The next step in shoring up our health foundation is assessing our recovery status so we know when we can get back to our health and wellness goals.
We have discussed how stress impacts us and how to manage and mitigate its effects. In my previous post we discussed the importance of recovery after a stressor. Now we need to know how to tell if we have recovered to the point where we can put our full focus back on our number one health and wellness goal.
Many people experience different symptoms when they experience stress. Sleep, appetite, mood, physical performance, energy, mental capacity, lack of motivation, excessive fatigue….all of these things and more can be affected by a stressful situation. We can also use objective markers like fasting blood glucose, resting heart rate, and heart rate variability.
Once the stressor subsides it is not like these things just suddenly return to normal. Many of us, especially the type A people out there, expect that suddenly we can just jump right back to our same old routine. Unfortunately the body needs time to recover from the stressor and many objective and subjective markers will take some time to return to normal.
As a coach I am constantly on the lookout for signs of compromised recovery in my clients. Everyone experiences stress differently and has a different tolerance for it, so there is no definitive way to tell if someone has recovered.
The one universal truth is the longer you try to push through and not dedicate time to recover the bigger the hole you are digging yourself and the longer it’s going to take you to get out of it.
Here are the things I tend to look for as ways to judge someone’s recovery status.
I think we underestimate our mood as an indicator of recovery. A major reason is that we never take the time to step back and observe why we are feeling the way we are. It is not a coincidence that when you are recovered, your mood is generally positive. You have a lot of energy, your motivation is high, you have the drive to work really hard at achieving your goal. During and after periods of stress your mood tends to shift and you can become irritated, angry, and have a short temper.
During periods of stress we expend a lot of energy. Even if the stressor requires expending only mental energy, it’s still energy, and that needs to be replenished. Many people may find themselves reaching for an extra coffee, wanting to take a nap, or skipping workout because they no longer have the energy they need to make it through the day. Unfortunately we only have so much energy that we can expend throughout the day, and since we have depleted our reserves we need to spend time recovering our energy to feel like we can once again tackle the day like we used to.
Stress generally causes hunger to go in one of two ways, it either goes way up or way down. I have seen clients that get insatiable appetites while others have very little appetite at all and even feel sick to their stomach. The drive to eat more can be due to the amount of energy you are expending, more calories = more energy. At the same time the constant stress you might be putting yourself under can put a pause on your digestion making you want to eat less. Just know that either extreme can be a sign of needing additional recovery.
Normally when you are well rested and fresh you are very ambitious, you have a drive to work, do chores, exercise, go for a walk etc. However, when you have been pushing yourself too hard your body wants you to take a break, so your ambition to do things that you would normally do suddenly takes a monumental amount of effort.
Oftentimes when people are under large amounts of stress their sleep quality starts to decline. They tend to wake up a lot at night and don’t feel as rested in the morning. This can all affect their mood, energy, and hunger as well as the objective markers we will talk about below (can you see how all of these start to play into each other?). Even after the stress has subsided, your body is still in a heightened state and you may still experience disrupted sleep. In addition, sleep can be very habitual, so if we have disrupted sleep for several weeks we can develop bad habits that persist long after the stressor is over.
When you have pushed your body hard and are under a lot of stress you will generally see a rise in your resting heart rate. In general, when your resting heart rate rises your heart rate variability will decline. Heart rate variability is a measure of the variability between heart beats. The more variability between your heart beats signals that your body is in balance with stress and rest. When there is less variability it means you are out of balance, and in today’s world that means that it is due to too much stress. I track both resting heart rate and heart rate variability in my one on one clients as an indicator of possibly needing to take a break.
The other objective marker that might become dysregulated during and after a period of stress is your blood glucose. During acute stressful situations your body releases glucose from its stores in order to provide you with a quick, readily available source of energy. Chronic stress will cause this release to happen much more regularly, so you might see higher than average blood glucose numbers. In addition, other lifestyle factors that are negatively affected by stress like poor sleep, lack of movement and exercise, as well as poor food choices can compound the problem.
When it comes to knowing when you have given yourself adequate time to recover we cannot look to any single one of these markers as the end all be all. In my experience it is always a combination of them. In general you will know you are adequately recovered when most of these markers are more or less optimal for a few days in a row.
What I observe in clients is that the objective markers usually start to trend down first under periods of stress and then the subject markers usually follow a few days after. For example here is one clients HRV and resting HR measurements
The dotted red line is his resting HR, the green and yellow dots are his HRV. As you can see HRV steadily declines over the course of several days.
In this case this individual has a very long race, and then piled on top of that he moved to a new home. As you can imagine the two events put him under a large amount of stress. The decline in HRV and slight rise in HR surfaced first then a few days after that happened I got a message from him saying…
“…I find I am never fully satisfied. I am never ‘full’”
“Don’t seem to have much mental energy”
“Can’t focus at work. No energy at the end of the day. Bed by 9:30 and wake up tired.”
He needed to recover.
We immediately added many of the stress mitigating practices I talked about in my previous post, and also went through the stress audit and prune exercise to modify his lifestyle temporarily to eliminate any unnecessary stressors.
After about a week of that we saw his HRV, resting HR and his subjective markers return to normal. While under stress objective markers tend to tank before subjective markers. When judging recovery I find that both objective and subjective markers usually return to normal roughly at the same rate.
Once everything points to you being recovered it’s important not to rush back into “all the things”. You are likely in a more fragile state and your capacity to handle the same stress load may not be there. Ease back into your normal routine, take it slow, gradually adjust. Depending on how long the stressful situation lasted you might need quite a bit of time taking it easy.
With the stress and recovery pieces in place you are now well on your way to shoring up your health and wellness foundation! Congrats! The last major piece to master is your sleep. I saved this piece for last because frankly it’s the hardest to get right. That said it is not impossible, and there are some things you can do that will provide quick wins in the area of sleep.
If you want to dive into the sleep component of your health foundation with me, be sure to sign up for my newsletter using the form below. I will email you links to the posts as they become available over the coming weeks so you can optimize your health foundation to make sure you are successful reaching your goals!