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...



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.


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).

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.



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.

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.