Recovery is a Continuous Process

Recovery is an essential and continuous component of the promotion of health, wellbeing, and sustainable high performance.

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A crucial component to promoting health, wellbeing, and sustainable high performance is the ability to recover. This particularly applies following high demand and high consequence situations, although it is equally important across all aspects of our daily lives.  The principles and skills of recovery have been described in previous articles.  The focus of this article is the discussion of the context of recovery as it applies across all aspects of human performance and life.

Recovery is best considered an ongoing and continuous process which occurs following any event or experience.  The foundational objective of recovery is to restore our biology towards homeostasis.  While it is often the case that we emphasize recovery following high demand, stressful, and high consequence situations, the need for this important strategy is present following any time we consume physical, emotional, mental, or spiritual resources.  As we are continuously expending resources in one form or another and to varying degrees of magnitude, it is the case that we need to regularly and continuously recover back to homeostasis. If we are not able to accomplish this, we will progressively deplete our resources with the predictable negative impacts on our health and a significantly increased risk of burnout, shutdown, and collapse.

Past articles have described the fundamental principles involved with recovery.  These include adequate sleep, proper nutrition and hydration, sufficient exercise, and optimizing mindset skills.  What is important to recognize is the common denominator through which each of these important strategies contributes to recovery.  Ultimately, each of these habits or skills leads to increased ventral vagal activation, which directly contributes to our ability to restore, recover, and return to homeostasis, as described by Stephen Porges, PhD.

While recovery is an ongoing and continuous process, it is particularly crucial when we have shifted into sympathetic and dorsal vagal states.  These biological states are associated with greater degrees of consumption of resources and, therefore, there is a greater need for restoration following instances in which we have shifted into these states.  As described above, it is also necessary to recover following situations in which we have exerted ourselves while maintaining ventral vagal stabilization, although in such scenarios we may not have consumed as much resource.  

It is informative to consider performance experiences in our past in which we have maintained ventral vagal stabilization in comparison to those in which we have shifted into sympathetic or dorsal vagal states from the perspective of resource consumption and the feelings and experience we had following completion of those events.  It is often the case that even in the midst of high demand situations, it may feel relatively more effortless when we maintain ventral vagal stabilization.  In large part this reflects the experience of performing within the optimal blended ventral vagal-sympathetic state, as described by Michael Allison as the Play Zone. Within such a state, despite performing at, or close to, our highest capability, we utilize fewer resources compared to when we have shifted into sympathetic or dorsal vagal states.

As we have now established that we consume resources to various degrees, on the basis of our biological state, and for this reason we must recover on a regular basis, it is instructive to further consider the core component of recovery.  As discussed above, the common pathway amongst each of these skills and strategies of recovery is the promotion of ventral vagal activation.  The recognition of this is important as it provides the understanding that in order to adequately recover, we must increase our ventral vagal tone.  We can also understand that, for each of us, different tools or skills may be more or less effective in optimizing ventral vagal stabilization and this may vary across different situations.  The important aspect to consider is that the optimal strategy for recovery in any given scenario is to implement the specific skills that are most likely to increase ventral vagal activation for ourself in that moment.  The particular skills or combination of skills may differ across different situations.  The key is finding what is best for us in that moment.

The ability to implement skills and strategies to increase ventral vagal activation allows our biology to restore homeostasis.  This is necessary for the promotion of health and wellbeing, as well as to sufficiently replenish resources so that we can sustainably perform at a high level.  It is also important to recognize that following especially high demand situations, either physical, emotional, mental, or a combination thereof, there can be a tendency to collapse given extreme consumption of resources and fatigue.  It is critical that we distinguish collapse into a dorsal vagal state from true and active recovery within a ventral vagal state.  These two states can resemble each other in some ways, however one aspect that is truly distinct amongst these states is that we do not return to homeostasis and restoration of resources from a dorsal vagal state.  This issue of distinguishing between ventral and dorsal vagal sates has been more fully discussed in a previous article.

An important application of the understanding of the underlying common pathway amongst the recovery skills is the ability to optimize our recovery even if the current situation is not fully conducive to this objective.  For example, obtaining sufficient sleep is a core principle of recovery, however what are we to do if this is not an option?  For instance, within the healthcare domain, during a busy weekend of call.  In such a situation, owing to the high demand nature of the situation, recovery is essential, however we may not be able to fully implement all of the related skills and strategies.  It is particularly in such a scenario that the understanding of the ventral vagal state in the process of recovery becomes empowering.  If certain recovery skills are not available, we can implement other skills and strategies from the polyvagal informed toolbox to increase ventral vagal stabilization.  In such a circumstance, we can obtain some degree of recovery during the ongoing situation and then be sure to more fully invest in recovery when it becomes possible to do so.  It is important to emphasize that this strategy is not a replacement or substitute for complete recovery, rather it is, effectively, a stop-gap measure which can be employed when it is not possible to engage all of the principles of recovery.

As can be appreciated from this discussion, recovery is a necessary and continuous process.  We are always in need of restoring our resources and returning to homeostasis.  The necessary skills and strategies of recovery must, therefore, be regularly implemented.  It is also important to utilize available skills if we are not able to fully focus on recovery given an ongoing situation.  Through implementation of these strategies, we are best able to pursue health, wellbeing, and sustainable high performance in alignment with the Practices of the Healthcare Athlete.  

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Allison, M.  The Play Zone:  A Neurophysiological Approach to our Highest Performance.

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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