MENTAL RECOVERY: ACTIVE VS. PASSIVE STRATEGIES TO AVOID BURNOUT
Mihayli Csikszentmihalyi, considered the godfather of flow research, wrote that the best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, and relaxing times. But rather, the best moments in our lives usually happen when our mind and body is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. In other words, flow tends to happen the most when we are actively pursuing something challenging. Think back to the moments in your life that you can recall, that in the moment might have been difficult and stressful, but now you can remember as a worthwhile endeavor. A life without challenge is essentially not very exciting or for that matter, very fulfilling. Humans crave pushing and seeking out our limits. It is just how we are wired. For millennia, we have faced many obstacles and have come out on the other side with more knowledge and experience.
Taking time off to replenish the body is no longer seen as weakness, but rather something required for performance at the highest level.
However, in order to successfully navigate the challenges that life throws at us we must incorporate times when we take a break from its ceaseless barrage. There are times when we must step away from the battlefront and recover. Without this period of rest, we potentially risk our health, both mental and physical. Physical recovery has been a staple of sport science for many years, and we now know that peak performance is not going to happen without incorporating recovery into one’s training plan. Gone are the days where the prevailing idea was that putting in more and more hours will equate to success. As discussed in a previous article, the number of hours (although still highly important) is really quite arbitrary, and what really matters is “deliberate practice” where we are highly focused, integrate feedback from experts, and work on the correct technique, rather than doing something wrong for an extended period of time. This includes not utilizing what the science on the benefits of sleep, nutrition, and mental health are beginning to tell us. Taking time off to replenish the body is no longer seen as weakness, but rather something required for performance at the highest level.
What is sometimes missing however, is mental recovery. We don’t give our minds enough rest in this new age of constantly being switched on, with the increasing noise around us that includes social media and various other attention grabbers. We typically associate burnout as someone who just worked themselves to literal exhaustion and collapsed. But we are now beginning to understand that there is so much more than just this one-dimensional type of thinking. Burnout is a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. Without the proper checks and balances we are missing out on tapping into our full potential and sustain peak performance for the long term. Mental recovery in particular is often overlooked. For some reason we view the brain as separate from the rest of the body, that it somehow requires less fuel and energy. Unfortunately, that is just bad science. It requires the same, if not more nourishment in order to function properly. For example, even slight dehydration or sleep deprivation will diminish cognitive function, yet we push our minds to the extreme limit and wonder why we suddenly crash. This view can be catastrophic not only to performance, but individual well-being and health. The mind and body are not separate entities, and both require a blend of active and passive recovery strategies.
The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, and relaxing times. But rather, the best moments in our lives usually happen when our mind and body is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.
What is the difference between active and passive recovery?
Most people think of mental recovery as a complete shut off from the world. Binge watch TV, eat a bunch of food, or even have a few drinks. Don’t get me wrong, these are all great things to do and we mustn't deprive ourselves of the joys of doing absolutely nothing. But there is a difference between active and passive recovery that we must understand. Passive recovery in the physical sense can be very beneficial such as after a heavy workout where the body needs the time to replenish. Same goes for mental recovery after a long bout of mental fatigue such as studying for an exam or working on a big project. It is important to have such passive recovery strategies of literal rest. But what is often not considered in those in between times is active recovery. People often mistake performance in any domain to be an on and off switch. Work hard, play hard type of mentality. In reality, this is not quite sustainable. There needs to be micro moments of recovery built into the system. Active recovery then, is a way to include rest while maintaining momentum.
An example of active physical recovery could be utilizing contrast water therapy (alternating between hot and cold), compression boots, or stretching. Active mental recovery can come in the form of pursuing other hobbies and interests one might have, such as writing, painting, walks in nature, or playing another sport for the sheer enjoyment rather than competition ("Want a Strong Kid? Encourage Play, Not Competition"). The point is to not to shut down and do nothing, but still challenge oneself, albeit on a smaller scale, in a completely different environment. As such, a professional athlete can include playing music, or writing a book as a way to detach from the daily work of their given sport. This is because anything that we do, even if it starts from a place of passion turns into a job, and without a way to step away from it for a while we risk burnout and dissatisfaction.
Csikszentmihayli’s research found that we tend to experience more flow at work than passive activities like binge watching Netflix.
There is no secret sauce to this. Every individual must figure out a method that works best for them. But only engaging in passive recovery (sleeping, doing nothing, etc.) will not bring us the complete fulfillment we need. It almost seems counter-intuitive that we wouldn’t find joy in passive leisure activities, after all there is so much to keep us preoccupied nowadays and it is almost considered a sin to be bored. But Csikszentmihayli’s research found that we tend to experience more flow at work than passive activities like binge watching Netflix.
The problem is that we are no longer an active participant in leisure anymore, and instead resort to entertaining ourselves passively. Although doing absolutely nothing is sometimes quite necessary (I too enjoy the occasional lazy spell), it should not be our default mode of recovery. After a hard day at work, try doing some other activity that you’ve been putting off because you are “too tired” to do it. Often, you will find that this is just a thought and not fact. We can view these thoughts and feelings as passing events that don’t need or deserve the attention we think (mindfulness training is key to overriding our default wandering mind). What we crave deep down is to pursue meaningful activities that challenge us and make us feel better. Even if it is just for an hour or two, the satisfaction and improved well-being you get from these activities are more beneficial and worthwhile than the hour or two of mindlessly watching dog videos or browsing Reddit forums (they do have their place, though!).
So, if you have trouble creating time for recovery in your life, be it passive or active, one may consider scheduling recovery. Many high performers are very good at planning and organizing their work and training but will forget to include the space for rest. If this is the case, planning and scheduling recovery is a way to get ahead of it. One of the athletes I’ve worked with had this exact problem. They were very meticulous down to the finest detail of when and where they will workout, but they reported feeling over trained and on the verge of burning out. The very idea of recovery was preposterous they thought; after all, the more work I put into this, the more I will get out of it, right? As we worked together though, they realized this is not true and their mind and body were screaming for rest. The issue was that they did not know where to begin. Thus, we started with including it into their already structured schedule. If we plan ahead for something, we are more likely to follow through on it. If you are having difficulty in this area start with even just one day of recovery. If you are the type of person to always have something on the go, give yourself the permission to passively recover. It is all about the challenge/skills balance; if you are feeling too challenged, include more passive recovery days. If you are too bored on the other hand, include more active recovery. Check in with yourself every once in a while, to objectively assess how you feel. This way we can keep reaching for optimal peak experiences while avoiding burnout along the way.
Stay in flow my friends!
PS. I talk about this topic and more during a podcast interview with Jared VanderMeer. Check it out below:
Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper & Row, 1990. Print.