Self care: the importance of decompression time

Divers are taught to undertake careful pre- and post-diving routines to look after themselves and others.  In our own lives, we can benefit from the same strategies.  Photo by Julian Dufort on Unsplash

When your life is running normally, and things are OK, you can slip in and out of activities with hardly a glance backwards.  Work ends, and play starts; play ends and rest starts; rest ends and sleep starts… and so on.  The movement between your activities is relatively smooth, like a dancer’s, because you have energy to spare, and the mental faculties to make transitions easily.


When you are going through more difficult times, you have less spare energy.  This means that the transitions between your different activities will take longer, and be more difficult to negotiate.  For example, you may find that you wake up, and it seems almost impossible to transfer yourself from your bed to the bathroom, let alone get out of the house in time!  And if anything happens in between to complicate things (maybe someone phones you, or you spill something), then it can feel as if your life is collapsing around you.

Psychologically, what is happening is that your mind and body are being economical with your energy.  Instead of offering you plenty of inner resource to dance around your life, your internal system has decided that it does not have much to spare.  This can be caused by a life change, a bereavement, an acute threat, an injury or illness… whatever the case, your mind and body are actually being quite sensible: they are limiting the energy you have available to expend on extra stuff, so that you can keep doing the basics.


How can you adjust your self-care routine to make the best of such times?

Well, one thing you can do is give yourself longer to make your usual transitions between states.

For example:

  1. If your job is particularly busy, and you are exhausted, then give yourself longer to wind down at the end of the day.  Perhaps use the car journey to decompress, even stopping off at a service station en route to home.  Anything to moderate the shock of moving straight from work to home.  If you don’t do this, you may find yourself ‘taking it out’ on your loved ones.  You may arrive back still buzzing from hard work: you see something untidy, and before you know it you are shouting at your family to ‘pick up after yourself!’  To prevent this, make sure you have decompressed by the time you arrive.
  2. If your usual meditation or chill time is failing to work at difficult times, then try giving yourself longer ‘in’ and ‘out’ times.  Invent an activity before you meditate, which is designed to get you into the right state of mind.  This is actually best practice for many meditators anyway: it is good to undertake some quite extended preparation where possible, if you really want to benefit from a good mind state.  Equally, after your meditation or chill time, perhaps don’t leap straight back into the fray.  Have something you do which gets you back into the swing of things, perhaps a short walk, or a brief face wash.
The main message here is that, when times are hard, your transitions between activities need to be even better managed than usual.  Leaping between your different tasks is a violence to your brain, and can only result in more tiredness.


Think of divers coming up from deep sea.  There are protocols to avoid damage: you usually come up slowly, letting your body acclimatise.  In extreme situations, you even spend time in a ‘decompression chamber’, designed to gradually change the air pressure around you so that it is easier to adapt to normal surface conditions.

This is relevant, for instance, to counselling, both for counsellors and clients.  At difficult times, the transitions to and from counselling become very important, as do transitions between states within counselling.  If you think about it, in a deeper counselling session you are being a bit like a deep sea diver, diving into yourself, taking risks to see what is there, and learn and gain from it.  At difficult times in your life, you may wish to invent pre-counselling activities.  (For instance, when I am receiving counselling, I often visit a nearby cafe beforehand – this helps me to adjust, as my mind and body learn that this is a pre-counselling routine.  It also helps me to arrive on time, as I am already nearby.)  You may also want to develop a post-counselling routine.  Leaping back into your normal social life may work for some, but not all.  A short walk, or a drive, may help you to be prepared for contact with others again.

As with counselling, so with other self-care activities.  Warm up and warm down.  Treat your mind and body with respect.  Mind your transitions.


Just for a day, observe how you move between activities.  Notice how you respond to the changes.  Is getting out of bed easy or difficult?  How could you manage the transition better?  Do you treat those around you as appendages to your activities, or do you give yourself time to bow and honour your loved ones as you move around your life?  Are you so busy refocusing on your next thing that you ignore the people you bump into in between?  What would it take for you to give yourself more time?  What transitional activities seem to make it better?  Little routines?  Little walks?  A deep breath?  Find out what works for you.



When life is normal, we move between different activities with barely a thought.  When times get hard, we can be awful to live with, and lose both care and patience.  We can adjust to difficult times by inventing little interim activities to help us transition between one thing and another.  That way, we are more adaptable, and more friendly as we move around our usual timetable.