One of my favorite places on earth is the Ali’i Kula Lavender farm on Maui. I went there on a lark, not even expecting to enjoy it. My wife dragged me there on a trip years ago—she’s a huge essential oils fan and particularly lavender oil fan—and I fell in love. It’s acre upon acre of rolling hills covered in lavender fields, Buddhist shrines, meandering trails, and great views of the ocean. And always, in the background and foreground, is the fragrant scent of lavender. Any stress melts away (not that the stress is much an issue in Hawaii) and you’re perfectly content just wandering calmly through the fields. Every time you brush against a plant the scent intensifies and follows you for a bit.
Stress comes at us from all directions, and it’s not always the usual suspects like work, finances, and global strife that derail us. Even things we find enjoyable and meaningful—exercise, hobbies, volunteer work—contribute to our overall stress level as we struggle to fit everything into our busy lives.
As we’ve discussed before on the blog, stress adheres to the “Goldilocks principle.” Too much and too little stress can both get you in trouble. The goal is to find that just right sweet spot somewhere in the middle. In the right amount, stressors challenge us to adapt mentally and physically to our circumstances, prompting us to become stronger and more resilient.
“Some days you will feel like the ocean. Some days you will feel like you are drowning in it.”
Ain’t that the truth. Life comes at you fast. You get laid off and don’t have enough money in savings, a family member gets sick, your car gets totaled. All of a sudden, you’re totally underwater.
Often, though, it’s not one catastrophic event that gets you; it’s the sum total of all the small-to-medium-sized stressors in your life. Death by papercuts, if you will. Overwhelm results from having too much or not enough — too much to do, too many responsibilities, not enough money or time.
Overwhelm quickly becomes a vicious cycle, as it requires energy and resources (neither of which you have in abundance) to dig yourself out. A classic sign of overwhelm is feeling like you’ve lost control over your circumstances, like things are happening to you instead of for you or because you chose them.
You can’t govern all the sources of stress in your life, but you may have more control than you realize. At the very least, there are probably ways to manipulate your schedule and environment so your stress triggers aren’t so triggering.
Start by asking yourself, “What would need to change in order for me to feel less overwhelmed?” If just that step feels overwhelming, don’t worry. You’re about to start taking action, and action is empowering.
Feeling tired all the time? You’re not alone. Turns out 60% of folks say they’re more exhausted now than they were in their pre-pandemic days. And sleep is only part of the equation. We live in a high-achieving, chronically fatigued culture. One of the reasons being that we’re constantly bombarded by the message that productivity is the ultimate goal in life. We’re socially rewarded for crushing it whenever and wherever possible: More reps at the gym… More calories torched… More emails sent… More to-dos to do… You get the picture. The Downside of Keeping Up Even if you love what you do, the pressures to keep up with the modern world can leave you feeling mentally, emotionally, and physically drained. As a health coach, I see this all the time. My clients come to me foggy and fatigued, falling asleep in front of the TV, snapping at their kids, and chronically over caffeinating. And the conventional recommendation to “get more sleep” just hasn’t cut it. Signs you might be running on empty: Lack of concentration Being easily agitated Confusion Cravings Coping with food or alcohol Anxiety or depression Overwhelm According to physician, researcher, and author, Saundra Dalton-Smith, there’s a big difference between sleep and rest. She says, “If you’re waking up and still exhausted, the issue probably isn’t sleep.” And there are seven areas of rest we’re collectively not getting enough of: Physical rest. This isn’t about getting to bed earlier; it’s about resting your body in a way that’s rejuvenating. Think yoga, stretching, deep breathing exercises, even napping. Mental rest. Your mind needs a break too, especially if you tend to chew on past conversations, plan for future what-ifs, or have trouble turning your brain off at night. Sensory rest. Computers, phones, group texts, notifications, notifications, alarms. It’s no surprise our senses (and our central nervous systems) are overtaxed. Creative rest. If you struggle during brainstorm sessions or couldn’t come up with a new idea to save your life, you’re probably overdue for a creative time out. Emotional rest. Keeping things bottled up, people-pleasing, or not being real about how you’re feeling can lead to emotional overload. Social rest. Some friends lift you up and some drag you down. Be aware of which relationships are fulfilling and which are exhausting. Spiritual rest. Feeling disconnected, lonely, or lacking purpose? Spiritual rest or connection might be what you’re lacking. The True Power of Rest As a society, we have a real problem with not being in “go mode” all the time. And I don’t just mean taking more days off work, although studies show that Americans have an average of nine unused vacation days per year. And on the days they do take off, workers admit to obsessively checking and responding to emails. As a high achiever myself, I know how hard it is to shut things down . I am physically uncomfortable in the presence of low productivity or what I perceived in myself as laziness. But researchers agree that … Continue reading “Overworked and Under Rested: The Real Reason You’re So Tired”
In part one of this series on improving vagal tone, I explained that the vagus nerve is the information superhighway of your autonomic nervous system. It connects your brain to organs and glands throughout the body and acts as the main conduit of your parasympathetic (“rest-and-digest”) nervous system. Vagal nerve activity touches just about every system in the body, including respiration, immunity, cardiovascular activity, digestion, and the gut microbiome.
