Episode 82 (Season 2: Ep 2)
Welcome to the Freedom from Empty Podcast: Building Strong, Effective, Resilient Leaders, Entrepreneurs, and Humans. My name is Booth Andrews, and I am your host. Thank you so much for joining me for this episode.
“If you don’t start sleeping, I am not going to be able to help you.”
It was the fall of 2012. I was sitting in the psychiatrist’s office for the first time. I was terrified or I wouldn’t have been there. . . The suicidal ideation, last experienced in my late teens and early twenties, had returned.
I hadn’t been sleeping through the night for several years. My youngest was a little older than two at the time.
I would collapse into bed but wake up somewhere between 1 and 4 am, no longer able to sleep. My mind racing. The chronic nightmares didn’t help either.
When I was awake, I didn’t know how to be still without being overcome with anxiety . . . unless I was numbed out through alcohol or scrolling on my phone.
I had been running on adrenaline for so long, my body was stuck in overdrive.
Every talk that I give on burnout includes a section on rest.
Because insufficient sleep, preoccupation with thoughts of work during leisure time, and high work demands are risk factors for burnout.
Burnout is the result of a level or duration of stress that ultimately causes harm to the body–because the physiological process our body was designed to initiate in response to a perceived threat was supposed to be a short term response followed by a return to homeostasis. And an unmitigated stress response prevents the body from engaging in its own innate healing processes– which processes, if allowed to engage without our interference, have the capacity to repair the damage caused by both internal or external assault.
And yet, our current culture is in many respects designed around us treating our bodies as if they are machines that are supposed to be optimized for maximal output all of the time (not biological beings).
A muscle that isn’t used will atrophy and a muscle that is worked constantly, without rest, will grow fatigued and eventually fail in exhaustion. But a muscle that gets worked and rested and worked and rested will grow stronger. This same principle applies across our physical, mental, emotional and spiritual energy centers.
What makes you stronger (and builds your flexibility, resilience and endurance) is the REST and recovery that comes after the effort.
“Resting” doesn’t always mean coming to a full stop and collapsing onto the couch although sometimes that is absolutely necessary.
For our purposes, “rest” is when you stop using part of you that’s worn out, damaged or inflamed so that it has the chance to renew itself.
Rest certainly includes SLEEP which I will talk about more in a minute.
But it can also mean stepping away from your digital devices (yes, all of them).
Taking a walk or engaging in some other gentle movement.
Journaling or practicing meditation.
Spending time with the people you love or time alone in stillness and silence.
Doing a jigsaw puzzle, playing a game, or watching a funny show.
Laying on a blanket and staring at the sky.
Taking a hot shower or bath without having to rush.
I remember what a breakthrough it was when I realized that instead of spending hours repeatedly clicking through the open tabs in my multiple browser windows trying to will myself to be productive when I was showing obvious signs of fatigue, I could just walk away and use my body and mind differently. Like taking a walk, running errands, spending time with a loved one or taking a nap!
And that if I did give myself permission to step away, I could be almost 100% assured that when I did come back, I would be able to move through the same “to do” list with greater clarity and efficiency.
Just this week, I found myself staring listlessly at my computer, my eyes starting to glaze over after spending most of two days on some screen-intensive work.
I happened to be working out of my home office. So first, I walked over the couch, cuddled the dog and stared out the window.
And then I remembered that I have been meaning to get back into a daily mobility practice and since my brain was done, now would be a great time to move my body. And do some laundry.
When we are operating in a constant state of stress response, our bodies never have a chance to fully recover and repair themselves from the activities of the day.
We are biologically designed to oscillate between exertion and rest. And when we don’t, our bodies and minds break down over time.
Perhaps nowhere are the long-term effects of this disruption more apparent than when we talk about the impact of lack of sleep, one of the best predictors of clinical burnout (and a host of other health issues).
The information I am about to share with you comes from the book Burnout by Emily and Amelia Nagoski which is linked in the transcript. I appreciate this book for a number of reasons, but partly because it includes a lot of relevant data all in one place.
