Optimizing Recovery

During high demand situations, it can be difficult to fully implement recovery routines.  A polyvagal informed perspective can mitigate the impact of reduced access to recovery strategies.

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Recovery is an essential element in the pursuit of health, wellbeing, and sustainable high performance.  This has been described in detail in previous articles.  In essence, recovery provides us with restoration of physical, psychological, emotional, and spiritual resources.  Throughout daily activities we consume these resources and, particularly, during high consequence and high demand situations, we consume higher amounts of these resources.  If we are not able to restore these elements back to, or at least close to, baseline then we may encounter one of two situations.  One scenario is that we begin our subsequent activities and tasks with diminished resources.  The other is one in which our resources progressively diminish, leading to a heightened risk of burnout.  Both situations are detrimental to our pursuit of health, wellbeing, and sustainable high performance.

As has been discussed in previous articles, recovery is an active process that comprises several strategies, both mind-based and body-based.  Essential elements of a regular recovery routine include adequate sleep, typically between 7 and 9 hours per night for the adults, proper nutrition and hydration, sufficient physical activity, and mindset training, such as gratitude practices and mindfulness meditation.  Additional important considerations include connecting with trusted loved ones, pets, hobbies, and nature.  While these elements are common amongst all humans, the particular details of the optimal recovery routine are individual specific.  To this end, a certain degree of trial and error is needed in order to determine the ideal recovery routine.

Once the details of the optimal recovery practice have been determined, it should be implemented on a regular, if not daily, basis.  Within the healthcare field, however, it can be readily appreciated that the nature of the regular schedule and demands can make daily adherence to the recovery routine difficult, if not impossible.  Such a challenge is not limited to healthcare professionals.  All individuals who participate in high demand areas of life, in either professional or person capacities or both, can frequently encounter situations in which it is simply not possible or feasible to implement all aspects of the recovery routine.  What are we to do in such circumstances?

Understanding the importance of recovery, it can become frustrating and, from a polyvagal informed perspective, a cue of uncertainty or risk to recognize that it may not be possible to implement the ideal recovery routine.  Often the underlying reason for this inability is not the individual’s, or anyone’s, fault.  Rather it is the result of particular circumstances beyond our control.  For instance, a busy night or weekend of call limiting sleep availability, travel across multiple time zones, deadlines for assignments or grant applications, young children at home who are having difficulties with sleep are all scenarios which can severely limit sleep access.  Across all elements of the recovery routine, it is possible to appreciate similar examples.

What, then, is the best approach to managing these situations in which it is not possible to employ the structured recovery routine.  Firstly, it is important to recognize that such situations may provide cues of uncertainty and risk which can be neurocepted in a fashion leading to mobilization towards sympathetic and dorsal vagal states.  Further compounding this situation is the likely reality that when we are not able to employ our recovery strategies, we are also likely experiencing high demand circumstances which are further draining our resources and may be providing additional cues of uncertainty, risk, and threat.  For these reasons, it becomes essential to pay close attention to our biological state in such situations and employ the tools within our polyvagal informed toolbox to manage our state.

The next consideration becomes how best to address the situation in which we are not able to adequately employ recovery strategies.  Given the importance of recovery, it is important to avoid the response of giving up all recovery strategies during this period of time.  Such a reaction would likely lead to a substantial loss of resources, diminished performance capacity, increased risk of burnout, and, particularly dependent upon the duration of time, negative impacts on health and wellbeing.

Given the above discussion, it then becomes evident that employing some degree of recovery routine, even if it cannot include all aspects, becomes important.  It is likely the case that such a response will mitigate, to a degree, the negative consequences of diminished recovery, thereby promoting optimized performance until full recovery can be accomplished.  If we are to employ a modified recovery routine, it becomes important to understand the common elements and pathway amongst the various strategies so that we can optimally recover during periods of time in which we cannot utilize our full routine.

If we consider all aspects of the recovery strategies from a polyvagal informed paradigm, a common pathway regarding the mechanism of action of these skills can be deduced.  Ultimately, the ventral vagal state promotes restoration and homeostasis for our biology.  This is the essence of recovery.  When we are able to restore biological homeostasis, it becomes possible to replenish resources.  This implies that the mechanistic common pathway for recovery is increased ventral vagal activation.

Once we recognize that increased activation of the ventral vagal complex is the necessary factor in recovery, it follows that we can optimize our recovery during situations in which we cannot employ our full routine through strategies that increase ventral vagal activation.  Utilizing this perspective, any of the tools within our polyvagal informed toolbox can be employed to provide an element of recovery.  In this situation, a key consideration is to select tools which can be utilized within the constraints of the given situation.  

This strategy can mitigate the scenario until the full recovery routine can be employed.  It is important to emphasize that in such situations in which we must utilize a modified recovery routine, it is particularly necessary to ensure full recovery as soon as circumstances permit.  The modified recovery practice is not recommended for extended durations of time, rather it is a measure which can be employed to ensure some degree of recovery in situations in which the full recovery routine cannot be implemented.

Within the healthcare schedule examples described above, such a strategy may take the form of increasing breathing practices, an emphasis on activation of the social engagement system, ensuring adequate physical activity, and finding additional times for meditation practice.  Each of these elements function to increase ventral vagal activation.  Even during a busy weekend of call or times in which we are not able to obtain sufficient sleep, these tools can be used to increase ventral vagal activation with the intention of mitigating the impact of loss of sleep, at least on a temporary basis.  In addition, increased usage of technologic devices which promote recovery can be implemented while performing other tasks, thereby increasing the opportunity for recovery.   Such a strategy can be similarly employed within any, and all, situations.

Within the polyvagal informed Practices of the Healthcare Athlete, a key element in the pursuit of health, wellbeing, and sustainable high performance is the necessity of recovery and establishing an individual specific recovery routine.  Within any high demand domain, there are inevitably periods of time in which such a routine cannot be fully implemented.  In such circumstances, a modified practice in which polyvagal informed strategies are employed to increase ventral vagal activation can be effective in mitigating the impact of reduced recovery.  This should be followed by full implementation of the recovery routine when circumstances allow.  

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Allison, M.  The Play Zone:  A Neurophysiological Approach to our Highest Performance.  https://theplayzone.com.

Porges, SW.  Polyvagal Safety: Attachment, Communication, Self-Regulation.  New York: W.W. Norton & Company; 2021.

Porges, SW.  The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological Foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, Self-Regulation.  New York: W.W. Norton & Company; 2011.

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