FUN & FLOW
Reality is the leading cause of stress for those in touch with it
- Jane Wagner
FUN & FLOW BASICS
1. We naturally change for the better, if we are in resonance with our selves and trust the outcome of change
2. When we are not in touch with our selves, stressed or tired, we lose our ability for meaningful change
3. Key to this journey is getting enough sleep
4. Getting 7-8 hours of sleep (versus less) reduces all-cause mortality by greater than 10%
5. There are three tools available that work immediately helping you get better sleep without the need for support from another person
Physical activity. Being physically tired works wonders
The 7x7 method
The Rhythm & Blues method
6. In addition there are more intensive methods that tackle the broader topic of self-development that I will discuss below which may be of use to some of you.
Let's first look at the scale of the problem (i):
1/3 of employees report being chronically stressed.
2/3 feel at risk of burnout. Stanford University estimates this to be the fifth-highest cause of death. This obviously distracts from engaging in own health.
2/3 of employees do not meaningfully participate in wellness efforts at work, because they are too stressed.
1/3 of people do not get enough sleep, which is linked to heart disease, obesity/type 2 diabetes, inability to cope with stress, and depression
It, therefore, stands to reason that tackling sleep is the first port of call as it tackles the actual underlying problem rather than trying to find ways to put lipstick on the pig. The science around sleep is also more advanced than the other possible interventions, so it is a good option to place our bets.
Many other solutions are currently questionable or unproven despite many voices promoting them (mostly for profit). For example, and this may come as a shock, given the cultural hype around mindfulness, but the evidence for its long-term efficacy is not yet of sufficient quality, partially due to its newness, but also due to the quality of the studies to date (ii). Remember anecdotes, lots of people believing in something, placebo effect, etc are not evidence (see How we get fooled)
(i) A study by Stanford shows that job stress costs ca $300bn per year and is the fifth cause of death. https://www.gsb.stanford.edu/faculty-research/books/dying-paycheck
American Psychology Association, Work and Wellbeing survey 2016, Interviews with top performers; Bupa “Evidence into action”
Centers for disease control and prevention(CDC) estimates that 1/3 of people do not get enough sleep. This is not only true of working populations but also of young people: Shelley D Hershner; Ronald D Chervin (23 June 2014). "Causes and consequences of sleepiness among college students". Nature and Science of Sleep. 6: 73–84.
(i) Van Dam, N., & Galante, J. (2020). Underestimating harm in mindfulness-based stress reduction. Psychological Medicine, 1-3. Note: At this point, there is no evidence that mindfulness or meditation has a negative impact, but this analysis discusses the quality of research accurately.
THE DOUBLE EDGED SWORD OF STRESS
Stress is one of our most basic defense mechanisms. When we experience or believe to be in danger a semi-automatic response also known as “fight-or-flight” is initiated. The whole purpose of this response is to get your body to get ready for fighting off an attack (by some predatory animal) or getting out of harm’s way (the Rhino cannot catch you up in the tree). To manage this, your body ramps up the release of stress hormones (adrenaline and cortisol). The ultimate result is a higher heart rate, increase in blood pressure, and an improved ability of your senses. You are ready!
When facing real dangers or challenges even in today’s world (traffic accidents, brawl in a pub, giving birth), this is the perfect response at your disposal. Normally this response leads to higher physical activity, but often we find ourselves in stressful situations that create this response, but we do not have the ability to work it off through physical activity (for example by punching the colleague who insulted you or running around the meeting room, when you realize that your presentation has a major error).
Once our stress becomes chronic (in other words, we are in a constant state of “fight” or “flight”), we get into trouble.
Long-term exposure to stress can lead to serious health problems. It can raise blood pressure and increase the risk of heart attack and stroke, suppress the immune system, and contribute to anxiety and depression.
SO WHAT TO DO
There are many coping mechanisms that can help. But which ones are most fruitful. Frankly, this arena is highly personal. What works for one person may not work for another. The science supporting various psychological approaches is not at a level where one can establish a definitive answer. For example, attempts at discerning the effectiveness of various psychological schools of thought show that there is a strong correlation between therapy/counseling outcomes and individual therapists (especially empathy) and no correlation with any particular school or framework (i).
Let's first look at how things link together and why sleep plays such an important part.
(i) For a good review of efficacy studies and Consumer report analysis, see: Martin Seligman, American Psychologist, December 1995, Vol. 50, No. 12, 965–974; www.Consumerreports.org; Nana A. Landenberger and Mark W. Lipsey. The positive effects of cognitive-behavioral programs for offenders: A meta-analysis of factors associated with effective treatment. Journal of Experimental Criminology, 2005, 1(4), 451-476. For a discussion of analytic variables, see The Efficacy and Cost Effectiveness of Psychotherapy, October 1980, NTIS order #PB81-144610
THE CENTRAL ROLE OF SLEEP
Sleep has a profound impact on our wellbeing and health. Too much and too little appears to be detrimental to our health. 7-8 hours in every 24 hours appears to be the ideal. A meta-analysis shows that the difference between getting enough sleep and not is an increase in mortality risk of over 20% (i).
When we are well-rested we can be more in touch with ourselves, meaning that we can assess our situation more accurately. My daughter for example, when she is very tired, tends to get moody, cries easily, or feels depressed. A good night of sleep completely takes care of the problem.
Being in touch with one's self also increases the ability to problem-solve (ii, iii) and be more creative, which in turn helps us sleep better and be in resonance with ourselves and others (more on this later).