Inadequate sleep damages your physical health.
Chronic sleep deprivation is a causal factor in 20% of serious car accidents, and in every common cause of death, including heart disease, cancer, diabetes, hypertension, Alzheimer’s, and immune dysfunction, increasing risk by up to 45%.
Poor sleep is a better predictor of developing type 2 diabetes than lack of physical activity.
While you sleep, your bones, blood vessels, digestive system, muscles (including your heart), and all other body tissues heal from the damage inflicted during the day.
While physical activity is the most efficient way to complete the stress cycle– allowing our bodies to transition into rest and repair–physical activity without sleep will leave you more vulnerable to illness and injury than you would have been without the activity.
Inadequate sleep impairs your brain functioning, including working memory and long-term memory, attention, decision-making, hand-eye coordination, calculation accuracy, logical reasoning, and creativity.
People who’ve been awake for 19 hours are as impaired in their cognitive and motor functioning as a person who is legally intoxicated (as are people who’ve slept just 4 hours the previous night, as are those who’ve slept 6 or fewer hours every night for the last 2 weeks).
While you sleep, memories consolidate and new information is integrated into your existing knowledge.
Any motor skills you practiced during the day get integrated.
And just like building muscle, the benefits of practice come not during the practice itself but during sleep.
Without it, your skill will actually decline, no matter how much you practice.
Your social life and work are affected by lack of sleep.
Team communication in the workplace and group decision-making are impaired, while hostility and even unethical workplace behavior increase
In one study, professionals who got inadequate sleep were rated by their peers and employees as having lower emotional intelligence.
Marital satisfaction is linked to sleep quality.
Lack of sleep also heightens your inflammatory immune response to conflict.
So in other words, if you’re not getting enough sleep you may want to avoid talking to other humans.
And your emotional and mental health are impacted too.
Depression and sleep difficulties are closely intertwined, each making the other worse, and insomnia predicts suicidal thoughts, even in people without depression.
Anxiety and lack of sleep are closely related and mutually causal.
If you struggle with depression, anxiety, or other mental illness, sleep is medicine for you.
We are built to oscillate between wakefulness and sleep, because we require the things our brain does on its own during sleep to make us fully functional while we’re awake.
As someone who slept for only about 4 hours per night leading up to my crash and burn, I understand that it isn't necessarily helpful to tell someone who has a hard time sleeping to just "sleep more".
Some of you may be in seasons of your lives where sleep is hard to come by (for example, if you have small children at home).
Even so, there are things you can do to support better rest, including sleep:
Complete the stress cycle - If you have dealt with the stressors (like checking off your to-do list) but haven’t dealt with the stress itself, your brain won’t let you rest; it will constantly scan for the tiger that’s about to come after you, so when you try to go to sleep, your brain won’t let you fall asleep or it will wake you up over and over checking for that tiger. Complete the cycle so your brain can transition into rest.
Completing the stress cycle simply means that we send signals to the body that, after facing a stressor, we are now safe. This signal then prompts the body to down-regulate, discharge the excess energy, and return to the state in which it can heal and repair itself.
If you are living with the impact of unresolved trauma, finding safety in the body may be a longer road for you. But I want to assure you, that with the right support, there is a path to reestablishing a felt sense of safety in your body.
So how do we complete the stress cycle? Here are 7 scientifically proven ways to do just that, taken from the Burnout book.
The first is . . .
Physical activity - anything that moves your body enough to get you breathing deeply (between 20-60 minutes per day for most people).
If this type of physical activity is not accessible for you, you can try sitting or laying down, taking a breath and then tensing all of your muscles for twenty seconds followed by letting your body go limp.
Physical activity is the most efficient strategy for completing the cycle. But there are other strategies as well.
Breathing exercises are great when your stress isn't super high or when you need something to hold you over until you have more time and space. When we are stressed we often will breathe short, shallow breaths. Short, shallow breaths reinforce the message to our brain that we are in danger.
I encourage people to "start small" when it comes to breathing exercises if they are new to you. One way to tiptoe into more supportive breathing is to imagine yourself breathing into your back ribs. You can try this while sitting in a chair or laying on the floor either on your back or on your stomach.
