Preventative Maintenance: Self Care Part 2
We talked last time about a theoretical model of stress, now I want to talk about a few of the best methods for preparing yourself to handle and dissipate stress over the long term. We’ll cover how exercise, diet, sleep, and mental tools can all insulate you against stress and deal with it once it’s there.
As we talked about before, and as you’re no doubt sick of hearing, exercise is the single best thing you can do to improve your ability to deal with stress across the board. Of course, this is in addition to all of the other health benefits you get from exercise, which I don’t need to belabor. So, how does exercise impact stress specifically?
First off, when it comes to stress, regular moderate to vigorous exercise seems to have the greatest impact, ideally 3-5 times a week. As an added bonus, frequent workouts also help you sleep (see below for more on sleep). Now, sure, breaking a sweat and breathing hard 3-5 times a week is substantially more involved than the baseline I recommend in The Lazy Man’s Guide to Exercise, so you’ll want to start small and build if this is new to you. We’re in it for the long haul, here. As Coach Sommer says, “if you want to be a stud later, you have to be a pud now.” Some good ways to start small are to start incorporating increased physical activity into your daily life: take the stairs instead of the elevator, ride your bike to the bar instead of driving, go for a walk while you take your phone calls, that kind of thing. Lots of people get a lot out of tracking their steps and heart rate, and we’re all about tracking and visibility here, so consider giving a gadget a try (mine’s finally in the mail as I write this).
A quick note on getting strenuous: people tend to hear “break a sweat, breathe hard, get your heart rate up” and assume that means “cardio," which is really code for “jogging,” and then they throw up in their mouth a little. Wait, by people, I mean me - so if you hate running as much as I do, let me re-assure you there are lots of options. Go for a fast bike ride. Head to the dojo and roll. Box. Hell, stick to lifting and go for a moderately heavy routine with shorter rests. Just about anybody can find something that gets their heart pumping both literally and metaphorically.
To get yourself into good operating shape, sleep is neck and neck with exercise in terms of results. For sleep to help though, you need to get enough and it needs to be high quality. Ever slept all day after a fun night out and still felt tired and shitty? Then you know that all sleep is not created equal. That being said, shooting for more sleep is a good place to start for most of us, since high achievers tend to place sleep somewhere down there between “going to the dentist” and “filing your taxes” in terms of desirability and priority. Much like exercise, though, sleep is a force multiplier that will improve your performance in every other area if you take it seriously. You need to be a bit strategic about how much sleep, though. As I first learned from a college roommate of mine, most people sleep in roughly 90 minute cycles, so it’s a good idea to chunk your available sleep accordingly - you might actually be better with 6 hours than 6.5 hours if you can’t get to 7.5.
That covers “enough” sleep, so where does “high quality” come in? For starters, you’ll sleep better if you exercise and eat healthy, but that’s gotta sound pretty old by now. A slightly less obvious one is to avoid alcohol too close to bed, which may sound counter-intuitive as alcohol is the most frequently used sleep aid - but it will prevent you from getting the deep sleep your body needs. Similarly, blood sugar can affect the depth of your sleep, so If you frequently find yourself waking up groggy, try a tablespoon of peanut butter before bed to even out your glucose levels.
Besides what you consume, your environment before, during, and after sleep is a major component of “sleep hygiene." When you pause for a second and think about deep evolutionary time, most of our ancestors probably didn’t stay up that late after the sun went down or sleep in that much after the sun came up. And they certainly weren’t staring at sunlight-mimicking screens until moments before closing their eyes.
As such, you want your sleeping place to be dark. Really dark. Like, underground with closed shutters dark. If you can’t swing that, a good eye mask is a lot cheaper than blackout curtains and a lot more attractive than foil on the windows. And stay away from screens for at least an hour before bed, preferably entirely after dark - even if you use Nightshift, f.lux, or a pair of dorky orange safety glasses, which I recommend. Once you wake up, you want to reset your body’s light-based regulation system by getting some sunlight, preferably a 15-30 minutes if you can swing it. I like to spend part of my morning routine sitting outside in the sun with my journal when the weather cooperates, but even on overcast days, standing by a window and looking outside will help. As an added stress-regulating bonus, sunlight exposure helps produce Vitamin E, which appears to help make you happy.
The next big offender of the modern world is noise. Even if you are lucky enough to live way out in the country with neighbors miles off, there’s still probably computers whirring, spouses snoring, cats knocking things over, or whatever. While especially jarring in the middle of the night, noises like this most frequently are a problem by preventing you from getting to sleep, as they stop you from turning off your hyper-aware daytime brain. So, either get some good earplugs, or a white noise machine. Pro tip on the white noise machine: you can get 80% of the benefit from a cheap desktop oscillating fan, so if you have one lying around, it’s a great way to make sure white noise doesn’t bother you or anyone you share a bed with.
