Avoiding Self Sabotage (Part 3)

This April, I will be leading a 3-day Stress Proof Retreat in the North Carolina mountains, focused on the biology and psychology of stress, and how to build immunity to its powerful (and undesirable) effects.

As we discussed in previous posts, these methods offer relief from most forms of stress and anxiety, and a lasting solution to all forms of stress-related illness, ranging from joint pains and digestive disorders to high blood pressure and panic attacks. Yet for all the power inherent in methods like these, people can (and do) still find ways to sabotage their own development - trying hard for a short time, then burning out and lapsing back into self-destructive habits.

Over the last couple of posts, we have been looking at the four most common pitfalls associated with resilience training - or for that matter, any kind of lifestyle / behavior change. Namely:

1) Too much time awake
2) Too much artificial light
3) Too much sugar
4) Too much sitting

For a full description of pitfalls 1 to 3, see previous posts. Here, we will be looking at the final pitfall.

2) Too much sitting

Problem: Note the phrasing, here. In the first post in this series, we looked at the perils of sleep deprivation. But we didn’t state the problem in terms of “not getting enough sleep.” This is because absolute sleep requirements vary. They vary with metabolism, with activity, even with altitude, and even with environment.

I once did a wilderness survival course with legendary master of Systema Konstantin Komarov, we spent three days in a mountain forest - building shelters from foliage, learning to track and navigate and practicing combat techniques. In the cold, damp, hastily-built shelters, we averaged 2-3 hours of sleep per night. Yet we all left the camp feeling alert and invigorated. The explanation? The lush, green forest provided more available oxygen than most of us urbanites were used to. Hence, snatching 3 hours of sleep here was like getting 6 hours in the city.

As we said before, the real problem here is not the net amount of time you spend asleep, it’s the net amount of time you spend awake. With no opportunity to rest and recharge, your body has no chance to conduct essential housekeeping and repairs; your brain fails to “wire in” new memories and learning; and attention, judgement, and emotional stability all become impaired.
 
So it is with sitting. It’s not the net amount of time you spend moving and exercising that’s important. It’s the net amount of time you spend static and stagnant.

The average American spends 9-10 hours of their day sitting. This includes time spent seated at a static desk or computer, slumped on the couch at home, or sitting down to eat and drink. Sitting for such prolonged periods affects practically every system in your body.

Here’s how:

  • In the musculoskeletal system, sitting weakens muscles and tendons, and leaves bones more porous and brittle - increasing your risk of osteoporosis and bone breaks.
  • In the circulatory system, it weakens cardiac muscle, makes blood vessels stiff and inflexible, and decreases the oxygen-carrying capacity of your blood.
  • In the immune system, it slows the movement of lymph to a crawl, making infections more frequent and harder to fight off.
  • In the endocrine system, it elevates your resting levels of the stress hormone cortisol and makes your body more resistant to the effects of insulin - leaving you predisposed to obesity and type 2 diabetes.
  • In the nervous system, it leads to the gradual loss of brain volume - especially in areas related to movement, memory, and learning - increasing your likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s Disease and other forms of dementia.


Compelling recent research has shown that chronic sitting increases your risk of developing your risk of developing diabetes by 100%, your risk of developing circulatory or heart disease by 150%, and your chance of dying from any given disease by 50%.

Now here’s the thing - even if you eat right and exercise regularly, this will not counteract the accumulated effects of sitting still for 8 to 12 hours a day.

This is why I have phrased this pitfall “too much sitting”, rather than “not enough exercise”. Chronic sitting has its own negative effects that are quite distinct from those of insufficient exercise. In fact, even if you exercise to the level of a competitive athlete, if it is done between prolonged bouts (8-12 hours) of sitting, you will still suffer most of the negative effects outlined above.

Solution:

1) Take stock of the amount of time you spend sitting still each day, and make an active decision to reduce it

2) If you have a sedentary job, make efforts to break up long periods of sitting wherever possible. Set your watch or smartphone to chime on the hour. When it goes off, stop what you’re doing immediately and move (if you’re in a meeting and can’t leave, just do all of this at the earliest possible opportunity after the meeting ends). Go for a 5-minute walk, or perform the 5-minute desk reset routine outlined in our Stress Proof classes and retreat. Done correctly, even a little of this type of movement is enough to reset your tension, stress and hormone levels, and counteract the worst effects of stasis.