The term “vagal tone” refers to how active your parasympathetic nervous system is. Ideally, we want high vagal tone, because that indicates a generally relaxed state where the body can focus on growth and repair. When vagal tone is low, the sympathetic (“fight-flight-freeze”) nervous system is dominant. That’s no good. The sympathetic nervous system should kick in when we need to respond to an acute threat or stressor, but we don’t want it running in the background all the time.
Unfortunately, a chronically stressed, sympathetic-dominant state is the norm for most people nowadays. Scientists are always on the hunt for ways to alleviate that stress and reduce the medical burden associated with it. Some researchers are investigating pharmaceutical means of improving vagal tone, along with protocols for using electrostimulation. You don’t need these high-tech procedures, though. Once you start digging into the science of the vagus nerve, you realize something cool: Most of the things we promote in the Primal community probably improve vagal tone.
Cranial nerve X. It sounds like a pretty rad superhero, or maybe the superhero’s genius sidekick who comes up with all the cool gadgets and never gets credit for being the one who actually foils the villain’s evil plans.
Cranial nerve X, aka cranial nerve 10, aka the vagus nerve, is neither of those things, but it IS pretty rad. The vagus nerve is a cranial nerve complex that runs from the base of the brain down through your trunk, branching out like a tree and sending “roots” out to communicate with your internal organs and glands. When we talk about the undeniable power of the mind-body connection, we’re usually referring to the vagal nerve’s actions.
Stressed, anxious, overcommitted—the unholy trinity the undermines mental health and wellbeing for so many people today. I’d argue that chronic stress is the number one threat to health and happiness. Yes, even more detrimental than modern diets, being too sedentary, overexercising when we do exercise, and all the other ways we mismanage our genes nowadays.
By and large, we accept chronic stress as a standard, even inescapable, part of life. To some degree, that’s true. It’s hard to detach from workplace demands, financial pressure, social media and other time sucks, and the generally frantic pace of modern life. That said, most of us have more control over our daily schedules, environments, and habits than we choose to exercise. We don’t set the boundaries we need, nor take even relatively small steps to mitigate life stressors. Why is this so challenging?
Paradoxically, simplifying life and making it easier almost always involves some investment of time and/or money up front. Don’t let this deter you. This is a short-term investment for long-term payoff, which you deserve.
Wondering why your feed is filled with tips on how to declutter your space? Clean mildew out of the showers. Swap your regular detergent for a better-for-the-environment one? It’s National Cleaning Week, or, as one of my clients put it, national “feeling bad because my house is a mess and I have zero interest in doing anything about it” week.
Even though having a clean, organized space can increase your focus, reduce stress, and sometimes even improve your relationships, most people are far too busy to embrace the decluttering-is-awesome mindset, but is it really a lack of time that prevents you from doing it or is something else at work?
I’m willing to bet there are lots of things in your home you’re not using (hello, burnt up plastic food storage lids), but for some reason, you just can’t bring yourself to throw anything away or even donate it.
Why Can’t You Get Rid of Stuff?
Jean Piaget, one of the founding fathers of child psychology, says the reason we’re so attached to our belongings is due to a psychological phenomenon called the Endowment Effect. Basically, we put more value on items we own versus items we don’t own.
