The Solution… Combat Stress!
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To illustrate the role that stress plays in our lives, let’s look for a moment to the animal kingdom. There’s a neurobiologist, Robert Sapolsky, who studies stress and made a terrific PBS documentary about it. I had the honor of learning about his work a few years ago when we were both presenters at a USC event an event for the University of Southern California. His documentary was called “Stress: Portrait of a Killer.” How’s that for a dramatic title? Well, Sapolsky does a beautiful job showing us how the stress response process plays out in the animal kingdom, using it as a metaphor for modern day human behavior.
Sapolsky shows us that we have a little too much in common with the wild baboon. Think about it: Baboons have it pretty easy. They spend 3 hours a day gathering their food…And that’s it! That leaves them with 21 hours to sleep, mate, and relax. Sounds like a pretty great existence, doesn’t it? But have you ever seen them in action? Here’s how they spend all that free time: They make each other miserable. They scream at each other, they jump on each other, they attack each other – basically, they act like baboons. So they’re extremely stressed out! And for no good reason. They’re not running from lions. They’re just choosing to drive each other, and themselves, crazy. They’re like us: So much of our stress seems beyond our control…and as a result, we end up acting a bit like baboons.
Zebras, on the other hand, have a whole different approach to stress. You’ve seen them at the zoo, or on TV – they’re pretty calm animals. But when they’re running from a pack of lions, their stress responses kick in: Adrenaline starts pumping through their systems, oxygen gets pumped into their bloodstream, and they run for their lives. And then, just like that, it’s over. The chase ends — because either the lions catch them, or they get away. And when they get away, they don’t start zebra support groups: “OH MY GOD, CAN YOU BELIEVE WHAT THAT LION WAS DOING? I NEED A DRINK!” Nope. When they’re out of danger, their stress responses simply shut off, and they go about their zebra business. They stay calm, steady, and relatively stress-free.
Well, most of you probably aren’t worried about a pack of lions. Most of you are more concerned about the complexity of your jobs, or managing client expectations, or as we learned from our survey, the fact that it’s so difficult to keep your work life separate from your home life. Those are all stressors unique to you. And we all have some form of those stressors in our lives. Now, in small doses, stress can be a good thing. Some of us work well under pressure, so most of the time, a little stress just puts a fire in our bellies, motivating us to succeed. But a little bit goes a long way.
With stress – and, more importantly, our bodies’ response to stress – there’s a tipping point. And when we go past that point, we start to put our health at risk – in part because we begin to gain weight. There’s a strong connection between our nation’s obesity epidemic, and our skyrocketing stress levels. And the link is cortisol.
Cortisol is a hormone that’s triggered when we experience stress. So anytime we’re in a situation that activates our stress response, cortisol floods our bloodstream. And it’s bad news for several reasons. It’s a domino effect: High stress equals high cortisol levels, and high cortisol levels can lead to a whole host of issues, including depression, anxiety, and weight gain.
When cortisol kicks in, it shuts down our fat-burning systems, and actually tells the body to start storing fat, specifically in the midsection. That’s why there’s such a strong connection between high levels of stress and high levels of belly fat – it all comes down to cortisol.
And by the way, cortisol is also right in the middle of the intersection between stress and sleep. The less sleep we get, the higher our cortisol levels – so that lack of sleep doesn’t just cause crankiness and brain fog – it can also lead to belly fat.
But even if you can’t climb into bed and get 8 hours of sleep right this minute, there’s an exercise you can do, right here, right now, to help you battle stress and curb your cortisol levels. It’s a surefire technique that could help slow your heart rate, lower blood pressure, flush out extra feelings of anger or frustration, and even re-train your brain, so that you shift away from the limbic part of the brain, where emotional, irrational thinking takes place, toward the frontal cortex: the logical part of the brain that helps you make slower, calmer, conscious decisions. And it’s called a BLT.
BLT stands for Breathing Listening Technique, and it’s just as simple as it sounds. You can try it, right now, wherever you are. Get comfortable in your chair. Make sure your shoulders are relaxed, down and back, and that your chest is nice and open.
- Take a nice, steady inhale on a count of 6.
- When you reach the top, try and hold it there for a count of 6. And while you’re holding your breath, listen. Try and identify any sounds around you, however distant or faint they may be: An air conditioner rumbling…A dog barking down the street…A car driving down the street…Or maybe just the soft song of a bird nearby. Whatever it is, be specific and mentally pinpoint the source of each sound.
- And then, slowly, exhale on another count of 6.
- Repeat this cycle 4-5 times.
The great thing about this exercise is that it forces you to be in the moment. When your sole focus is inhaling, listening, and exhaling, it stops the incessant chatter that we all have in our minds. I’ve often referred to it as the “Itty Bitty Sh*tty Committee” – that chorus of voices we all have in our heads. The voices that tell us we’re not good enough, not smart enough, not thin enough, or just simply not enough in general. Sometimes we get those voices from the criticism of our parents or a loved one – and sometimes we simply get them from our own neuroses or lack of self-esteem. Wherever they came from, most of us have them – and when that committee is in full session, a BLT is a surefire way to quiet them back down.