As Brad Pitt said in Mr. and Mrs. Smith, "I guess when we come to the end, we start thinking about the beginning." So here we are at the end of the year and I find myself pondering the roots of Less Doing. I started working on a new method of productivity with one goal, to reduce the negative effects that stress had on my body. I realized that stress was such an impactful part of my Crohn's Disease as well as an impedance to optimal performance. Stress in itself is not the enemy, or even a bad thing. Stress is simply a force and when it's a positive force we call it eustress, while a negative force is called distress. For the purposes of this post when I refer to stress I mean the bad kind. It is our response to stress and our ability to bounce back from that stress that determines how it will effect our lives.
Fortunately, and unfortunately, you are in control of how you "deal" with stress. We can learn to recognize the signs, and even inoculate ourselves against bad stress. The first two parts are the easiest to accomplish, it's the inoculation that takes some work and where I'll focus my efforts and I'll start with the simplest and move to the most extreme.
In terms of recognizing stress, you may be tuned enough already to know that slow internet drives you crazy, or somebody cutting you off while driving makes you want to smash you fist through the window. Perhaps a fight with your significant other, a baby crying, or even a negative comment on a blog post makes your stomach groan. Incidentally, we have so many neurons in our gut that it's often referred to as the second brain and why many people feel stress in their stomachs AND why bad diet and chronic digestive issues can lead to feelings of anxiety and even depression. Chronic stress leads to inflammation and chronic inflammation leads to all sorts of metabolic conditions and illnesses like Crohn's Disease, Ulcerative Colitis, Rheumatoid Arthritis, and even Diabetes and Obesity. A simple protocol known as Heart Rate Variability, or HRV can tell you massive amounts amount what causes you stress and on the flip side, when you are at your peak performance levels. Basically our heart beats vary from beat to beat. So a heart rate of 60 bpm means that their may be .97 seconds between beats and then 1.02 seconds between beats and so on. This flux in rythym is the dance that takes place between our parasympathetic (relax and recover) and the sympathetic (flight or flight or freeze) nervous system that takes place moment to moment. Ideally we want to perform well under pressure but more importantly we need to be able to drop right back out of that heightened state into a state or rest or recovery as quickly as possible. Think of a Navy SEAL waiting in total silence for 48 hours then jumping into a life or death situation that may last 2 minutes, and finally needing to have the wherewithal and a "cool head" to safely get out of the situation.
The good news is that you can train your HRV. There are a number of apps and devices out there that allow you to work on what's known as coherence training where you learn the effect breathing has on your nervous system response and you can train yourself to control it. Apps like HRV Sense from the Bulletproof Exec and Sweetwater use a bluetooth chest strap which you can wear all day and learn the things that truly stress you out. Maybe you didn't realize that running out of eggs drives you crazy on an unconscious level or that talking on the phone before you've had your breakfast sets you up for a bad day. You also may not have realized that for whatever reason, around 4:30PM each day you experience an hour of complete zen that you can take advantage of to do some of your best creative work or a really hard workout. Apps like Inner Balance and Azumio Stress Doctor, as well as devices like the emWave2 don't track as much as they train. Spend 5 minutes with the $5 Stress Doctor app in the morning and before bed and you'll swear you just meditated for an hour or got a massage.
Giving yourself some perspective on any situation is usually a good thing. When it comes to actually hardening yourself against the stress response and acclimating yourself to the feelings you'll experience, there are a number of ways to accomplish this and here are some examples, in order of easiest to most hardcore:
- Breath Control - Box breathing involves breathing in and out for the same amount of time, maybe a count of 4. Try working your way up to a 10 count.
- Brain Training - Brain games like those offered by Brain Turk can actually make you smarter but they tend to be really stressful because they are difficult and tax various parts of our brains at the same time.
- Contrast Therapy - Mixing hot and cold such as in a shower, using a sauna and cold plunge, or just an ice bath can help recovery, fat loss, and yes, stress response.
- Cold Calling - Most people hate to do this, so give it a try. If it doesn't apply to you approach a stranger and strike up a conversation, I still have trouble with that one.
- Workouts - Try doing your workout in the cold. Give a high intensity interval training session a try where you rapidly cycle between maximal effort and rest. Do a workout in a fasted state where you haven't eaten in the past 12 hours.
- New Skills - Learn self defense such as Krav Maga (when you train how to get out of a choke hold you are actually getting choked). Give an acting or stand up comedy class a chance to really get out of your comfort zone. Become an EMT and realize that someone elses life might be in your hands. Take a survival course and learn how to live in a way you never have.
- Endurance Event - Train for a Ironman Triathlon. Participate in an obstacle endurance event like Tough Mudder or Spartan Race.
The goal is to discover your inner warrior. The other thing is that even though the situations are self imposed you need to make them as realistic as possible. When I was learning gun disarms in Krav Maga, you would work with a partner, they would hold the gun to you, and you would disarm them. My instructor would be adamant that you didn't do the move and then hand the gun to your partner. You had to walk away, compose yourself and then hand it over. I thought it was a bit of overkill until I read a story about a police officer who was confronted by a robber in a store and after successfully taking away his gun, he handed it back because that's how he had trained it. The point is, your training should actually hurt, it should actually scare you, it should actually push you beyond what you think your limits are.
After all of this, self talk becomes extremely important. It's great once you can connect your breath and your stress response, and even use it to control your situation. Nothing, however, will top your ability to tell yourself authoritatively "I've been through worse."