3) Instead of snack breaks, take unscheduled movement breaks. Take every opportunity to move throughout your day. Phone calls to make? Batch them together, and do them all while walking outside. Stopping for gas on the way home? Do a few squats while the tank fills.
Watching TV? Sit on the floor, and you’ll feel more compelled to stretch or shift positions every once in a while. Implement all this, and you may well get some odd looks and comments here and there. But ask yourself - which would you rather be: weak, sick, and average, or strong, fit and stress proof?

There is still time to sign up for the NC SYSTEMA Stress Proof Retreat in the beautiful North Carolina mountains, Apr 28 - May 01. Learn the complete biology and psychology of stress, how to build immunity to its most damaging effects, how to become your own healthcare system, and how to ensure yours is a full and vibrant life. Sign up here.

Avoiding Self Sabotage (Part 2)

This April, I will be leading a 3-day Stress Proof Retreat in the North Carolina mountains, focused on the biology and psychology of stress, and how to build immunity to its powerful (and undesirable) effects.

As we discussed in the previous post, these methods offer relief from most forms of stress and anxiety, and a lasting solution to all forms of stress-related illness, ranging from joint pains and digestive disorders to high blood pressure and panic attacks. Yet for all the power inherent in methods like these, people can (and do) still find ways to sabotage their own development - trying hard for a short time, then burning out and lapsing back into self-destructive habits.

Last time, we looked at four common pitfalls associated with resilience training - or for that matter, any kind of lifestyle / behavior change. These are:

1) Too much time awake
2) Too much artificial light
3) Too much sugar
4) Too much sitting


For a full description of pitfalls #1 and #2, see the previous post. Here, we will be looking at the nature of #3 - the problem, the solution, and why so many of us fall prey to this on a daily basis.

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3) Too much sugar

Problem: Yeah, yeah - I know. Too much sugar is bad for you. Your mum probably told you this when you were a toddler. Your dentist tells you at every appointment. And newspapers, websites, and health magazines have all but declared sugar a poison in recent years. Too much sugar rots your teeth, makes you fat, and increases your risk of developing late-onset diabetes. Overdosing on carb-laden snacks leaves us buzzing one minute, tired and listless the next. It sabotages any attempt at weight loss, makes us less alert and effective at work, and leaves us feeling bad about ourselves in the long term.

Do we know this? Yes. 

Do we care? Kind of.

Do we act on it when we’re truly stressed out - shunning the lure of carb-laden sandwiches and cookies, perhaps reaching for a nice broccoli snack instead?  No. We do not.

So why would we consistently act to sabotage our health this way? Shouldn’t our bodies and brains know that sugar is “bad”, and make us crave better things instead? If we are already fat, sick, or under pressure, why would they conspire to make us feel even worse?

Unfortunately, that’s not how your brain sees it at all.

Sugar - glucose in particular - is the first and most important fuel source for your body, and your brain literally can’t use anything else. Carried throughout the body in the bloodstream, glucose is pulled into power-hungry cells, combined with oxygen, and chemically “burned” (or metabolized) to release the energy stored within.  Any energy not used immediately by your body has to be stored for later use. Like the unused AAA batteries in your kitchen drawer, they have to pile up somewhere. In this case, unused glucose is broken down and shunted into bloated, watery adipose (fat) cells.

Later, when you enters a fasting (or hunger) state, your body responds to a drop in blood sugar levels by pulling sugars out of storage and dumping them back into the bloodstream - making more fuel available to your muscles, brain, and internal organs. This exquisite system, controlled by the hormones insulin and glucagon, developed to help us cope with alternating periods of feast and famine - as our ancestors experienced for thousands of years (and in many parts of the world, people still do).

But here’s the thing: in the rich, plentiful Western world, few of us ever really go hungry. Instead, we keep topping up our bloodstream with sugary foods, making our bodies work overtime to try to cope. Worse yet, modern “food products” like white bread, pasta, cookies, and ice cream are hyperconcentrated “sugar bombs”, containing more carbohydrates per pound than we could ever hope to extract from whole fruits, vegetables and grains.

While our brains and bodies really should shun these, instead they have become a superstimulus. “SUGAR GOOD,” says your prehistoric brain. “More sugar, even better. No famine for me, ever. Hahahaha. Me so clever.”  (Or words to that effect).

And here’s the real kicker: when you’re feeling calm, relaxed, and satisfied with life, your higher brain can reason with your body (or rather, the older part of the brain that controls it) and prevail. “No thanks,” you can say. “I really don’t need that sandwich / donut / creme brûlée right now.”