There have been tons of studies on this phenomenon too. Like this one where participants were divided into three groups, then asked to assist with research and given a reward for helping out. The first group was offered two choices for their reward: a coffee mug or a bar of chocolate. Half chose the mug, and the other half chose the chocolate, which suggests that they valued each reward equally. In the second group, participants were given the mug first, then offered a chance to swap it for the chocolate bar, but only 11% took the researchers up on the offer. A third group started out with the chocolate bar, and most preferred to keep it instead of swapping it for the mug, which was offered after the fact.
The participants always put greater value on whichever reward they started off with.
Decluttering Has an Emotional Component
Another reason it’s so hard to part with your stuff? According to this study published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, it all comes down to self-worth. Rather than looking at the things you own as “mine” you think of them as part of who you are.
If you value relationships, you might have trouble parting with gifts. Kind of like you’re being disloyal to the person who gave it to you. If you value success, it could be challenging to part with items that serve as a reminder of your accomplishments, like an award at work or a decades-old trophy from your high school soccer days.
Some possessions also make you feel closer to people. Take family heirlooms for example. Maybe you’re having a hard time getting rid of a piece of artwork or jewelry that was passed down from your great grandma, because those items make you feel connected to her.
Where are my high achievers at? These are the folks that constantly knock their goals out of the park and make it look easy, whether they’re training for a marathon, dialing in their diet, or Marie Kondo-ing their house. They’re the ones who get the promotions, the bigger bank accounts, the smaller pant sizes… We live in a culture that celebrates busy-ness. I’ve seen it manifest in my clients (they typically come to me in the post-crush-my-goals stage, once their nervous system is toast) but also in my personal life. As a curriculum director, health coach, fitness instructor, and small business owner, I’m indeed a high achiever, to the point of it being a real problem. I am physically uncomfortable in the presence of low productivity or what I often perceive in myself as “laziness”. I don’t settle for mediocre outcomes either. I will torment myself to produce nothing short of perfection, to the detriment of my mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual health. Are You Born a High Achiever? I wasn’t always this way. And there’s a good chance you weren’t either. Being a high achiever often goes hand-in-hand with people pleasing and perfectionism – all things you likely picked up as a kid. You might have been rewarded for straight A’s or gotten kudos after a game-winning goal. Maybe you had a parent or caregiver that was never satisfied or emotionally distant (which you mistook as unsatisfied). Or perhaps you learned that by achieving more, you managed to secure the love, safety, and acceptance of your family or caregivers. In these situations, your self-worth becomes tied to your performance, meaning you’re only “good enough” if and when you’ve accomplished something exceptional. And even then, your inner critic probably doubts that it’s enough. The Need to Always Do Better What we’re really talking about here is fear. Fear that you need to continue excelling, producing, winning, and succeeding in order to not be rejected or lose the approval of others. It’s sort of a security blanket to make sure you’re safe and accepted, even if it’s only a temporary feeling. That’s just one of the reasons it’s so exhausting to be a high-achiever. You’re always striving to do better for fear of decreasing your self-worth, constantly operating at 110 percent. The problem is, this amount of chronic stress takes a huge toll on the body and eventually leads to some sort of physical, emotional, or mental breakdown. Keep in mind this isn’t true for everyone. But for a lot of us, especially those of us with perfectionist tendencies, it’s quite accurate. Pros of being a high achiever: You always bring your A-game You’re driven to get results You’re highly motivated You’re passionate about what you do You’re competitive You thrive on positive feedback Cons of being a high achiever: You hold yourself to perfectionist standards You’re afraid of failing You believe you’re only as good as your last accomplishment You tend to overcomplicate things You don’t take time to … Continue reading “The Curse of Being a High Achiever”
Stress is physical. It’s caused by physical phenomena in the material world. It manifests as a physiological response using physical hormones and neurotransmitters and other chemical messengers in the body. It changes biomarkers, neurochemistry, behavior, appetites, and our perception of the world around us. Stress can make us fly off the handle at something that we wouldn’t even notice in a normal state of mind. Stress can make us eat food we’d never normally consider eating.
And, like other physical phenomena our bodies interact with, stress can affect our gut health.
The first hint of this relationship lies in that split second sensation most people feel in high-intensity situations. You feel it right there in your gut. It’s a cue from the environment that things are going to get hairy for a little while, and you should prepare yourself. The gut is so central to everything, it’s our first real interface with the outside world. The gut is where food goes. It’s where outside nutrients or pathogens or interlopers try to gain entry to our inner world. The “gut feeling” is a Primal one that we cannot ignore.