(i) Hublin, C., Partinen, M., Koskenvuo, M., and Kaprio, J. (2007) ‘Sleep and mortality: A population-based 22-year follow-up study’, Sleep, 30 (10), 1245–53.
(ii) Tim D Smithies, Adam J Toth, Ian C Dunican, John A Caldwell, Magdalena Kowal, Mark J Campbell, The Effect of Sleep Restriction on Cognitive Performance in Elite Cognitive Performers: A Systematic Review, Sleep, 2021;, zsab008
(iii) Fortier-Brochu É, et al., Insomnia and daytime cognitive performance: A meta-analysis, Sleep MedicineReviews (2011), doi:10.1016/j.smrv.2011.03.008
THE 7 X 7 METHOD
The background to this method is how breathing can influence our heart rate variability (i.e., the time interval between heartbeats).
Generally, a higher variability (ideally a smooth increase and decrease in the intervals between heartbeats) is correlated with better health outcomes and lower stress and anxiety levels (i).
We normally take a breath every 3-5 seconds. In what is called resonant breathing (ii) the breath is brought down to about 1 breath every 10 seconds (the ideal range for most is between 0.75 to 1.2 breaths every 10 seconds). When people engage in resonant breathing they tend to get into a deeply relaxed mood, which can help with falling asleep.
When practicing this with some of my clients, I have found that people have a hard time keeping track of 10 seconds, and looking at a clock or health gadget defeats the purpose. Generally, when counting we tend to count faster than one count per second. This may be because our hearts beat a bit faster rate than 1 beat per second and that speeds up our counting.
I have found that the easiest way is to count to seven when breathing in and to seven when breathing out. If you feel that you are slightly deficient in oxygen but can manage, then you are hitting the right spot.
Do this over a few minutes. In my experience (not a scientific study) about half of the people become very relaxed after a few minutes and about one in ten starts to snore. The longer you stick with it the better the outcome. Also focusing on one's breath tends to take the focus away from many interfering thoughts.
You may find however that this method simply does not work for you. In that case, look below for the Rhythm and Blues method (iii).
(iii) Note: there are a number of different approaches in the literature, the 4-7-8 method, the 10-second breath method. They all have similar goals. I find that my 7x7 method is the easiest to teach and to remember, but once you get a hang of it, you may want to try some of these other methods and see if they suit you better.
THE RHYTHM & BLUES METHOD
The brain is a wondrous organ and even less understood than the gut. We however know a lot about its capabilities and some of its governing dynamics. One relevant arena is what is called "entrainment", the brain's ability to synchronize with external stimuli. This is why we tend to synchronize our circadian rhythm with the daily sunlight or when people clap in unison at a concert (i).
We (and a few animals) seem to like to follow frequencies and rhythms and it engages many areas of our brains. the brain hones in on a rhythm whether external or generated by ourselves, such as tapping on a table. This also has impact on our body systems for example our breathing and heartbeat (ii).
So when the frequency changes, so do our brains. In other words, when we tap at a certain frequency and then slow down the tapping frequency, so will our brains synchronicity and with it our breathing and heartbeat.
One way to use this is when trying to sleep. We use the brain's frequency following mechanism to effectively rock ourselves to sleep (iii).
1. Take a comfortable position in a darkened room.
2. Simply start tapping your own body with a rhythm (around a tap every second). Where? I always pick that part that sends some signal to me. I know this sounds a bit esoteric, but it is a strange thing that when you focus your attention on/in your body invariably some part stands out. If you don't find a particular location simply pick the most comfortable place on your body (e.g., upper thighs, arms, or belly)
3. Keep going for a few minutes. you already might notice that you are getting tired of tapping and that is good
4. Now very slowly reduce your tapping frequency. I often find that I also tap more lightly as I slow things down.
5. I am sure that you will find yourself more relaxed and many of my clients start drifting into sleep.
Generally, I find that either the 7x7 or the Rhythm & Blues method work for an individual. Also the more you make this into a routine, the more your system gets habituated and anticipates sleep. Power of habits!
You can also combine this method with the 7x7 method during the first phase of the initial rhythm, but once you slow down the rhythm let go of the 7x7 method (iv).
(i) For an excellent review see: Repp, B.H., Su, YH. Sensorimotor synchronization: A review of recent research (2006–2012). Psychon Bull Rev 20, 403–452 (2013).
(ii) Bernardi L, Porta C, Sleight P. Cardiovascular, cerebrovascular, and respiratory changes induced by different types of music in musicians and non-musicians: the importance of silence. Heart. 2006 Apr; 92(4):445-52.
Emese Maróti, Ferenc Honbolygó, Béla Weiss, Neural entrainment to the beat in multiple frequency bands in 6–7-year-old children, International Journal of Psychophysiology, Volume 141, 2019, Pages 45-55
(iii) For those of you who are trying to put your child to sleep, a very similar method works wonders: You start holding them securely in your arms and with rather pronounced (but smooth) swinging moves (looks like a horizontal figure 8) you establish a rhythm. You are doing it right if your whole body moves, but please don't drop the child!. After a few minutes, you slow this gradually down over the next five minutes until you come to a stop. Even if the child is snoring midway, do not stop until you're through the process. This method has never failed me even if I sometimes got strange looks.
(iv) Here is a lovely video by Jim Donovan with a very similar approach: How To Trick Your Brain Into Falling Asleep | Jim Donovan | TEDxYoungstown - YouTube