Practical steps to transform your life during these difficult times
By Richard Sutton
This year started much the same way as previous years. I had established goals, aspirations, defined projects, and I believed that anything and everything was possible in the coming year. I was excited. But, then, in a moment, everything changed.
If you think about it, it sounds very much like a science fiction series that you would find on Netflix:
A deadly virus crosses the species barrier. Within months, more than three billion people are forced into lockdown, over 33 million are infected, and more than a million people tragically lose their lives.
During this short period, the UN secretary general announces that this pandemic is the worst crisis to afflict the world since WWII. At the same time, the International Monetary Fund compares the economic fallout to the devasting effects of the Great Depression in 1929. If this wasn’t enough to promote fear and panic, the International Labour Organisation warns that 50% of the worlds workforce may not have employment by the conclusion of 2020 and the World Health Organisation labels the health crisis a once in a century event, warning governments that its impact will be seen for decades to come. Phew.
But the narrative doesn’t end there. According to the world’s leading virologists, the virus is mutating, with some strains (namely the D614G) showing a considerably greater propensity towards spreading. In an attempt to save the world from this pandemic, heroes within the global medical community have entered into a high stakes race to find a safe and effective vaccine. At last count, 42 vaccines were being tested in clinical trials and more than 93 preclinical vaccines were under active investigation. As with any great series, there is a twist and continued suspense. If proven safe and effective, the vaccines may only be available by mid-2021, which means that more health and economic causalities still lie ahead. Even with a proven vaccine, successful mass production and distribution to an expectant 7,5 billion people is almost an impossible task.
Though this has the makings of a fascinating and gripping television series, it is our current reality.
From a business standpoint, the combined effect of the Fourth Industrial Revolution and COVID-19 has resulted in a disruption in demand, production, consumption, transportation, as well as delivery systems. From a societal and social standpoint, how we relate to others, the way we work, how we learn, the manner in which we communicate, and even the way we socialise has transformed. What’s most overwhelming for all of us is the scale, speed, and depth of these changes. It is nothing like we have seen before. This rapid and exponential change has created a world where fear, uncertainty, a lack of perceived control, worry, and a constant sense of feeling overwhelmed now prevail.
The sheer scale of the current challenges has the potential to overwhelm and affect the most resilient among us. Concerns pertaining to personal health and safety, one’s family’s health, the disintegration of peripheral relationships, the constant worry about our financial security, and the state of the economy are overshadowed by larger fears over what the future holds. The fact that it is a journey that is likely to last several years has caught the attention of every major health agency across the globe. The stress of the current climate has impacted all of us in some way, shape, or form, directly or indirectly.
Chronic stress has the ability to detract from our essence and potential. The reason lies with the stress hormones (specifically cortisol) and its direct influence on our brain chemistry, hormonal balance, and even immune system. Protracted stress is associated with a decline in the production of key proteins known as neurotrophins that govern learning, cognition, and creativity. Moreover, cortisol is associated with a decline in production and impaired transportation of serotonin, a molecule largely responsible for emotional integrity, sleep regulation, and digestion. Excess cortisol also negatively impacts the hormones that keep us strong, vibrant, and youthful, as well as those that regulate our metabolism. Cortisol not only reduces immune cell production, but it also rapidly ages and dysregulates this important system, leading to a variety of health conditions ranging from depression to diabetes.
Simply put, the chronic stress that we are all under is impacting our physical, emotional, and cognitive wellbeing. Before COVID-19 entered our world, we had a choice whether or not to practice selfcare and guard our health. Now, the current landscape does not allow for this option. Fortunately we have several levers that we can pull on in order to transform our lives and augment our potential.
Exercise has a powerful physical influence, offering immeasurable protection from many ailments and diseases. For example, if you were to commit to only three 20-40 minute aerobic sessions (ie. light jogs, very brisk walks, swimming, or cycling) every week, research shows that you would be able to extend your life span by around six years and reduce your risk of developing many life threatening diseases by 30-45%.