With all of these approaches, you need to experiment and see what works for you. For example, I have found that if I wear orange safety glasses from sundown until bed time and then strap on a sleep mask all night, I wake up incredibly groggy - probably a melatonin overload. Also, the 90 minute guideline is just that - an average from observing lots of people. If you rigorously time your wake-up to be exactly 6 hours after you drift off, you might be off by 20 or 30 minutes if your cycle is just 5 or 6 minutes different from the average. A good rule of thumb is that if you could fall back asleep with zero effort 30 minutes after you got up with no coffee in your system, you didn’t get enough sleep.
Taking care of sleep and exercise will get you 80% of the stress mitigation and dissipation benefits, but there are other important pieces of the puzzle, and the next biggest is eating well. Diet is even more complicated than exercise and sleep, so I’ll stick to a very brief overview. Whatever dietary choice you make to get healthier, it’s almost certainly going to involve fewer simple carbohydrates than most Americans eat. While it seems true that some carbs before bed can help getting to sleep, the long term health effects of non-stop starches are pretty horrifying. Options include Tim Ferriss’s Slow Carb diet, the widely known Paleo diet, and the Ketogenic Diet. I have enjoyed and felt good on all of these options, but of the three, the easiest to start and stick with is definitely the Slow Carb diet. If you aren’t practiced at funky food restrictions, give it a try before you jump into Paleo, Keto, pure juicing or any other more strict diet. It’s easy to stick with even when you go out with your friends, it tastes good and is filling, and it’s easy to build muscle and lose weight while you’re doing all this exercise and sleeping well.
Oh, and for goodness’s sake - drink some water. Staying hydrated is one of the few things in life that makes everything else better and is as close to free and easy as you can get.
So far we’ve talked about physical fixes, but there are several mental tools you can use. I’ve purposely left these approaches for last precisely because most people think of stress as “all in your head”, but as we saw previously, it is largely a physiological phenomenon and most of the best answers are likewise physical. That being said, your brain is part of your body, and a rather important part at that, so the ways you manage it affect everything else. I agree with Tim Ferriss and Ryan Holiday that Stoicism is the best “mental operating system upgrade” you can install for a chaotic and stressful world. Check out Holiday’s The Obstacle is the Way if you want a discussion of how to be a stoic in the modern world, or read Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic for advice on how to be a stoic in the first century CE - turns out the way is pretty much the same.
Even just a few years ago meditation was still considered pretty out there, but these days it’s extremely common, and just about everyone has heard something about it. What a lot of folks don’t realize is that there are a lot of different types of meditation, and that different types work better for different people. As with building any other habit, for meditation I recommend picking a stupidly easy microhabit that you do every day, and build from there - say, ten mindful breaths. Many people find guided meditations useful, and there are lots of options out there. You might even try the free trial of the headspace app - which incorporates some nice features to support habit formation. The single best piece of advice I ever received for getting started in meditation is this: just remember that simply sitting still, breathing deeply, and taking a break from the press of life is good all by itself. You are winning just by spending the time. The point is the practice. You can worry about the finer points later.
The last mental tool is pretty new for me, but has already had a tremendously positive impact on my life - consciously feeling gratitude and wishing happiness for others. This part will likely sound the most “hippy dippy” to you, and the least in keeping with my usual hard nosed self improvement advice, but it is empirically backed and it works. To practice gratitude, simply make a habit each day of writing down three things you are grateful for. I use the prompts from the Five Minute Journal in my own planner to remind me. Bonus points if you really make yourself feel the gratitude. Tony Robbins has a wonderful follow-along audio exercise for getting into this that takes about five minutes.
Wishing happiness on others is even easier. This is an exercise I got from Chade-Meng Tan in Tools of Titans: pick two random people a day and think to yourself “I wish they will be happy.” Don’t say anything, don’t do anything, just think it. It’s remarkable how quickly this starts to turn things around and improve your mood, and you’ll find it hard to stick to just two people once you make a habit of it. The results are seriously out of all proportion you could expect from something so easy. I have found it to be doubly effective as an antidote to frustration while driving - right after I curse at someone for doing something frustrating on the road, I catch myself and hope for them to be happy. It reminds me simultaneously that whatever they did wasn’t that important, that they’re a human who deserves happiness, and that anger is unhelpful and corrosive.
If you pick just one technique from each of the categories above and put them into practice for a month, I guarantee your life will be better - you will feel happier, more relaxed, and much less stressed. Keep them up long term and start adding in more and you will be healthier and mentally sharper. Even with these practices, though, stress will still intrude on your life and you’ll get to points where you need something to do now. So next time I’ll share some stress “first aid” techniques to cope with acute stress as you feel it.
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