woman at her laptop showing signs of burnoutWhere are my high achievers at? These are the folks that constantly knock their goals out of the park and make it look easy, whether they’re training for a marathon, dialing in their diet, or Marie Kondo-ing their house. They’re the ones who get the promotions, the bigger bank accounts, the smaller pant sizes…

We live in a culture that celebrates busy-ness. I’ve seen it manifest in my clients (they typically come to me in the post-crush-my-goals stage, once their nervous system is toast) but also in my personal life.https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/evolution-the-self/200807/parent-pleasing-people-pleasing-part-1-3‘>2 You might have been rewarded for straight A’s or gotten kudos after a game-winning goal. Maybe you had a parent or caregiver that was never satisfied or emotionally distant (which you mistook as unsatisfied). Or perhaps you learned that by achieving more, you managed to secure the love, safety, and acceptance of your family or caregivers.

In these situations, your self-worth becomes tied to your performance, meaning you’re only “good enough” if and when you’ve accomplished something exceptional. And even then, your inner critic probably doubts that it’s enough.

The Need to Always Do Better

What we’re really talking about here is fear. Fear that you need to continue excelling, producing, winning, and succeeding in order to not be rejected or lose the approval of others.https://www.mind-body-health.net/hpa-axis.shtml‘>4 Keep in mind this isn’t true for everyone. But for a lot of us, especially those of us with perfectionist tendencies, it’s quite accurate.

 

Pros of being a high achiever:

  • You always bring your A-game
  • You’re driven to get results
  • You’re highly motivated
  • You’re passionate about what you do
  • You’re competitive
  • You thrive on positive feedback

Cons of being a high achiever:

  • You hold yourself to perfectionist standards
  • You’re afraid of failing
  • You believe you’re only as good as your last accomplishment
  • You tend to overcomplicate things
  • You don’t take time to appreciate your successes
  • You’re prone to burnout

Burnout: How Crushing It Leads to a Crash

Research continues to prove that burnout is real – and that it’s more significant among high achievers and perfectionists.https://www.who.int/news/item/28-05-2019-burn-out-an-occupational-phenomenon-international-classification-of-diseases:’>6

  • Feeling depleted or exhausted
  • Dissociation of negativity
  • Reduced efficacy

Not only that, evidence shows that burnout leads to dysregulation of the body’s hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis — if this is you, you’ve probably already noticed the signs.https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25433974/‘>8 They looked at two groups of participants: one with a formal clinical diagnosis of burnout and one with symptoms but no formal diagnosis. Researchers analyzed saliva samples of all the participants and found that both groups had significantly lower morning cortisol levels compared with a group of healthy control subjects.

Why does this matter? Because low chronically cortisol levels can lead to cardiovascular disease, fatigue, muscle weakness, digestive issues, and the inability to “crush it” even if you wanted to.http://www.jpp.krakow.pl/journal/archive/12_11/pdf/591_12_11_article.pdf‘>4

Stress and gut bacteria.

Studies have shown that stress reduces the number of Lactobacillus species in the gut and tends to increase the growth of and colonization by pathogenic species—changes that correlate to many of the negative stress-related alterations to gut health and function.https://gut.bmj.com/content/47/6/861‘>6

Stress and irritable bowel syndrome.

I had IBS for many years, and it coincided not just with all the grains I was eating but also the high levels of stress (training and professional/social) I was enduring. In fact, I always noticed that periods of high stress or heavy training were triggers for flareups. That was supposedly all in my imagination, but the actual evidence shows that I was right.

If you look at the common symptoms of IBS—how it presents in a human gut—it’s a laundry list of stress-related gut alterations. You’ve got leaky gut. You’ve got imbalanced gut bacteria. You’ve got supernatural gut motility (when you gotta go, you gotta go).https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19844211/‘>8

What, besides “reduce stress,” can you do to improve or maintain your gut health in times of stress?

Eat well and don’t neglect prebiotic fiber.