Positive social interaction–casual but friendly–is a great external indicator that the world is safe at this moment; smile at someone; compliment them; hold the door open; look them in the eye.
When I present this information to groups, I like to ask them to take a moment and look the person next to you in the eye and smile. This exercise inevitably leads to . . .
Belly laughs which help build and maintain social bonds and regulate emotions.
What are some scenarios that support belly laughs for you given that they cannot be forced??? e.g. play, comedy, movies?
Next, affection, also known as a deeper connection with someone who likes, respects and trusts you lowers blood pressure and heart rate. This affection can come from people and pets!
Crying releases stress and endorphins and builds connection and empathy. And resisting when we need to cry is bad for our health.
Creative Expression - painting, sculpture, music, theater, storytelling, writing--if the idea of trying to be creative is stressful--watch a movie or a play, listen to music or go to a museum. Creativity is a reflection of our human experience and engaging with creative works can help guide us through a release of stress energy even if we do not consider ourselves to be creative.
Completing the stress cycle doesn’t always mean we will feel a massive shift all at once. But we might feel a release or a reset. Maybe we sigh. Or yawn. Or we feel our muscles relax ever so subtly. Maybe our breath reaches a little bit deeper all on its own. All of these are good signs that we are on the right track.
In addition to completing the stress cycle in support of better sleep. You can also try these sleep supportive practices:
Block time for "sleep opportunity" which is basically making sure you reserve 7-9 hours of your time for sleeping or sleep supportive activities (whether you actually asleep or not).
Along these lines, try to implement consistent bed and wake times as much as possible. One of my foundational well-being practices is that I am militant about my bedtime. Do I miss it sometimes? Of course. But if I miss it or my sleep gets cut short a few nights in a row, I can feel it. And I double-down on getting my bedtime back where it needs to be as soon as I can.
Establish a sleep routine; choosing activities that will send your body the message that it is time to wind down, such as dimming the lights, putting devices away, drinking a cup of decaf tea, doing a guided meditation, or taking a bath or a shower.
Speaking of devices, stay off of your devices for at least an hour before sleep . . . because the light coming from devices stimulates your brain in a way that isn’t supportive of sleep.
I took medication to support my sleep for more than a decade. If you are completing your stress cycle and using other supportive sleep practices but still struggling with your sleep, talk to your healthcare provider about non-addictive sleep support. You might also consider doing a cortisol study to see if you need to take some steps to reduce your cortisol levels.
These are just a few of the things you can try to support better sleep and if you would like more sleep tips, a quick internet search will give you more ideas.
So how much rest (including active rest) do you actually need in order to prevent burnout, stay well, and build strength and resilience?!
That’s the percent of time your body and brain need you to spend resting. In other words, approx 10 hours out of every 24 on average.
And here is one of my favorite quotes from the book on Burnout:
"We are not saying you ‘should’ take 42 percent of your time to rest. We’re saying if you don’t take 42 percent the 42 percent will take you.
For example: have you ever come down with a terrible cold as soon as you finished a huge project?
Slept 12-14 hours per day on the first three days of vacation?
Literally ended up in the hospital after a prolonged period of extreme stress?
Our biology requires that we spend 42 percent of our lives maintaining the organism of our physical existence.
The payoff of spending more time resting is that during the remaining 58% of your life, you’re more energized, more focused, more creative and nicer to be around–not to mention a safer driver, less likely to make mistakes that will cost you later and more likely to enjoy what you’re doing."
Your people need you to rest more: your friends, your family, your team, your peers, your business and your community.
Rest isn’t selfish. Rest is a biological requirement of being human. And it is the foundational practice that allows our body to support us in reaching for our dreams, caring for others and staying connected to the full experience of being human.
Thank you for listening today.
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I look forward to being back with you next time!
Insufficient sleep predicts clinical burnout https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22449013/
Burnout by Emily Nagoski PhD and Amelia Nagoski DMA
The Power of Full Engagement by Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz