If you are reading this website, there is a high probability that you live an energized lifestyle. It’s filled with hyper-dynamic work and family stressors intermixed with a number of extreme activities. However, are you aware that any head trauma, whiplash or concussions you have experienced during your life set off a cascade of inflammation in the brain that starts to become more apparent 10 to 20 years later? These traumatic stressors and injuries from general life, sports or even combat operations negatively and permanently affect your central nervous system. You don’t want to burnout down the road, and the road to recovery can seem challenging to some.
What does this mean? It means the stress that didn’t faze you when you were 15 years old can have some serious implications for you when you are 30 and beyond. If you care about the health of your brain (which controls all your activities and personal interactions), it can become a full-time job trying to figure out how to maintain a higher level of health and wellness. What worked for you in the past may not work any longer. I want to share with you how you can achieve success based on my failures, research and execution of some simple strategies that you can implement on a daily basis. These techniques will increase your ability to deal with any negative stimulus, whether it is a past, present or future stressor.
I grew up with the “do-more-than-is-required-of-you mindset,” which was passed down from previous generations in my family. It meant, “Do whatever is required to get the job done by any means necessary.” Unfortunately, this sometimes was a recipe for injury or disaster. My character was ingrained with the desire to put everyone else first, which resulted in a savior complex that caused me incessantly to help the world be a better place. In the special-operations community, it was always “Go! Go! Go!” and if you were caught taking a small break to off-gas or recharge, you were accused of being a malingerer. The result is running yourself ragged as an individual. While this mindset may ideally help contribute to the advancement of society, it is a very sharp, double-edged sword.
Short-term success is exchanged for long-term burnout with reduced overall productivity. Most people want to feel as though they matter and make a difference in the world. If your life’s objective is to help contribute to society, then you are a great human being. The issue that arises is that you must ensure that your well-being is first accounted for in order to optimally fulfill this purpose. If you are stressed and burned out, you may spiral downward before succeeding in your mission. Think about why you must put the oxygen on yourself first on the airplane — this reason translates to your everyday life as well.
In my military history studies, I have observed a huge disconnect between warriors of the past and warriors of today. Whether or not you are in combat, you are still a warrior combating stress in your everyday life, which is why this history and its strategies are relevant to everyone. Many successful ancient cultures were wise and had rituals that helped heal the minds, bodies and souls of warriors when they returned from war. For example, Rome would have the vestal virgins bathe the returning warriors to purge the demons and corruption of war from them. Many African cultures had purification rites for the homecoming of their fighters.
Native Americans and Mayans held sweat lodge purifications while they told their stories of combat to detoxify their “inner pollution,” which was left among the hot stones. Hebrews and Judeo-Christians would purify before coming home; in medieval times, all those who fought in battle were required to do penance. Those who killed in battle were required to do even more penance. Then, we can’t forget the intense regimens of the great samurai, from pre-battle rituals to post-battle meditation and purging to center themselves before heading back out to cut heads off the next day. These were extraordinary people of historical times. They all had stressors — some incomprehensible by people of today — but they understood the balance of opposites better than us.
They understood the power of off-gassing in order to become better at their skill sets. Somewhere along the line, it became “weak” to regenerate and recharge, and only the overstressed were respected while they suffered in silence. Now, it is time for us have the strength and resolve to dive back into our warrior roots and find ourselves so that we may help others so much more.
The first step in improving yourself is to gain knowledge and identify the problem within yourself. There are numerous components of our complex central nervous system (CNS), but for this article, I want to focus on the two most relevant ones: the sympathetic and the parasympathetic.
The SNS is best known for the “fight or flight” reaction. If you are aroused by a negative stimulus, such as a bear running after you, someone pointing a gun at you or even having your boss yell at you, your body alarm response (BAR) kicks in. You don’t need to think about it; in fact, you can’t even think about it. This is the nervous system’s innate response to an acute stressor. This response has evolutionarily been effective because it narrows the focus to gather only essential information through the eyes, while simultaneously allowing the chemical cocktail rushing through the body to create somatic movements to either fight the predator or run from the situation.
