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When was the last time you felt truly rested, refreshed, and ready to take on the day?

Job demands are higher than ever, and with increased work speed, job insecurity, and complex, fast-changing work environments, stress is on the rise.

Gallup found that 2020 was officially the most stressful year in recent history, with a record-high 40% of adults worldwide saying they experienced a lot of stress.

Stress is what occurs when demand exceeds our capacity. However, stress is not necessarily bad for us. As long as we manage to recover after a stressful period, there is little harm in feeling stressed.

The science behind recovery

Microsoft recently proved the importance of recovery. Researchers conducted brain scans of 14 people during four half-hour back-to-back meetings—once without breaks and once with 10-minute breaks in-between each meeting.

In the brain scan image below, blue indicates little or no stress, whereas red, orange, and yellow indicate higher levels of stress. As you can see, those people who didn’t take breaks experienced higher levels of stress throughout the day.

What it comes down to is that our bodies are designed to move rhythmically between periods of stress and recovery, also known as oscillation.

It’s not only true that we have a need to recover, but we also have a need to recover in a very particular way. In the 1950s, sleep researcher Nathaniel Kleitman discovered that the human body tends to move through 90–120 minute cycles. At night, these cycles correspond to the different stages of sleep. During the day, these cycles correspond to different levels of energy and alertness. Kleitman referred to these cycles as the “basic rest-activity cycle”. Since then, others have called these cycles ultradian rhythms.

In their book The Power of Full Engagement, Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz say:

“These ultradian rhythms help to account for the ebb and flow of our energy throughout the day. Physiological measures such as heart rate, hormonal levels, muscle tension and brain-wave activity all increase during the first part of the cycle—and so does alertness. After an hour or so, these measures start to decline. Somewhere between 90 and 120 minutes, the body begins to crave a period of rest and recovery.”

While this may seem like a mere piece of science trivia, the implications for our health and productivity are immense. Every 90–120 minutes we move from higher to lower alertness, also known as the ultradian performance rhythm (see Figure 2 above). 

Think about your own experience. How often do you hit a point during the day when you feel incapable of getting more done? You’re most likely at a very low point in the ultradian performance cycle. 

However, especially when demand is high, we often don’t pay much attention to signs such as physical restlessness, wandering attention, greater irritability, and a tendency to procrastinate. Instead, we routinely override it with coffee, sweets, and other stimulants, but most of all by depleting our energy reserves, in the form of stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol.

While these stress hormones provide us with an energy boost to combat stress in the short-term when used on a long-term basis, it imparts physical, mental, and emotional tolls that are potentially destructive and ultimately undermine our effectiveness.

Simple steps for better performance, health, and happiness

What I often hear from my clients is: “I don’t have the time to take long breaks with everything that’s going on in my life, both personally and professionally”, but it’s not the quantity of recovery that matters, it’s the quality of your recovery that matters. 

It’s possible, for example, to significantly relax the body, quiet the mind, and calm our emotions simply by changing the way we breathe. Breathing in through your nose to a count of three and out through your mouth to a count of six prompts a significant feeling of relaxation in less than a minute.

It’s no secret that regular exercise improves health and well-being. A growing body of research also suggests that physical fitness promotes brain health; a regular exercise routine can decrease the effects of stress on the body, improve mental health and mood, and enhance memory and cognition. Even short movement breaks during the workday can go a long way in helping you refuel, recharge, and re-energize.

Meditation is often viewed as a spiritual practice, however, at a more practical level, it’s simply a tool to improve our mental focus and promote recovery. A perfectly adequate meditation technique, for example, involves sitting quietly and breathing deeply for as little as 3 minutes a day, counting each exhalation, and starting over when you reach ten. 

It’s also no coincidence that many athletes wear headphones as they prepare for competition. Researchers have discovered that music improves the body’s immune system function, increases the amount of the feel-good hormone dopamine, and reduces stress.

As we seek to thrive in increasingly complex, fast-changing work environments, mastering oscillation—the rhythmic movement between stress and recovery—is now more important than ever. We perform better, we feel better, and we get more accomplished when we take regular breaks throughout the day and we are most effective when we alternate between active forms of recovery, such as physical movement or forms of stretching, and more passive forms of recovery, such as meditation or listening to music.