People go back and forth on fiber. Is it essential? Is it useless? Is it actually harmful, as the carnivores claim? I’ve been in this game for many years, and while I don’t think there’s any one answer that will satisfy everyone, I do have an answer relevant for today’s topic.

At the very least, prebiotic fiber is conditionally useful—and one of the conditions that render prebiotics helpful is chronic stress. Prebiotic fiber feeds your good gut bacteria (and sometimes bad, if you’ve got bad living there, but that’s another story for another time) who in turn produce short chain fatty acids like butyrate that have been shown to counter some of the stress-induced effects on gut health and function. In one study, researchers found that increasing prebiotic fiber in a mouse’s diet improved their resilience to stress and improved stress-induced leaky gut, suggesting that the two are linked.https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26528359/‘>10 The best way to optimize melatonin status is to follow all the prescriptions described in my sleep hygiene post: getting morning and afternoon natural light, spending as much time outside as you can, reducing artificial light after dark, getting a bedtime routine, eating healthy food, and sticking to your bedtime sleep schedule. But that can be tough, as often the source of your stress will also be throwing your sleep schedule off. Supplemental melatonin can help here.

Supplement for stress.

I’m a ball of stress. Or rather, I was a ball of stress for much of my life. That’s probably why so many of my diet and lifestyle recommendations are geared toward high-stress individuals—I was trying to fix my own issues and quickly realized that I wasn’t alone, that many others could benefit from the same stuff. My issue was my stress was multifold. I was subjecting my body to incredible amounts of physical training stress that never seemed to end. I was balancing that with perpetual entrepreneurialism. I never sat still, always had something I should be doing. There was never a moment to take a breath. As soon as things let up, I was preparing for the next challenge, the next workout, the next test.

That hasn’t stopped—though it has slowed down, and I’ve gotten better at dealing with the stress. Many of my stress solutions have nothing to do with supplementation. Instead, they’re related to the food I eat, the exercise I do (or, more accurately, don’t do anymore), the overt stress reduction techniques I practice. But there is room for a supplement called Adaptogenic Calm, which I created to help elite athletes (like my former self and those I worked with) handle the oxidative stress load of training. Stress often is fungible, and psychological stress and training-related stress operate along similar pathways and thus have similar solutions.

Take probiotics for stress.

Remember how stress lays waste to the Lactobacillus species normally residing in our guts? Animal studies show that reintroducing some of them through probiotic supplementation can mitigate and even counter some of the stress-induced alterations to gut function, such as leaky gut and hampered motility.https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/what-mentally-strong-people-dont-do/201708/10-signs-youre-people-pleaser‘>1 For many of my clients, the eagerness to please ties into their self-worth and the need for approval and external validation. And it always gets put to the test around the holidays. By ensuring that everyone’s dietary preferences are met at dinner or getting the decorations “just right,” they feel more worthy, likeable, and accepted.

Keep in mind that people pleasing isn’t the same as being a good host.

To others, it probably just looks like you’re being really gracious and accommodating — and I have no doubt in my mind that you are. But being helpful at the expense of your own health and happiness isn’t a good trade off if you ask me https://guilfordjournals.com/doi/abs/10.1521/jscp.2012.31.2.169.

If you’ve always felt compelled to put everyone else’s needs before your own, it’s hard to imagine it being different, since people-pleasing isn’t just what you do, it’s a big part of who you think you are.

Here’s the good news though. The fact that you’re aware you’re doing these things is a sign you’re open to change. So, here are a few strategies you can start putting into practice right away:

1. Understand what you are and aren’t responsible for. If you’re hosting, providing food and conversation is likely in your responsibility wheelhouse; however, taking on the burden of ensuring your guests are happy every second of their visit isn’t.

2. Determine your boundaries and be assertive about them. Are you really okay with making four kinds of potatoes or having people stay later than you wanted? Get clear on your boundaries and practice sticking to them. And remember, asserting yourself can be scary at first, but it’s worth it in the long run.

