This is Part 3 in a series of posts designed to help people shift into autumn by addressing nutrition, movement, sleep, and stress management. Click the buttons below to read the other posts
How to Burn Out
When I was in PT school, I had a particularly nasty finals week stretch that involved three lecture exams, three practical exams, and a project presentation in a two-day period. The week before finals week I exploded into action and packed for my impending move, cleaned my room, did my laundry, played Smash Brothers with my housemates, and watched Meercat Manor. Suddenly the reality of my impending academic perfect storm sunk in, and I started cramming. How to burn yourself out:
marathon study sessions
substitute caffeine for sleep
stop exercising or being social
eat strictly from vending machines and drive-throughs
My exams were a blur. I somehow passed them all. When it was all over, I immediately came down with a cold. I've talked to many people who have had a similar experience, whether they were chronic procrastinators or not. It has made me wonder ever since: is there a better way to deal with stress? And on a more personal note, why did I procrastinate when it was clearly a poor long-term strategy? We'll save that last one until the end.
Your Two Nervous Systems
Before we talk strategies, a little practical background. Roughly speaking our nervous system has at least two distinct branches that have very different 'personalities.' These branches are called the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.
The Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS)
Fast acting, immediate response system
"Fight, Flight, or Freeze" response
Increase in stress hormones like adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol
Increased alertness, heart rate, blood pressure
The Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS)
Slow acting system
"Rest and Digest" or "Feed and Breed" response
Decrease in stress hormones, heart rate,
Active during digestive activity, sexual activity
Humans need both to function in the world. We run into problems when they are out of balance. If a car is skidding toward us, we need the hormonal spike and immediate response of the SNS. Later we need the PNS to bring us back down. A crucial factor in determining whether stress is good for us or not is the duration of the stress. Is it short-term or long-term?
Short Term vs. Long Term Stress
Short Term Stress
Lasts minutes to hours
Boosts immunity, stress hormones
Increases focus, engagement, memory
Exercise is a good example of short-term stress. It kicks off a stress response that includes inflammation and spikes in stress hormones. Later when we rest and recover, our bodies adapt and become a little bit stronger.
It's the same with learning something difficult like math or leadership. We struggle, we feel the stress response, and we recover and adapt. Have you ever worked on some problem that seemed like an incomprehensible mess in the moment, then you wake up the next day or after a nap and attempt it again and it all comes together? Maybe it even came together in a dream, and you woke up knowing what to try. Not a coincidence.
Long Term Stress
Lasts hours to days
Fatigues the SNS, suppresses the PNS
Decreases immunity, focus, memory, learning ability, adaptation
Increases weight gain, likelihood of depression and anxiety
My finals week story is an example of long-term stress that lasted a little over a week. It was too short for major weight gain or depression to set in, but I experienced all of the other symptoms. When it was over and my PNS could finally kick in more fully to restore balance I was so depleted I got sick immediately.
Surprise! Stress is Good For You!
Let me qualify that: short term stress can be good for you. Short term stress kicks off the processes that make us adapt and learn. It makes us more resilient and robust, provided that it is followed by adequate recovery. Stress is kind of like inflammation. It has a really bad reputation, too much can kill you, and prolonged periods of either can lead to all kinds of health problems. But both stress and inflammation are necessary for growth and adaptation.
The Crucial Point
Balance, Daniel-san. We need both SNS and PNS to dance with each other. Those short bursts of stress balanced out with longer periods of recovery are what keep us engaged, as well as constantly learning and adapting across all domains of life. We need challenge and struggle, then we need integration, adaptation, and recovery. Modern life provides us with plenty of the first category, unfortunately it takes some intention to provide us with the second category.
Are you chronically stressed?
Don't compare yourself to any ideals in your head. It's easy to berate yourself and say something like "I shouldn't be so stressed because it's just a bunch of emails and work tasks, it's not like I'm jumping out of airplanes to fight wildfires." Our nervous systems don't know the difference. A perceived threat is a perceived threat. Why else would public speaking rank so high on people's list of fears?
Get your mindset straight:
Recognize short-term stress is actually healthy and necessary to help you grow
People only get stressed out about things that are important to them
Recognize that what you probably need is more PNS activation to 'come down' and integrate the gifts of the stressful period
Techniques for Re-balancing
Early Morning Light Exposure
Helps set your circadian clock for better alertness early in the day and better sleep later
Syncs up hormones so you get a cortisol surge in the morning when you need it, not in the evening
10 minutes of sunlight within 30 minutes of waking up
10-20 minutes of looking at a light panel that puts out 10,000 lux
DO NOT STARE DIRECTLY AT ANY LIGHT SOURCE THAT HURTS YOUR EYES OR COULD DAMAGE THEM
Late Evening Wind-down
Sometime after dinner switch from overhead lights to physically lower level lights like table lamps
Dim your screens, turn off a few lights as the evening progresses
Avoid light as much as possible starting at bedtime
Techniques for PNS Activation
Breath Technique: The Physiological Sigh
Do a set of 8-10 if you are feeling really stressed
Stop if you get light-headed!
Take a Walk Outside
10 minutes is enough, preferably enough time to let your mind get through its nervous chatter and shift states
Focus on peripheral vision and let your mind wander
Focus on body sensations to 'get out of your head'
NSDR or Meditation
You can do this practice sitting up or lying down
A session of this is good to do about 8 hours after waking up, when our brains are shifting out of our most alert, focused time
A session at bedtime or if you wake up in the middle of the night and can't get back to sleep is also helpful
So Why Did I Procrastinate?
Without knowing it, I was tapping into the performance enhancing aspect of short-term stress albeit in a very unskillful way. I waited until the stress level built up enough to give me the increased focus, attention and memory enhancement effects. Unfortunately, I didn't leave myself any room to de-stress and effectively integrate. My tank, once empty, never had a chance to fill up again.
A better approach would have been to start earlier and find some other way to increase focus. Likely just getting into the material and realizing how much volume there was would have been enough, or maybe quizzing myself to put on some artificial pressure. Then I could have inserted multiple recovery periods
Since that time, I've realized that I bought into half-true myth, that "I perform better under pressure, so I'll put it off." While a little pressure does increase performance in the short term, to truly improve, the downtime is just as necessary.
At Neighborhood Physical Therapy, stress management is one of the four pillars that need to be in place to thrive. A little attention to this area can be crucial in getting past an injury and getting back to the things you love to do!