The Role of Recovery in Stress Adaptation
“What we stress needs to be rebuilt”
I came across that line^ while researching and it’s a succinct way to explain this article.
If you’re into psychology or biology or you’re curious about stress-hacking, you may have come across the term hormesis. If not, that’s ok too ;-)
Hormesis or hormetic stress is our body’s positive response to minor stressors; the “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” type of stress^. Personally I prefer the term ‘controlled stressors’, as there’s nothing minor about cold-induced stress! With hormesis, the key lies in the dose of the stress - “some is good, but more is not better”^.
Another term used alongside hormetic stress is eustress or ‘good stress’; a positive cognitive response to stress that is healthy, or gives one a feeling of fulfilment or other positive feelings^. With eustress, the key lies in the perception of the stressor.
There are 1.34 billion Google results for the definition of stress, however, the one I like (for the purposes of this article) is from Bulletproof Coffee’s Dave Asprey; “stress is the disruption of homeostasis, or your body’s state of equilibrium… stress is something that throws your body off-balance.” Contrary to how it sounds, it’s in being thrown off balance that the benefits are found.
Biologically we’re designed to thrive on exposure to occasional stress. In the process of restoring that all-important balance our bodies respond by growing, repairing and importantly adapting in a process known as the adaptive stress response. It’s through adapting that we become a little bit more tolerant to stress, slightly stronger, a fraction more resilient.
And that’s what hormesis and eustress are - positive responses to stressors by your body and mind, with the right perception and using the right dose.
However, in the explanation of adaptation through hormetic stress, there’s a key phase that is often missed. Recovery.
As you can see from the graph below of the adaptive stress response, in order to reach adaptation, we must first pass through recovery.
Give back or give way
Early stress research theorised it was either a response or a stimulus. However, it’s the theory of stress as a transaction (Lazarus, 1966) which I think best explains its nature.
Stress is transactional. It takes from the body.
Our natural response to stress is the activation of our sympathetic nervous system, better known as the ‘fight, flight & freeze’ state. This state is designed as a short-term solution to help us survive a life-threatening scenario. It’s all about prioritising energy. Anything that will help you survive is activated - e.g. your heart rate and blood pressure increase, your pupils dilate and blood flow is redirected away from the skin to your brain, arms & legs - and anything you don’t need for immediate survival is deprioritised - e.g. digestion, reproduction and growth & repair are all temporarily halted.
A with any well-balanced transaction however, there are debits and credits. If you take you must also give. How you give is up to you. You can either give back or give way.
By continuing to take and take from the system, that is if you continue to remain in a state of stress, the system will eventually give way and ‘bankrupt’ itself, forcing a reset. Burn out, break down, chronic disease; these are all symptoms of an unbalanced transaction, a forced reset.
However, if you give back to the system, that is if you allow and enable the body to restore homeostasis, you’ll remain in balance.
So how do you give back? You guessed it; recovery.
Rest vs recovery
Many of us use these two words interchangeably, but they have distinctly different meanings. I love this to-the-point explanation of the difference from whole9life.com:
Rest is simply the absence of effort or movement—the absence of exertion
Recovery is the restorative process by which you regain a state of “normalcy”; healthy and in balance.”
When I’m talking about the importance of recovery, I’m not talking about taking a day off, lying on the couch and binge-watching Netflix, that’s rest. Instead, I’m talking about considering;
The type, frequency and duration of stress you’re aiming to recover from
Your level of experience with the stressor
The state of your physical and psychological health
How fully recovered you need to be before applying the stressor again
And critically, what other stressors are at play in your life
From there you can determine an appropriate recovery response(s) to get you back in balance.
It is the recovery process that determines if and how much adaptation will take place.
What is recovery?
Our body’s stress control system, the autonomic nervous system, is split into two branches, with each branch typically functioning in complementary opposition to the other (we need both, just at different times). One branch, the sympathetic nervous system mentioned earlier, prepares our body to react to stress. The other branch, the parasympathetic nervous system, our ‘rest, digest & restore’ state, helps us recover from stress.
When I’m talking about recovery, I’m talking about shifting from a sympathetic dominant state into a parasympathetic dominant one.
One of the quickest and most direct means of making this shift is through how you breathe.
There are several parasympathetic triggers we can activate this way including;
General deep, slow breathing
Breathing through our nose
Activating the diaphragm when breathing (instead of breathing with our upper chest)
Increasing the length of our exhalations (aiming for a 1:2 ratio of inhale:exhale)
Breathing at a rate of 5-6 breaths per minute
Importantly, several of these triggers work by stimulating the vagus nerve, the so-called “queen of the parasympathetic nervous system”^. Named for the Latin word for ‘wander’, it’s the body’s longest nerve that connects most of the major organs between and acts like a brake on our stress response.
Activating your recovery
In practice, your recovery should be made up of habits, practices or activities that help you not only restore your balance, but that also truly nourish you. The goal is to find activities that are parasympathetic in nature (i.e. not stressful or physically demanding), that help you relax, repair and restore.
They could be something you do immediately following a stressful activity to help you downregulate (like XPT's post-workout recovery breathing) or something you do on a weekly basis to recharge your battery (like taking a relaxing magnesium salt bath).
Here’s a few ideas for you to consider:
Do light stretching or foam rolling
Get a massage or acupuncture
Include post-workout recovery breathing
Do light, slow & deep belly breathing
Good, unbroken sleep
Have a daytime nap
Take a bath
Read a book
Eat nutritious food
Get out into nature
Walk the dog
Practice yoga or Tai Chi
The important thing to remember is that no matter the activity you choose, make sure it forms part of your recovery. What works for one person may not work for you. What one person finds relaxing or energising may be the complete opposite for you.
Explore, experiment, listen to your body.
Just make the time to allow the stress equation in your life to rebalance.