3. Know that everything will work out fine. If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that the world is a crazy, unpredictable place and no amount of planning and people-pleasing can possibly ensure a perfect outcome.

I think that you’ll find when you free yourself from the rigidity of hardcore hustling and people pleasing, you’ll begin to experience your own state of flow. Heck, you might even enjoy the holidays this year.

Jason asked:

“I want to enjoy the holidays without feeling guilty about it. I’m sick of everyone posting healthy versions of desserts and drinks. Can I not just have the real thing without being shamed?”

I have a hunch you’re overthinking this a little. Yes, you absolutely can eat whatever you want. Who’s stopping you? There’s no keto police. And no one’s going to pull your paleo card if you indulge in some pecan pie and eggnog.

Eat it whatever you want, I don’t care. The problem is, I think you care. Maybe you care what other people think.https://www.diabetesfoodhub.org/articles/food-shaming-changing-the-way-we-think-and-talk-about-food.html‘>3 Food has become so controversial and everyone loves to point a finger at anyone who’s got a different health ideology than they do.

Here’s a note to all you shamers: if you’ve decided to eat more plants, more meat, less sugar, less carbs zero carbs, or all the carbs, remember that everyone is different, and your beliefs don’t need to be smeared all over someone else’s. Ok, rant over.

If you’re metabolically flexible, treating yourself to a few “real” goodies won’t be a huge deal. As you go through the holidays, keep the 80/20 framework for the Primal lifestyle in mind. While it isn’t meant to support cheat days, it is about navigating real life.

Cheri asked:

“I’m thinking about adding in a few more workouts a week so I can indulge in holiday treats without derailing my progress. What are your go-to exercises for burning extra calories?”

Diet culture has sure done something to us, hasn’t it? Weighing, calorie counting, macros tracking, step tracking, making sure you’ve torched more calories than you’ve consumed…it’s just too much. And don’t get me started on those calculators that tell you how many sit ups or jumping jacks or hours of cardio you need to do in order to burn off whatever it is that you ate.

I’m fed up with contrived nutrition and fitness messaging. It keeps us stuck in the pattern of deprivation and all the ways we’re not good enough — or worse yet, how *good* we’ll be when we reach a certain weight or pant size.https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2738337/‘>6 https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/seasonal-affective-disorder‘>8 If you suffer from seasonal depression, it’s doubly important to protect your sleep fiercely. To boost serotonin, eat meat and poultry, which contain tryptophan (a precursor of serotonin), and omega-3-rich fish and eggs. Get plenty of sunshine, or look into light therapy, to increase vitamin D synthesis. Vitamin D is important for serotonin production, and individuals with seasonal depression often have low vitamin D levels. Vitamin D supplements can help fill the gaps, but sunshine is better. Maybe you can take daily nature walks during your scheduled “me time” and kill two birds with one stone.

Let it Go, Let it Goooo!

I know from experience how easy it is to absorb all the stress and just deal with it rather than taking steps to alleviate it. Your heart is in the right place. You want other people to have a good holiday! You don’t want to let other people down! You want to teach your kids the family traditions! That’s kind and generous, but it easily tips into martyrdom, resentment, and losing your own joy.

Give yourself permission to simplify, change, cancel, and otherwise adapt the holidays as needed. Eliminating the “optional” stress means that you have more mental space to deal with the stressors that you can’t easily eliminate so you can focus on all the things that are truly wonderful about this time of year.

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how to boost your serotoninSerotonin is a funny one.

Although the prevailing sentiment is that we want to “increase serotonin,” it’s not that simple. There’s no indication that more serotonin is necessarily better in every situation, or even generally. The link between serotonin and “happiness” or “mood” isn’t so clear-cut as the experts would have you believe, either. So while I am going to tell you how to “boost” serotonin levels because serotonin is a vital neurotransmitter, I plan on sticking to foods, supplements, and behaviors that promote physiological levels of serotonin. Boosting serotonin beyond what the body is designed for may not help you, and it may have unpleasant and unwanted effects.