But when you under stress and your nervous system is on high alert, your survival instincts override your capacity for reason. At that point, it is almost impossible to resist the primal logic of your prehistoric brain.  “EAT,” it says. “WE UNDER ATTACK - WHO KNOWS WHEN WE GET ANOTHER CHANCE”.


Solution: The point is, we need a certain amount of carbohydrate to live. But none of us really need the quantity of it contained in white bread, chocolate, cookies or ice cream. Keep your stress awareness and sugar levels in check, and you can enjoy these things in moderation without ill effect. But if you find yourself in the grip of sugar addiction (and if you’re using sugary foods to make yourself feel better, then technically that’s what it is), you need to crack it. Otherwise, it will undermine everything else you try to do to stay healthy - be that exercise, meditation, or resilience training.

Here’s how to tackle it:

  1. Commit to eating whole foods - fruits, vegetables, grains, meat, and fish (if you’re a vegan/vegetarian, just skip the last two). Shun highly processed food products, which typically contain enough high fructose corn syrup to drop an elephant.
     
  2. For one month, keep a basic food diary in order to better understand your food habits. You don’t need to log calories, carb content, or anything like that. Just write down the type of food you ate at each meal (plus snacks in between) before the end of each day. The simple act of doing this will make you more aware of out-of-control snacking habits and addictions to specific foods
     
  3. Consider intermittent fasting as a means of restoring your satiety reflex and increasing your insulin sensitivity. Relentless feasting (eating throughout the day, every day, for weeks or months on end) decreases your sense of taste, your sense of fullness (or satiety), and the efficiency with which your body stores and uses energy. Performing a short fast once per week - or at the very least, once per month -  is clinically proven to reset these mechanisms, making you less prone to overeating in general, and less likely to crave sugary things in particular.

An easy way to do this is by starting and ending a 24-hour fast with an evening meal. Simply eat a full breakfast, lunch, and dinner - making sure you’re done eating by 6 or 7pm. Then nothing (except water) passes your lips until 6 or 7pm the next day. The beauty of this is that you spend a good portion of the fast unconscious. You may get a hunger pang around 10 or 12 the next day. But ignore it, and it soon passes.

Clinical tests have proven that provided that you are otherwise healthy (no diabetes, hypoglycemia, anemia, etc), there is no negative effect to fasting, even up to 36 hours. Every healthy person should be able to fast for 24 hours once in a while. If you find that you can’t, it’s a psychological issue, rather than a physiological one. So give it a try - you may surprise yourself. (But don’t overdo it, and never fast on consecutive days - there’s a point of diminishing returns on this).

Feel free to share your experiences in the comment thread below. And don’t forget, if you haven’t already done so, you can still register for the Stress Proof Retreat (Apr 28-May 01) by following this link:

Until next time - be calm, and carry on...

Stress Proof: Avoiding Self-Sabotage

This April, I will be leading a 3-day Stress Proof Retreat in the North Carolina mountains, focused on the biology and psychology of stress, and how to build immunity to its powerful (and undesirable) effects.

The principles and methods employed are based on modern neurophysiology research, and on tried-and-tested methods of somatic resilience training that date back several centuries, but were only proved effective by scientists within the last few decades. Applied with diligence, these methods offer lasting relief from most forms of stress-related illness - ranging from mild anxiety and digestive problems to panic disorders and PTSD.

But in creating the curriculum for this retreat, it occurred to me that someone could follow most of the advice offered, and still find ways to sabotage their own development. I have seen this many times in both martial arts and management training. Some trainees work hard at individual techniques, yet ignore the overarching principles. Others try hard for a short time, then burn out and lapse into self-destructive habits. In any case, progress becomes stalled, and development stops or backslides.

So how can we avoid this?

Simple - stay focused on the big picture, know and avoid the most common pitfalls, and forgive yourself for short relapses.

Here, in my opinion, are the most common pitfalls associated with resilience training - or for that matter, any form of health, fitness, or mindfulness training. Some may be obvious and known to you. Others, phrased a little differently than usual. Regardless, knowledge is useless without application - and it's in the doing that most people fall down. So here goes...

WOEFULLY COMMON STRESS PITFALLS

1) TOO MUCH TIME AWAKE
2) TOO MUCH ARTIFICIAL LIGHT
3) TOO MUCH SUGAR
4) TOO MUCH SITTING

In the interests of brevity, we’ll only be looking at the first two here. Don’t worry - we’ll come back to the others in later installments.