Unfortunately, in today’s world, you don’t need a bear coming at you to kick start your SNS. Most of us live in such a high state of incessant arousal — always on the run, stressed out by world events, engaged in negative social interactions on the road, at work or at home — that it feels as though there is danger around every corner. Yet, it isn’t socially acceptable to fight or flee these situations and then relax. The result is that the SNS is overcharged and out of balance with the parasympathetic nervous system, with the consequence of wreaking havoc on the inside of your brain and body.
Your body requires balance, and the PNS is best known for “recovery and rest.” We have discussed how it isn’t healthy to be constantly in a sympathetic state. Likewise, it isn’t healthy to be in a constant PNS state, which would consist of relaxing all day in bed with no drive. After all, our focus in this article is about optimizing your ability to contribute to the world without burning out.
Let’s face it — the world we live in is primarily sympathetic, and society often demands this response and rewards us for it. This is why it is necessary to intentionally stimulate your PNS to restore the homeostasis, or equilibrium, in your body. Once that balance is restored, you can slow down your pace, be deliberate and focused in your decisions and actions, be more productive, improve your endurance and likely live longer.
What I am about to discuss isn’t expensive and it isn’t some obscure, secret formula. It is simple and within reach for everyone. It may not be a habit today, but with some practice, it will become second nature in no time.
Breathe deeply into your diaphragm; i.e., breathe into the lower lobes of your lungs towards your stomach, not into your upper chest and neck. By breathing deeply in through your nose, holding the breath for one to two seconds and exhaling slowly out through your mouth, you will stimulate the vagus nerve to activate your PNS. If you can use visual representations to imagine yourself somewhere you want to be, this will be even more effective. This strategy can be done many times a day and in any place, since it is a quiet action.
Has anyone ever told you, “You’re here, but you’re not really here”? Have you been at work or with your family but thinking about a situation in the past or planning what you need to do tomorrow? I think we all would like to think that we can multitask, but the reality is that we really can’t. The science states that we can only consciously focus on one task at a time. It is possible to focus on one task while simultaneously walking, chewing, breathing or doing other subconscious activities; however, it is impossible to actually enjoy the moment with friends and family and truly be present if your mind is elsewhere. Doing this accomplishes nothing, except possibly strengthening that overstimulated SNS, yet we all do it.
The best thing to do when you find yourself stressed out with a lot to do is to first block out all distractions and then execute on one thing only. Zen Master Seung Sahn said, “When reading, only read. When eating, only eat. When thinking, only think.” When you first start training yourself to be in the moment, you may only be able to tell yourself that you will focus on a task with 100-percent undivided attention for 20 minutes, if your random thoughts can wait that long. If not, write them down and tackle them later with 100-percent focus. By doing this, you will become extraordinarily productive.
I was talking to Lee Burkins, the author of “Soldiers Heart,” about stress management. He asked me if I meditated. I responded with, “I’ve tried … I don’t know how you guys sit on a cloud, cross your legs, hold your nose and fart to clear out your mind.” He laughed and said, “What they hell do you think meditation is?” After a lengthy discussion, I became better informed and realized that meditation comes in many forms. Meditation can simply be finding something that you love, that centers you and that allows you to block out all distractions from the world.
The goal is to truly be at peace and in a flow state. This may be working in your workshop with your hands, running, being in nature, painting or many other things specific for your personality. For me, my meditation is paragliding and paramotoring. While this is a dynamic sport, for me it is “peaceful”. My heart rate drops substantially to a meditative rate when I am in the air. The point here is that meditation comes in many shapes and forms. Unless you are able to truly self-actualize, you may never find it. Regardless of how insane my meditation may be to others, at the end of the day, it’s my meditation. It allows me to re-center and then re-attack anything I put my mind to. You can do the same with whatever is your personal meditation practice.
There is nothing outside yourself that can enable you to get better, stronger, richer, quicker or smarter. Everything is within. Everything exists. Seek nothing outside yourself.Miyamoto Musashi
In today’s impulsive and overstimulated society, everyone wants a pill or magic button to fix their issues. I will tell you that you have to take your own path in life. You have to find what works for you. And like Musashi said, the answer is within you.