August 29, 2013

Want to Save Your Life?

Reading a good book. Swimming at the beach. Surviving lines at The Magic Kingdom, so you can relish the unbridled joy when your child snuggles up to Mickey Mouse. Strolling through the Farmer’s Market. Sleeping late. Barbecues with friends in the backyard. Ice cream with fresh strawberries on a fire hot day.

These are classic images of the simple pleasures of summer.

As August threatens to slip through our fingers, and fall peeks around the corner, it’s worth pausing to notice the difference between what we’re enjoying now, and how we live most of the time. It’s not over yet. We can still bask in the longer days of sunshine; still savor what John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John sang about so adoringly: “those summer nights.”

Yes, we love our summer break.

Alas, that’s partially because when it’s not summer holiday, we live so differently.

We work and live under constant pressure, with high tension, in an urgent world. Forget relaxed backyard barbecues. We eat meals in the car while we lead conference calls. Sometimes it’s okay. But then it’s not. We know it’s out of control when we’re checking email in the bathroom. And who hasn’t done that – at least once?

The way we work in the modern world is a mode psychologists call hyper-arousal. We describe it as feeling stressed-out, overwhelmed, burned out, lost or exhausted.

Put aside what this does to us emotionally.

On a purely physical level, the very systems that evolved to keep us alive, are now slowly but surely killing us.

What Do Overwork and Overdrive Do to Your Brain?

When we push ourselves hard, as most of us do, we send powerful chemical compounds around our brains and through our bodies. That ability evolved to meet a peak challenge of the moment, to keep us alive. This response to high stress wasn’t designed for day-to-day use. It didn’t evolve to serve as a way of life.

Think about other kinds of emergency services. Police, ambulance, fire department. They are there for you in a crisis, like a heart attack, or a fire in your living room. But you don’t call 911 every day of your life. They aren’t designed for that. You call in an emergency.

What we do is dial 911 to our brains every day. And what else can an emergency system do than move into “crisis mode” when it gets the call?

At that point, neural networks made to protect us from danger start firing. Our amygdala gets into a tap dance with our adrenal glands, and we flood our systems with stress hormones like cortisol. That creates a powerful domino effect with all sorts of impact: increasing our heart rate, speeding up our breathing, messing with our metabolism, constricting our blood vessels, narrowing our perception, to name a few.

It’s worth putting the brain and body through this Boot Camp for good reason. Like racing into the road to get a child away from oncoming traffic. But in our working world, we do this to ourselves every day. We put ourselves under crisis levels of stress as part of the ordinary course of business.

Not good.

Rest is not a luxury. It’s part of survival.

What is our answer to the brutal grind of daily life?

Summer vacation.

Ah, yes. Summer. When we read novels and mysteries. Watch kids build sand castles. Sit in a hammock or get back on our bicycle. Delights of summer to be sure. But by themselves, a few weeks off to recover can’t compensate for the non-stop pace we run the rest of the year.

Before saying goodbye to August, it’s worth pausing to recognize an aspect of summertime that can save our lives: rest.

All Animals Need Rest to Live, Including Us

Animals survive through adaptation. They also survive because they balance periods of exertion with periods of rest.

Given the stress of modern life, our species needs to adapt the way we balance – or don’t balance – rest with exertion. Generally speaking, we push as hard as we can for 10 or 11 months of the year, and then give ourselves a summer vacation and a week off at Christmas. We seem to believe that’s a sustainable balance of high performance and renewal.

It’s not.

Indeed, abundant evidence from neuroscience proves us wrong. You can’t dial 911 to your brain every day and think you’re not over-taxing the system.

Confirmation of the science comes from the training of elite athletes. My colleague and friend Tony Schwartz, co-author of a wonderful book, The Power of Full Engagement, did vast research with top-performing athletes. He found that high performance requires alternating periods of activity with periods of rest. And that conclusion extends beyond the athletic field. Tony writes:

“Balancing stress and recovery is critical not just in competitive sports, but also in managing energy in all facets of our lives. When we expend energy, we draw down our reservoir. When we recover energy, we fill it back up. Too much energy expenditure without sufficient recovery eventually leads to burnout and breakdown.”

Without question, our brains need a break from crisis mode and our bodies need a break from exertion mode. Not just one month a year when kids go to camp and we get to linger over morning coffee. We literally won’t survive this way.

La Dolce Vita?

Wanting to save your life is reason enough to balance effort with ease.

Wanting to enjoy your life is another excellent reason.

In the Western world, and certainly in America, we’ve come to see near-constant work as a way of life. Many societies strike a different bargain. We may have more creature comforts than they do. But are we happier? Is this “the good life?” Is this your “good life?”

As August starts to slip away, and the demanding days of fall make their presence known, we’ll do well to remember the words of American philosopher Henry David Thoreau. He whispers to us from the past: “you must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment.” He invites us to see our lives in a bigger context, to keep those “urgent” messages in perspective. Implicitly, he tells us to save “crisis mode” for real emergencies.

Easier Said Than Done, but Doable

This all sounds right in theory. But what can you really do about it? How can you even start to change habits of living on overdrive?

Actually, there’s a lot you can do. For example:

  • Appreciate cycles. Nature is designed to work in cycles. Days follow nights, which follow days. Birds migrate as the seasons change. The moon waxes and wanes. You also need cycles: of activity and rest; exertion and renewal; work and play. Not just once a year. On a regular basis.
  • Put regular cycles of rest into your life. You can start small. If you work every evening, or on weekends, try an experiment. Choose one night a week and commit not to work that night after dinner, unless it’s urgent. Walk away from your computer every day for some period of time. Use that time for a real break, whether you talk with colleagues, walk outside, or send a warm text to your spouse. The point is, shift gears. Let the alarm systems in your brain sense things are okay, so they can calm down.
  • Learn what constant stress does to your brain and body. Articles are everywhere that document the harmful effects to your health of stress as a steady-state. Find one, and read it. It’s actually shocking to discover how we’re shortening our own lives.Reading the stuff first-hand is a strong motivator to build some renewal into your routine of endless exertion.
  • Find ways to connect to your core. Each of you has a core to who you are, what I call your “center of well-being.” That core is more fundamental than your personality, your professional title, or your behavior. It’s deeper than your thoughts, your emotions, your desires, or your impulses to take action. Countless practices and activities are available to help you connect to your center of well-being. Finding one that works for you and bringing it into your life is a tried-and-true path for “finding your eternity in each moment.”

 

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