But you don’t just gain in physical health, you also stand to benefit both cognitively and emotionally. The reason for this is that when we engage in aerobic exercise for 18 minutes or longer we trigger a spike in a protein known as Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF). Not only does this molecule dramatically reduce the risk of stress-induced depression and anxiety, but it also promotes learning, raises IQ, and augments memory, cognitive processing speed, and even modules weight. What’s more is that this super protein can be cumulatively elevated, facilitating radical transformation. What I mean by this is that three months of daily or alternate daily aerobic exercise exceeding 18 minutes will increase BDNF secretion rates by 222%, helping you to learn, grow, and thrive – it’s simply a no brainer.
The 10 minutes brain boosting routine
With most of us challenged by time constraints, especially now where our work days have extended by an average of two hours, I acknowledge that despite the best motives, 20-40 minutes may be a bit of a stretch. Fortunately there is another exercise session option that takes as little as 10 minutes. This can and should be incorporated on those days where you have limited time availability. A word of caution: Due to the intense nature of this activity, you must consult your doctor and get his approval, especially if you have an underlying medical condition or injury history.
Equipment: Spinning bike, rower, treadmill, field, steep hill, assault bike, or lap pool.
Warm up: 3-5 min at an easy pace. Maybe do a light stretch as well.
Interval 1: 20 second all out sprint as fast as you can.
Recovery: 1 minute active recovery (basically the same activity, but at a really slow pace).
Interval 2: 20 second all out sprint as fast as you can.
Recovery: 1 minute active recovery.
Interval 3: 20-30 second all out sprint as fast as you can.
Recovery: 2 minutes at a light-moderate intensity.
This protocol will create an immense spike in BDNF and growth hormone (thereby positively impacting your physical, mental, and emotional state). Interestingly, in many respects the results from this short-but-intense protocol supersede the longer, less-intense sessions, especially in the areas of enhanced cognition and memory, insulin sensitivity, cardiovascular fitness, and bodyfat reduction.
If you are new to exercise, please don’t start with this protocol, but rather work within a more comfortable zone. Two to three 20 minute sessions will transform your physical and mental wellbeing in no time whatsoever.
The new me action steps:
Perform 2-3 aerobic exercise sessions a week for 10-45 minutes.
Like most aspects of our wellbeing, the choices we make and the outcomes they have are very much based on our unique set of genetics. This means that what works well for one, may not be the best approach for another. That said, there are some fundamentals that can be transformative with respect to physical, emotional, and mental health.
One of the fundamental priorities in the dietary space is to ensure that you support the major governing systems of the body. Or, in simple terms, through lifestyle choices you can lower your risk of cardiovascular and neurological diseases. By selecting foods that don’t overstimulate your immune system, many inflammatory diseases and ailments can be averted. Through improving oxidative defences, you can protect your cells against damage, abnormalities, and even slow-down the aging process. By supporting detoxification, all the pollutants which we are exposed to in the air that we breathe, the water that we drink, the food that we eat, and that exist within the environment can be better eliminated, which will promote good health and well-being on a scale that is unimaginable.
For all these intricate systems to work efficiently, our diets must be diverse and high in fresh, nutrient-dense foods. Daily intakes of a wide variety of vegetables and seasonal fruits together with olive oil, green tea, legumes, rice, sweet potato, some seeds and nuts, as well as fish will do wonders in this regard.
Anything that is devoid in nutrients will draw resources away from healthy biological functioning. Most refined breads, refined pastas, pastries, many dairy products, excessive red meat, alcohol, caffeine, sweets and chocolates, and even soft drinks will do nothing to promote health, let alone the unleashing of your potential. What research shows is that the best dietary model under stressful conditions is the Mediterranean diet due to its robust influence on an anti-anxiety molecule known as neuropeptide Y, not to mention the fact that it results in the IQ molecule BDNF.
The new me action steps:
Variety in my meals
Seasonal fruits, especially the berries and citrus
Swop coffee for green tea
Fresh fish, olive oil, raw nuts, and seeds
Refined starches (bread, pastries, normal pasta, white rice, chips)
Processed sugars (sweets, milk chocolate, cold drinks, cakes, biscuits, etc.)
What we have all come to realise during this challenging time is that we have so little control over the events that take place in our lives. Two landmark studies involving 28 000 people over a period of 40 years identified that the single biggest driver in human stress and the negative physical and mental health associations is a perceived lack of control over the decisions and events that directly affect us. In fact, most health issues pertaining to stress can be traced to this single aspect.
A lack of control and uncertainty pushes the brains fear centre (the amygdala) into overdrive, resulting in a continuous flood of stress hormones. Under normal biological conditions, stress is governed by a negative feedback loop. What I mean by this is that when stress hormones reach a certain threshold, our cells and brain are able to communicate in a way that shuts down this highly complex and energetic biological axis. However, if our experience of stress has been too intense or too protracted, this feedback loop becomes corrupted, creating an environment where one struggles to shut down the axis. This symptom set associated with an inability to regulate the stress axis typically includes worry, anxiety, depression, low motivation, and a list of other emotional and mental shifts. The physical associations are equally as impactful: digestive issues, a higher prevalence injuries, ongoing fatigue, and weight gain.
Incredibly, the body has a built-in safety net that, when triggered, will shut down the stress axis within a matter of seconds. It is not a protein, hormone, organ, or gland that drives this ‘stress off’ response, but rather a nerve system. The nerve is known as the vagus nerve and it is not only responsible for managing stress responses and restoring biological stability, but it is also central to the regulation of inflammation. In other words, if you stimulate and strengthen the vagus nerve, you will gain mastery over your stress responses and lower inflammation.
So how can we effectively and easily target this stress off-button? Interestingly, many of the activities we instinctively migrate to when stressed are some of the strongest vagal activators: deep breathing, cold water exposure to the face (splashing our face), a cold plunge, swimming, yoga, singing, and meditation are powerful vagus nerve triggers.
Of this group, meditation is the standout activity for a variety of reasons. Research shows that just five days of well-timed meditation practice can reduce cortisol, stress, anxiety, depression, anger, and fatigue. Moreover, meditation is able to promote new connections in the brain and induce cell growth in the regions that govern communication, learning, memory, and emotional stability. But there is one additional advantage that meditation offers that takes your health and wellbeing to the next level. This benefit is principally associated with the practice of loving kindness meditation and it involves the increased expression of a neuropeptide and hormone known as oxytocin.
If you could chose to flood your brain and body with only one molecule, without question it should be oxytocin. The reason is that it has several powerful influences that can be a tremendous advantage in terms of our health and potential, especially during this challenging period in our lives. From a more physical standpoint, oxytocin lowers cortisol, increases the key regeneration and repair hormones, triggers the release of neurochemicals that are responsible for cognition and emotional integrity (including serotonin and BDNF), not to mention the fact that it has robust anti-inflammatory and antioxidant qualities. This said, oxytocin also has a profound effect on our behavioural set and the way we view the world around us. This neuropeptide will transform self-doubt into confidence, negatively into optimism, insular behaviours into connectivity, suspicion into trust, panic into fearlessness, and anxiety into composure.
Despite these exceptional qualities, oxytocin still has an additional advantage. What this molecule does that others can’t is inhibit the stress and fear centre of the brain (the amygdala). This means that when you meditate or perform other oxytocin-stimulating activities you will shut down your fears, uncertainties, and stress, promoting emotional integrity as well as physical well-being.
With such advantages and benefits, we should strive to tap into this master molecule as much as possible. The activities that have the greatest effect on oxytocin are not those that focus on ‘self’, but rather on ‘others’. Countless research articles from some of the world’s foremost universities repeatedly show that charity, care, support, compassion, and meaningful connection with those around us result in raised oxytocin and all but neutralise the adverse effects of stress.
What I am saying is that the more charitable, the more supportive, the more compassionate, and the more caring you are when you are going through a crisis, the less stress impacts you mentally, emotionally, and physically. In fact, a recent Yale study showed that people who engage in 11 or more prosocial acts every week are less impacted by stress when compared to those who don’t.
The new me action steps:
Choose a time in the day (especially on high stress days) where you consciously shut down your stress. This requires only 12-minutes of either:
Breathing exercises (5 counts in and 5 counts out)
Swimming (enjoyable, doesn’t have to be laps)
Yoga (there are some great apps and instructors)
Meditation (there are great apps here too)
Identify your prosocial super-power (care empathy, charity, support, compassion ) and ignite it.
Aim for more than 11 prosocial acts every week
One of the most powerful health and wellbeing promotors is nature. In fact, many Asian cultures have been using natural environments as part of therapy protocols for thousands of years. More recently, there has been a growing interest within the research community in the Japanese practice of forest bathing (shinrin-yoku). Essentially, this practice involves immersion in a natural environment, whether a light stroll, sitting, or just experiencing and breathing. Evidence shows that spending time in a forest (or other rich natural environment) has a profound effect on all aspects of our biological state. For example, a 2016 study showed that nature exposure (even for short periods) lowered heart rate, increased energy levels, and reduced depression, anxiety, brain fog, and adrenaline levels.
A 2019 review article revealed some even more astonishing results. After sorting through almost 1 000 studies on the subject of forest bathing and human health and narrowing it down to a handful of high quality studies, it showed that nature exposure was able to dramatically lower cortisol levels.
So how long does one has to be outdoors to experience these impressive benefits? The good news is that you won’t need to pitch a tent at the botanical gardens in order to lower stress hormone levels and regain ascendency over your health.
A team of researchers from Japan and South Korea performed a study looking into the benefits of forest exposure on stress hormone levels. The team had 74 participants walk slowly through a forest and an urban area for a period of 15 minutes. Cortisol levels were carefully evaluated, monitored, and compared (pre and post walk and in the urban and forest settings). Following the testing protocol, it was found that a 15 minute walk through an urbanised area lowered cortisol by an average of 3,5%. A good outcome for such a short period of time. When the research team evaluated cortisol levels following the forest protocol, they found that cortisol levels dropped by an astonishing 14%! Simply put, spending 15 minutes in a serene, beautiful, and tranquil environment will lower stress hormones, blood pressure, and heart rate, in addition to improving mental clarity, mood, and emotional stability.
This time frame was supported by an English study that involved almost 20 000 people. The study showed that spending around 120 minutes a week in nature promotes better physical and mental health. Additionally, it did not matter if it was in in a single stretch or through several shorter exposures. Essentially 18-20 minutes a day in nature will offer an exceptional health advantage.
My new me action steps:
Spend at least 2-hours a week enjoying nature
We can’t always control the events and challenges that we are confront with, but we can control our responses: the way we feel, think, speak, act, and interpret our stress experience. We have the capacity to tap into a vast reservoir of inner resources that can help us to live up to our greatest potential, irrespective of the environment and its unique set of challenges. Through the right choices and decisions, the more difficult and challenging periods can allow us to shine brighter and positively influence the lives of those around us.
- Sutton, Richard. The Stress Code: From surviving to thriving. Pan Macmillan, 2019
- Sutton, Richard. Stressproof: The Game Plan. Pan Macmillan, 2020
- White, Mathew P., et al. “Spending at least 120 minutes a week in nature is associated with good health and wellbeing.” Scientific reports 9.1 (2019): 1-11.
- Li, Qing, et al. “Effects of forest bathing on cardiovascular and metabolic parameters in middle-aged males.” Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine 2016 (2016).
- Kobayashi, Hiromitsu, et al. “Combined effect of walking and forest environment on salivary cortisol concentration.” Frontiers in Public Health 7 (2019): 376.
- Antonelli, Michele, Grazia Barbieri, and Davide Donelli. “Effects of forest bathing (shinrin-yoku) on levels of cortisol as a stress biomarker: a systematic review and meta-analysis.” International journal of biometeorology (2019): 1-18.