Many years ago, I gave a lunchtime talk — “Staying Healthy Under Pressure” — for the ABC News team in New York City. As it happened, the day I presented was the same day the United States announced its restoration of full diplomatic ties with Cuba.
It was, in other words, a breaking-news day. I remember from my brief sojourn at the Huffington Post what those days are like: Totally nuts.
It’s a scenario to which virtually any hardworking person can relate. Unexpected things happen in the midst of already-stressful conditions, progressively nudging us toward our last frayed edge. And through all this, we’re expected to perform at our best.
Every day, we are all pushed and pulled in so many different directions. A lot of us seem to be living from one crisis to the next. And yet somehow, damn the torpedoes, we also gotta be thinking about our health.
Because let’s face it, once our health starts to go, we’ve got a whole new set of crises on our hands. Among other things, we’re likely to find ourselves wading through the difficult choices and alienating bureaucracies of our country’s broken healthcare system.
And all of those important things we have to do? Yeah, they suddenly get a whole lot harder.
How Can We Hope to Cope?
Welcome to one of the central conundrums of our time: How can we safeguard the vitality that is so critical to our effectiveness while living in a society that works against our health AND regularly stretches us well beyond our natural capacity?
This is the head-scratcher around which I wrote my 2020 book, The Healthy Deviant: A Rule Breaker’s Guide to Being Healthy in an Unhealthy World. But even back in 2014, I was talking about it with the folks at ABC .
Here are 10 survival tips I shared with them back then, and that I believe will work just as well for you now :
1. Take three minutes in the morning for you. I call this my Morning Minutes practice, and it’s one of three Renegade Rituals I see as the bedrock essentials of Healthy Deviance. Before you check your digital devices or turn on any other electronics or media (especially the news!), simply spend a few minutes doing something low key that you enjoy. Light a candle, step outside to look up at the sky, pet your dog, check in with your body-mind. Or just sit with a cup of coffee or tea and enjoy the feeling of your body-mind coming into waking gradually. Cultivating even a few moments of sanity and autonomy first thing in the morning can alter the way you relate to the rest of your day.
2. Make and eat a whole-foods breakfast. Try my “Quick-Trick Snack Stack” for a no-cook alternative, or fry up an egg and some greens. Either meal will fuel your body for hours and give you the nutrition your brain needs to operate well.
3. Take your vitamins. Your body goes through B-vitamins and many other nutrients at a much faster clip when you are stressed, and being short on essential nutrients can radically diminish your mental and physical capacity. So even if you’re eating a healthy diet, it’s wise to supplement with some basics. A multivitamin, multimineral, vitamin D, and essential-fatty-acid supplement proves a good basic combo for most — but of course, check with a qualified health professional to be sure.
4. Keep protein-rich snacks or a protein drink mix with you at work. Protein staves of hunger, helps balance blood sugar, and safeguards your lean tissue. So favor proteins, veggies, and healthy fats (like avocados or nut butters) over chips, cereals, crackers, or granola bars. Blood-sugar crashes and carb cravings will become a thing of the past, and your brain will thank you for the extra amino acids.
5. Master a few body-weight exercises you can do anywhere and do mini-sets between meetings or as mid-project breaks. I like planks, pushups, wall squats, and lunges. Good news: Recent research published in the December issue of the journal Nature suggests that even a few single-minute bouts of exercise can make a big difference to your overall mortality risk — and they’ll help you feel and function better right now, too.
6. Set a timer to trigger 15-to-20 minute breaks (what I call Ultradian Rhythm Breaks, or URBs) every two hours. This will help keep your body from building up inflammatory stress byproducts and improve your ability to bounce back from the day’s demands. URBs also prime your body and brain to operate at peak effectiveness throughout the day, improving mood and creativity, reducing errors and accidents, regulating blood sugar and hormones, and supporting healthy metabolism.
7. Take a weekly yoga, meditation, or relaxation class — even if it’s in place of a fitness class. You might also schedule some recurring bodywork sessions (massage, cranial sacral, etc.) if you can afford that. But if you can’t, don’t let that stop you from taking what I call “Just Lie Down” breaks. The more your stress-fueled sympathetic (fight-or-flight) nervous system is activated, the more you need to nudge your parasympathetic (rest-relax-digest-and-connect) nervous system to offset inflammation and angst.
8. Keep a water bottle with a squeeze of lemon, splash of juice, or slice of cucumber within reach at all times. Plain water is okay, but adding that little touch of flavor sets up a “return to substance” relationship between your brain and the water. As a result, you’ll sip more regularly throughout the day, stay better hydrated, and function better. You might also find this help ward off headaches (where dehydration is a well recognized trigger).
9. Use your commute to decompress versus multitask. Transition time is hugely valuable time. And the absolute best thing you can do with it might very well be nothing at all — thereby giving your brain and body a chance to unwind. Drive or ride in silence for a while, practice deep breathing, or listen to something calming rather than being in continuous contact with your handheld or shoveling more information into your already overloaded brain. Your body-mind is probably already overloaded, and it desperately needs quiet time to process and organize what’s in there!
10. See symptoms as signals for change. If you’re doing all of the above regularly and still suffering, trust that that’s your body’s way of letting you know its needs are not being met. You are suffering from what I call “Pissed-Off Body Syndrome” (use my Weird-Symptom Checklist to assess your current score). Make it your business to find out what shifts are necessary for you to bring your body back to its happy place. Then do those things.
I realize that last suggestion is a whole lot easier said than done. Frankly, none of us came into this world prepared to live the way we are living now. And since our world is changing so fast, learning the skills necessary to survive and thrive has become a lifetime endeavor.
The more stress you’re under, the more important those skills become. So there’s no better time than now to start raising your game.