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How to Decompress on Sabbatical

Decompression is so important at the beginning of a sabbatical. Giving yourself permission to slow down and allow yourself to physically and psychologically process stress will set you up for being able to make the most of your sabbatical experience.


The decompression phase starts on the first day of your sabbatical and is crucial for letting go of the built-up stress and tension you've been holding in your body and mind. It can take quite some time to release our everyday life patterns and move into the mode of just being. This phase involves shedding the identities that give us status in our normal lives—the job title, the membership status, attachment to possessions for status—so that we can get back to the core of who we are. I often refer to this process as getting back my “mojo,” returning to the real me without the judgment or labels of the world.


It’s also about slowing down and finding a new pace on sabbatical. What’s happening in your brain during this phase is the slowing down of our brain waves from fast mental activity to a more relaxed state. In everyday life, our brains operate in the fast beta frequency most of the time, which takes an incredible amount of energy and can lead to anxiety and stress. Our brains need to decompress just as much as our bodies.


The Decompression Model is a visual representation of how to decompress and recover from stress during the beginning of a sabbatical.




 

Physical Recovery


This aspect focuses on activities and practices that help the body to rest, rejuvenate, and regain its energy. To decompress in the first phase of your sabbatical, you need to focus on several key areas:


  • Exercise: Engaging in regular physical activity such as walking, jogging, yoga, or swimming can help relieve stress and improve physical health. Activities like dance or stretching can also be beneficial, depending on what your body needs and what feels good to you.

  • Rest and Sleep: Ensuring adequate sleep and rest periods is crucial for the body to repair and restore itself. Practicing good sleep hygiene, such as maintaining a consistent sleep schedule and creating a restful environment, is essential to get back to quality sleep.

  • Nutrition: Eating a balanced diet that provides essential nutrients supports physical health and energy levels. Reducing alcohol intake and focusing on nutritious foods can boost your decompression.

  • Relaxation Techniques: Practices such as massage, breathing exercises, and other relaxing activities that are pleasurable to you can help relax the body and reduce physical tension.


These may seem obvious or basis, but it’s constantly surprising to me the number of times that people forget or deprioritise these things at the beginning of a sabbatical. Give yourself permission to focus on the basics and create a solid foundation for the rest of your sabbatical.

 

Psychological Recovery


This aspect focuses on regaining mental and emotional balance through four key elements: autonomy, detachment, mastery, and connection. During your sabbatical, it’s essential to focus on the following:


  • Autonomy: This involves taking control of your own time and decisions. It’s critical that you have as much autonomy over your schedule and how your time and activities are planned as possible.

  • Detachment: Psychological recovery requires the ability to detach from work-related stressors. This means emotionally and mentally switching off from work and not engaging with your normal work related activities or people. Avoiding anything that feels like work or triggers stress is crucial.

  • Mastery: Engaging in activities that provide a sense of achievement and competence is crucial. This can include learning new skills, pursuing hobbies, or engaging in tasks that challenge and fulfill you. Mastery helps build confidence and self-efficacy. These activities should be pleasurable and help you enter a flow state.

  • Connection: Building and maintaining meaningful relationships is essential for emotional well-being. Spending time with family and friends, participating in community activities, or seeking support from social networks helps foster a sense of belonging and reduces feelings of isolation. Connecting with yourself through introspective activities can also be beneficial.


Supporting Environment


At the base of the model is the supporting environment, which is essential for facilitating both physical and psychological recovery. This environment includes:


  • Nature: Spending time outdoors and connecting with nature has been shown to reduce stress and improve overall well-being. Activities like hiking, gardening, or simply sitting in a park can be very restorative.

  • Routine Change: Breaking away from old habits and routines helps create space for new, healthier practices. This might involve altering your daily schedule, incorporating regular exercise, meditation, or creative pursuits into your life, or traveling.

  • New Experiences: Trying new activities and exploring new places can stimulate the mind and provide a fresh perspective. This could include travel, taking up a new hobby, or exploring different cultural events.

  • Support: Establishing a network of support is crucial during this phase. This might involve talking to friends and family, joining communities with similar interests, seeking coaching, or engaging in therapy. These supportive interactions can provide guidance, encouragement, and a sense of community.

 

This model is grounded in extensive research on recovery from work stress and the optimal use of breaks to recharge. Adapted specifically for the sabbatical context, it has been consistently validated through my experiences working with my clients as they plan and take a sabbatical. Influential insights from German psychologist Prof. Sabine Sonnentag, David Newman's DRAMMA model, and research by Gruman & Healey have all informed and shaped the elements of this approach.


The amount of time you spend in the decompression phase is relative to how wound up you've been in normal life and how quickly you are able to let go and decompress. You'll know when you're reaching the end of this phase when one day you sit back and realize that you haven't thought about work for days, maybe even weeks, and you've never felt calmer and more relaxed. Trust the natural process of decompression and allow as much time as it takes for you. This phase is essential for setting the foundation for the rest of your sabbatical, allowing you to fully embrace the journey ahead.


If you need support, check out my coaching program which will support you through this process and look at the other free tools and articles.

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