I blame gyms. You’re working out, maybe chatting, when suddenly you get that idea. One you really can’t wait to get home and work on.
Why is it? It’s not an excuse to cut workouts short; I love the gym.
It happens because exercise not only works out your body, it causes physical and psychological changes inside your brain. I’ll explain later.
But back to the idea; as I exercised with a friend, we wondered why bell curves were almost always the right way up. Or conversely, why is it that so few phenomena are described by a U-shaped curve?
Don’t believe me? Pick something measurable. Anything; the weight of dogs, mean temperatures in February, marathon race times, exam results, the number of times a politician says “levelling up”. Nearly everything has a bell curve shaped frequency distribution.
Can you name anything that has a U-shaped distribution? We didn’t find many; some nasty diseases with high mortality in the very old and young, and the body mass distribution of plantar fasciitis. Ouch.
Also, ratings in online reviews where people typically score five stars or one star, and other ‘love it or hate it’ events like how many times you’ve watched Mama Mia. Again, ouch.
Then one of us asked about the distribution curve for stress levels. And we couldn’t answer. But we did decide that if you plotted your capacity to perform at your best, against your stress level; the answer is undeniably your own personal right-way-up bell curve.
Let me explain. Stress is your body’s way of turning up the dial. The stress response allows us to rise to challenges and deal with threats. It works by telling our bodies to release more of two hormones; cortisol, which boosts energy for our brain and body and switches you to high alert. And adrenalin, which increases your heartrate, raises blood pressure and also boosts energy. This potent hormone cocktail helps us handle extreme fight-or-flight situations.
In moderate doses too, these hormones are beneficial to everyday performance. Cortisol motivates us and helps us focus. Adrenalin boosts our physical capability. Experiencing some stress is good;
it helps us learn, build new skills and cope when we are outside our comfort zone. Without stress, we’d lack the drive, attention and energy to perform at all. But constant high stress will debilitate us and performance will suffer. Why is it so hard to achieve an optimal stress level that keeps us at the peak of our performance bell curve?
It’s because, in the context of today’s world, our stress response mechanism is flawed. If our cave-dwelling ancestors came across a sabre-toothed tiger, it might attack or slink away. So our response system evolved to switch fully on, and then off again when a threat passed. We can’t cope with todays’ stresses because they typically never go away; our ‘off’ switch doesn’t get pressed. When we experience sustained stress, adrenalin levels return to baseline but cortisol doesn’t. That’s why we continue to feel anxious. Worse still, if we worry about feeling anxious and picture the things that stress us, the primitive stress-response part of our brain can’t tell imagined from real and stress levels rise even more; that’s chronic stress. Our stress dial is stuck at 11 and our fight-or-flight mode is jammed on.
In a book I wrote with Dr Jack Lewis, we called it ‘the Stress Express’ The rest of this blog looks at why, and how, you should step off it.
Chronic stress increases risks of; anxiety, depression, digestive issues, low immunity, headache, muscle pain, sleep problems, weight gain and impaired memory and concentration. That’s for starters.
Now the big ones; heart disease, heart attacks, hypertension and strokes. Sorry; it would’ve been quicker to list how it doesn’t kill you. If that doesn’t persuade you how important it is to find techniques to deal with stress, you should stop reading now. For the rest of us, the first thing to do is accept that stress is inevitable and some is actually good for us. Then make a plan to reduce excess stress. Really, you only have three options: Avoid, Reframe and Defuse.
Avoid – Can you remove or reduce regular stressors; finding your triggers and thinking how to solve them? For me, it’s supermarkets and rush hour commutes. Online groceries sorted the first one. Then I told colleagues I’d alternate starting work super-early, or after the rush hour, ‘averaging’ my start time. My headaches went. Literally.
Reframe – When people’s actions cause us stress, it can be because we perceive their behaviour as aimed at us. But it isn’t about you; it’s about other people just being what they are. Remember those bell curves? 50% of people are less polite or worse drivers than average. It’s a statistical fact. So, if you get cut up by another driver, encounter selfishness or get insulted; think of the bell curve. You just met the left-hand side. Reframe, accept, and move on.
Defuse – There’s no universal prescription and a little of everything on this list is probably the best stress antidote. But if you can only pick one, choose exercise; just establish a consistent routine to avoid stressing over when to do it! If you do this, as well as healthful eating and proper sleeping, your stress levels will plummet. Connecting with others is also essential. We evolved as an active, social species – our brains need activity and socialising to de-stress.
The best time to address stress is always when you feel it start. It’s why the best solutions are ones you can use alone, any time. You must find your own ‘Zen’; a mental state you get from an activity so absorbing that your brain blocks out everything but the present. People who meditate or do yoga know about Zen. So do musicians, artists and writers. Zen can be found anywhere; in reading, doing puzzles, playing sports or being outdoors. Even nature-sound audio apps of wind, water or waves instantly relax our brains.
Why does Zen work? Think of most stresses as living in the future; arising from uncertainty and fear of choices we have not yet made. Stresses from our past exist as regrets. In Zen; you’re only in the present. And with future and past on hold, stress is also put on hold.
Try it. And you’ll feel how I do at the gym. I suspect you’ve figured it’s my Zen; where I’m absorbed in the moment. My stress dial re-sets, my brain bursts with creativity. And for a few precious moments, I’m balancing on the peak of my bell curve.