Burned out? The quality of your free time could be a part of the problem
Have you ever wondered “how much energy do we need for the tasks we do at work, at home, or to generally enjoy the things that we like?” What about “how much energy does it take to remember something, to have clarity of mind?” We’re going to break down how we get this energy, where it comes from, and how to best take breaks so we’re keeping our energy.
Largely, people spend their free time watching TV, playing video games, or browsing social media. However from a physiological standpoint: do they drain us or rather refill our energy tanks?
To understand this, we’ll need to know how our bodies manage energy expenditure and restoration. The autonomic nervous system — the system that helps us unconsciously regulate bodily functions — drives this. It tells us when to eat, to sleep, and so on. If we listen to it, we will feel refreshed every day. But if we ignore it for too long, we will start feeling the effects of burnout.
We have two branches of the autonomic nervous system, the sympathetic branch, which is in charge of energy expenditure (related to the fight or flight response, but more generally to activities that require energy, like following a movie plot), and the parasympathetic branch, which is in charge of energy restoration (activities that occur without us consciously engaging such as sleep and digestion).
To operate at optimal performance, our bodies should be given opportunities to switch between both branches of the autonomic nervous system throughout the day as sort of an ebb and flow of activity. Doing work should kick the sympathetic system into action while taking a break should allow the parasympathetic system to restore us. However, there are many leisure activities that are highly stimulating (Fortnight, I am looking at you, and don’t tell me Black Mirror or doom-scrolling is relaxing). These “breaks” can inadvertently keep us “on” (i.e. sympathetic state) when our intentions are to turn “off” and unwind (i.e. parasympathetic state).
So how can we tell if we’re effectively resting or unintentionally stressing our bodies? A methodology called Heart Rate Variability (HRV), or the variance in time between heartbeats, can actually help us know if we are in the sympathetic or the parasympathetic branch. One measurement often used is Heart Rate Variability (HRV), and it measures how variable our heartbeats are.
How is HRV related to our autonomic nervous system? When the parasympathetic system is active, our heart rate has greater variability, tending to beat faster when we inhale and slower when we exhale, thus HRV goes up when we are resting effectively.
Conversely, if our heart rate is very regular regardless of whether we are inhaling or exhaling, then that is a sign that we are in energy expenditure mode, which is normal for activities such as work, but if we are in this state during what should be “restful activities”, it might lead to burnout
So, what to do? It’s simple! One way is to use a respiratory band and a heart rate sensor, which would enable you to measure your HRV every time you take a break to see if it is restoring or draining your energy. This post from Harvard Health Blog has a few good options to get more into depth on it.
A more practical option is to put aside time each day to activate your parasympathetic nervous system with known restorative activities Some well known activities are: spending time in nature, meditating, practicing yoga, breathing exercises and more! You can even put your hand on your heart to see if it goes faster when you inhale and slower when you exhale. Like many other things — you’re not likely to see an immediate effect, your heart rate will drop after a few deep breaths.
Why is this important? Low HRV relates to impairments across the whole body, from high blood sugar (a risk factor for diabetes) to low memory and attention, and general inflammation (a risk factor for some forms of cancer). The reason for the wide array of symptoms is because the autonomic nervous system innervates or every organ and works with the body as a whole system, instead of a collection of independent parts.
If you are constantly feeling drained, have an array of symptoms, such as indigestion (news flash!: we only digest when the parasympathetic system is active!), poor sleep, and/or anxiety, then you might want to spare some time each day to focus on your body, breathing, and the idea of presence. After trying that for a month, (systemic changes are slow!), I bet you will feel a difference!
I would love to know what your experience is like and am happy to answer any questions to the best of my ability. Chat with me @maviperu on Neurable’s Discord (https://discord.gg/RPK4ABm)!