If you’re an athlete, you know the phrase “active recovery.” It basically means that, following a hard workout, instead of just sitting on your butt for the rest of the day or the day after, you keep your body moving in some way (after a nap, of course). For runners, this may mean going for a nice walk or swim, some time doing yoga or stretching, that kind of thing. Not a workout, nothing strenuous, but a way to get the blood flowing to help tired muscles recover, a way to stay in touch with your body instead of just turning off. Because, as tempting as being a blob on the couch may be, your muscles will just freeze up, you’ll be more sore and stiff, and it will be harder to recover from your hard efforts.
Not an athlete? It’s like turning the engine of an old car, or having your neighbor drive your car around the block when you’re on vacation.
Stagnation, it seems, isn’t good for much of anything.
So why are we humans so good at it?
There’s a lot of talk these days about our busy-ness and work-life balance. I see it around me all the time, in friends and colleagues, and I agree that we tend to work ourselves to the bone sometimes, becoming martyrs by refusing to take vacations or weekends or even a few hours each evening, answering emails all the time, saying things like, “Not checking email when I’m away is worse than taking a break because I end up with so many when I get back.”
This isn’t the blog post where I’ll say, just set an auto-response for people to email you the day after you get back, so that you can delete your entire Inbox and start over, but hey, that’s an option.
No, this is a post about what it is, exactly, we’re doing in our downtime.
Are we stagnating or keeping the blood moving?
I’ll give you an example. Most nights of the week, I am exhausted by the end of the day and crave nothing more than to go home, have a nice meal and walk to the beach as quality time with J, and some time to decompress. To unwind.
Last night, all of that happened. Except for the decompressing bit. Yes, having time to cook was nice, and J and I were able to talk, and even watching John Oliver together was a nice part of the evening.
But in between all those little nuggets of decompression, I would find myself scrolling through the Instagram/Twitter/Facebook trifecta.
As I journaled last night, I made note of this. My brain did not feel refreshed or at peace. Instead, it was jumping around, it was hard to focus, and it was hard to unwind.
Now, it’s not like there was any chore I didn’t get done, so this wasn’t a guilty feeling over some task that I “should have” been doing instead. And I’m certainly not promoting the inability to sit still or the tendency to keep busy to do just for the sake of avoiding something. Again, back to the running analogy, it’s not about just keeping running. It’s about interspersing that running with active recovery.
That word, active.
I think our tendency to think of pummeling our brain with external stimulation that comes from screens (so, anything internet or tv or even film) is a false sense of recovery from our day-to-day. It is a passive recovery: we shut our brain down and let whatever’s out there come on in. It is akin to sitting on the couch and making your muscles freeze up. Or, if we get really riled up, it’s like starting out on that easy walk and ending up on top of Kilimanjaro. A noble pursuit, but in no way recovery.
This is exhausting, I think, for two reasons. One, is the external stimulation. With all this input, there is no time for our brains to introspect, to dream, to be creative. There’s no time to let ideas take shape because we’re barraging ourselves. We can’t hear our own voice because of all the chatter from the outside.
The second is, the constant presence of this external input prevents us from being fully present and in the moment. It pulls us away from our ideas, from our conversations, from our daydreams. Is it any wonder we still get ideas in the shower, where we’re operating on nothing but muscle memory and have a little chunk of time when there is nothing coming at us other than a steady stream of warm water and the smell of our shampoo? Our ideas and voices love showers, love the time to bounce around and play and formulate.
This isn’t about social media or television being inherently evil, or completely stopping their use, full stop. It’s about being mindful about their role and place, and not expecting them to calm us down. Sometimes we need an escape through a movie or show or puppy YouTube videos or even the photos of a friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend’s beach vacation we found in an Instagram rabbit hole.
Just turn these things off when they start to numb you. When they are preventing you from thinking, from feeling. Or, set a blocker to turn these things off for you. And then go for a walk, read fiction or poetry, listen to music, take a shower, organize a drawer, do sudoku (is that still a thing?), mop the floor. Anything that you can do while your brain is able to freely fly around and let you hear your own thoughts.
When I was in Taos at the writing retreat a few weeks ago, I didn’t use my phone except for twice-daily “good morning/good night” check-ins with J. When I’d return to my room at night, depending on my mood, I could feel the little buzz of an urge just to check quickly. One little look, that would be fine, wouldn’t it?
But I had made a promise to myself for this retreat, and I was going to stick to it (not to mention it would have taken me 30 minutes just to undo all the settings I had changed in order to turn my phone into a brick that only was capable of texting with J).
Instead, as tired as I was, I’d spend time reading over what I’d written that day, or spend a few minutes on a crossword puzzle, or read a poem or two. Something to help wind down before my bedtime routine, but it wasn’t something passive. It was something nourishing rather than something draining. It didn’t feel like I had chores before bed, or that I was operating by guilt in order to check something off a to-do list.
And then, when I’d get to my journal right before bed, my brain wasn’t buzzing and hyped up, but calm and focused and refreshed.
What comforts do you give your brain when you’re in need of active recovery? How do you keep from getting sucked into the numbness of input?