Reduce My Stress? Easy Peasy (Cough, Cough)

Stress Ball.png

“I’m so stressed out.”  I hear it all the time.  And I don’t think people are bluffing.  Stress has become a silent epidemic in our lives – the elephant in the room crowding out our wellness, happiness, and relationships.  It’s also tricky to see.  We usually only notice its downstream consequences – weight gain, inability to focus, anxiety and depression.  But in a cruel twist of fuzzy thinking, most of us see its symptoms but struggle to find the cause.  I was reminded of this recently when I had a little surprise about my own body fat ratio, which comes in part from this past year being one of my most stressful.

As part of the Deep Change Project, I’ve been working on reducing my stress for over a month, with moderate success.  I’d like to say I’m killing it, but that sounds sort of stressful, doesn’t it? 

Here’s what’s working so far…

Listening to My Body

The hardest part about listening to my body is believing my body – slowing down when it tells me to.  My habit in the past has been to push past the exhaustion and keep powering through.  The badge of busyness calls like a siren song.  As Gary Vaynerchuck says, “I’m grinding when you’re sleeping.”  But over the past month and a half, I’ve been trying hard to give my body a little more love and to tell it that I trust it.  Weirdly, it’s feels a bit like restoring trust in a relationship – for too long, I’ve ignored the subtle signals my body is trying to tell me, all of which (I know! I know!) are for my own good.  The hardest part, of course, is that my body doesn’t scream at me (until it’s usually too late).  I’m slowly starting to hear the way my body communicates with me, usually in the form of discomfort—the sleepy feeling in the afternoon, the twinge of agitation while I’m driving, the inability to focus—all of which are signs that I need to pause and recharge my battery.  My favorite recharge?  The 27-minute afternoon nap.

Mornings Are Magic

So far, I’ve been sticking to my morning routine of reading, exercise, and meditation.  One word – wow!  It feels like when my foundation starts right, the day that I build on top of it is steady, focused, and flowing from a place of intention.  There’s also good science behind why inserting a healthy sense of control into your day is good for you.  And that’s definitely the feeling – if I start the day on my routine, I feel in control the rest of my day.  The flip side, however, has also proven true.  There are mornings when I don’t get my routine done first thing – so I insert the reading at lunch, exercise in the afternoon, and meditation after dinner.  Better late than never, I suppose.  But I’ve noticed that if I do it first thing in the morning, it gives me an extra dose of stress relief.

Belly Breathe

Cars are usually stress boxes – we’re late, we’re irritated by traffic, our lower back hurts.  You know the drill.  So when I tell people that spending time in my car has become one of my favorite de-stressing hacks, they usually raise an eyebrow.  Last spring at the World Happiness Summit, Stanford professor Fred Luskin said something I’ll never forget.  He said if your belly is tense, you’re sending a signal to your brain that you’re in danger.  (Yes, those pants that are a size too tight are stressing you out in more ways than one.)  The antidote, he said, is to learn how to “belly breathe.”  The best part is it can be done anywhere, anytime.  Put one hand on your belly and inhale deeply as if you’re filling a big balloon.  Breathe into your hand and slowly breath out.  Sometimes it helps to count in for three and out for six.  That’s it!  This will activate your parasympathetic calming response and is the closest thing I’ve found to squeezing the benefits of meditation into your commute.  So in your next traffic jam, while everyone around you is revving up, you’ll be cooling down and showing up to your next appointment with a full tank of attention.

Alright, here’s what’s not working…

Permission Granted

The biggest hurdles I’ve faced are all in my head.  It’s easy to forget that this is hard stuff.  There’s something in the cultural water system we’ve collectively internalized that tells us self-care (i.e., things that lower stress) is indulgent, lazy, even morally bad.  And sure enough, some days I’ll give myself permission to recharge and some days I won’t.  Afternoon nap?  Feel like dynamite when I take it.  How often do I take it?  Less than I’d like.  So I’ll continue to push through the mental chatter telling me I’m lazy and uncommitted, and the sinking shame of “getting caught” taking a nap.

Sleep

I’m tired of pushing the limits of sleep.  I know I need to get between 6 & ½ - 7 hours of sleep to not get sick.  But simply “not getting sick” is a pretty depressing goal.  What I’d like to do is be my absolute best self.  And for that, I know I regularly need 8 – 8 & ½ hours of sleep.  That’s when I feel emotional control, optimal cognitive performance, and stress resilience.  I’ve been tracking my sleep for over a month now, and I finally have a definitive average on my Zs: 6 hours, 47 minutes.  It’s enough to keep me out of the sick zone, but not enough to create “stress resilience.”  And as Vital Neuro co-founder Alex Doman recently reminded me – it’s cyclical.  If you have a bad night of sleep, your body wakes up more stressed; and when your body’s more stressed, you can’t sleep. And since brains are “positive illusion” factories, before I started tracking my sleep I thought I was getting somewhere closer to 7 & ½ hours per night.  Not so.  Sleep remains an area for improvement.

Can Brain Tech Reduce Stress?  

In addition to the “analog” improvements to my stress, I’ve recently begun using the latest stress-reducing brain tech.  This is exciting new territory.  I started with Vital Neuro’s tech that soothes and calms through a sophisticated combination of EEG sensors, real-time neurofeedback, and sound frequencies that help “entrain” your brain to get into optimal states.  This week, I’m experimenting with Apollo Neuroscience’s brain tech, which uses a complex set of vibrational patterns to help you achieve your preferred brain states – whether that’s calm, energized, or focused.  And lastly, I’ll be using TouchPoint’s devices, which use a unique combination of alternating vibrational stimulation to soothe and calm your body.  Will they be welcome additions to what I’m already doing?  For sure.  Will they replace my other foundational stress-reducing practices?  Unlikely.  

The research is clear – chronic stress is a root cause for much of our sickness and suffering.  So while we may be distracted by the symptoms of stress—weight gain, trouble focusing, depression—as Henry David Thoreau reminds us, “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.”  Reducing stress is no picnic.  But the fact that the journey is so difficult makes me think it may be one of the most important.  Tackling stress may not be easy, but doing nothing may be even harder. 


James Garrett