that can lead to an exhausted and immunocompromised body.
And the remedy is to recover in whatever ways that means to you. It’s not just for a select few. It’s for all of us.