1) TOO MUCH TIME AWAKE

THE PROBLEM:
In today's hectic world, few of us are getting the quantity or quality of sleep the we need. We know this. Yet sleep is one of the first casualties of the hyper-busy lifestyle - the thing we skip in order to make more time, get things done, crowbar some free time back into our day.
Unfortunately, your brain requires sleep in order to forge memories, cement learning, and conduct essential repairs. None of these can happen effectively while you remain awake.

This is why sleep deprivation is such a popular and effective method of torture, worldwide. Denied its daily, restorative “standby mode”, the brain attempts major repairs and rewiring while we remain conscious - impairing attention, memory, and problem-solving ability, and causing symptoms of an elevated stress response (anxiety, high blood pressure, altered fat storage, and more).

THE SOLUTION:
Take short (25-30 minute) naps to offset long periods of wakefulness, such as unplanned late nights out or all-nighters in the office. Notice that the problem we are trying to solve here is “too much time awake”, rather than “not enough sleep at night”.
Sure, we could all be like Mr Rogers - go to bed early ever night, and rise, fresh and peppy at dawn.

But in reality, few of us will.

Besides, absolute sleep requirements vary from person to person, and you don’t necessarily need the oft-quoted 8 hours of sleep per night. Modern hunter-gatherer tribes clock an average of 6.5 hours per night, without any ill effects. But they also nap for 1-3 hours during the day, giving the brain plenty of time to power down.

So if you can’t cram in a minimum of 7.5 hours of sleep by night, skip the lunchtime Facebooking and grab a 30-minute nap in your office or car instead. Switching off like this can be difficult, and may take practice (specific techniques for this will be provided at the Stress Proof Retreat). But if you want to keep your stress response on a low boil, it’s worth making the effort.

 

2) TOO MUCH ARTIFICIAL LIGHT

THE PROBLEM:
Before the Industrial Revolution and the invention of electric light (thanks, Edison), the average American slept 8-9 hours per day, total - often in two shifts. They would retire shortly after dusk, sleep a few hours, wake for a couple of hours in the night (to read, pray, or “socialize” in private), then go back for a “second sleep” that ended at or around dawn.

Today, we flood our houses with artificial light, stare at TV, tablet, and cell phone screens until close to midnight, then attempt to cram in a full night’s sleep before rudely awakened by the alarm.

Many of us fail to wind down, and lie awake for hours with a bustling, busy mind and a sense of growing dread - we’ll never get enough sleep now, and we have so much to do tomorrow.


THE SOLUTION:
Switch off, power down, and ease yourself toward sleep by minimizing bright light exposure after dusk. Like it or not, in the modern world, ubiquitous digi-displays and artificial light are a leading cause of sleep deprivation, anxiety, and stress-related disease.

Our nervous, digestive, endocrine and immune systems coordinate their hourly and daily activities within the body by way of innate circadian rhythms. These rhythms are driven and maintained by biological oscillators (or clocks) found in practically every cell in the body.
These clocks, in turn, are kept in synch by “master clocks”, dependent on the input of natural, polarized sunlight - translated into a coded "reset" signal and transmitted to the pineal glad via via the optic nerve.
If our eyes do not receive the correct frequencies of sunlight throughout the passing day, our master clocks become confused, and our body rhythms start to fall out of synch. Worse yet, if we stay up well past dusk, staring into bright, artificial light sources, then our rhythms may shift en masse, causing effects akin to mild jet lag. Every. Single. Day.

To avoid this, you need not become technophobic Luddites, shunning all electronics and driving to work in a horse-drawn buggy. All you have to do is practice a little “light hygiene” - dimming overhead lights or switching to shaded, low-wattage table lamps after the sun goes down.

"Screen hygiene" is just as important. Even the brief flash of a smartphone screen close to bedtime can mess with your light-triggered oscillators. So quit checking your messages before bed. Commit to switching off your laptop, tablet and smart phone at night, and leaving it alone until the morning. Designate a time - say, 8pm - after which you simply will not look at them.
If you have a mild Facebook addiction, don’t leave these gadgets in plain sight - stuff them in a drawer, where you wont be tempted to peek during a dull moment.

Trust me - you’ll sleep better, feel better, and get more done the next day. And who knows - in the absence of the ever-present Internet, your low-lit (even candlelit) house may arouse other inclinations that are a lot healthier, and a lot more appealing to your partner…

[to be continued...]

There's still time to register for our Spring 2016 Stress Proof Retreat, to be held at Lake Kanuga (near Asheville) NC, Apr 29 - May 01. 
For more information, click here.