Is Serotonin a Mood Booster?

Yes and no. For evidence, I submit two items. The first is clinical research and the second is pure anecdote, albeit personal anecdote.

Everyone has heard of SSRIs, or selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors. The most common form of antidepressants, their purported mode of action is to reduce the re-absorption of serotonin by neurons which increases the circulating concentration of serotonin in the brain. They increase brain levels of serotonin so it’s able to act longer. The evidence in favor of SSRIs in treating depression is mixed. Not everyone benefits, and it often takes several months to take effect. But they do help some people.

In recent years, depression studies have pitted SSRIs against another drug—tianeptine—that does the opposite: increases the absorption of serotonin by neurons and decreases the concentration of serotonin the brain. If the “serotonin=happy” hypothesis is correct, tianeptine shouldn’t improve depression. It should worsen it. But that’s not what happens. Both tianeptine, which lowers brain serotonin, and SSRIs, which increase it, have been shown to improve depression symptoms in patients with clinical depression. If anything, tianeptine might even be more effective.https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26805875‘>2 Adequate levels of serotonin help us deal with stress, while chronic stress can deplete serotonin. As the precursor to melatonin, serotonin also has a powerful effect on sleep and circadian rhythm.

The underrecognized effect of serotonin on the brain’s ability to learn may explain why increasing serotonin levels through SSRIs can help depression patients.https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11051338/‘>4 Gut serotonin may also travel to the brain via the vagus nerve, the “highway” that allows our gut to interface with our brain.

Serotonin also has other peripheral effects. For instance, it plays a role in bone formation and maintenance, with brain serotonin maintaining bone formation and gut serotonin inhibiting it.

How to Increase Serotonin

While you don’t necessarily want to boost serotonin to supernatural levels, it’s quite clear that low brain serotonin can have some unwanted effects. How do you make sure you’re making enough serotonin in your brain to enable optimal neuronal communication and melatonin synthesis, minimize rumination, and improve mood?

  • Eat tryptophan foods
  • Get plenty of natural light
  • Get sun or take vitamin D
  • Eat seafood or take omega-3s
  • Spend time in nature
  • Eat some carbs
  • Take curcumin
  • Move
  • Drink coffee
  • Get a massage
  • Get your micronutrients
  • Take tryptophan on an empty stomach

Eat Tryptophan Foods

We often forget that “thoughts” and “feelings” aren’t just ephemera floating around inside our heads without a material representative. Every thought, feeling, emotion, or mood we experience is a physical thing made of matter. We don’t just “feel better.” To feel better, we manufacture serotonin using an amino acid called tryptophan as the precursor.

Whether it’s turkey, eggs, dairy, beef, lamb, chicken, or fish, animal protein is a reliable source of tryptophan. Studies show that whey protein and egg protein both acutely increase tryptophan availability in the brain.https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18648776‘>6

Get Plenty of Natural Light

Sunlight is a direct trigger of serotonin synthesis. The brighter the sunlight, the higher the serotonin production.https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2728098/‘>8https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24558199‘>10

I recommend getting most of your vitamin D from the sun. It’s better regulated that way, and you get the added benefit of lots of natural light. If you need or want to supplement (probably a good idea for most people during the colder seasons when sun exposure is low), look for a high potency formula. Here’s what I take.

Eat Seafood or Take Omega-3s

Not only does seafood provide ample amounts of the amino acid tryptophan, the long-chain omega-3 fatty acids found in marine fat increase serotonin production in the brain and improve serotonin transport across neurons.https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27723543‘>12 Turns out that turmeric (or curcumin, rather) increases brain serotonin levels in a dose-dependent matter.https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/2419509‘>14 This is probably why going for a walk or grabbing a quick workout is a surefire way to beat ruminating thoughts.

Drink Coffee

Generic alternative health gurus will tell you caffeine depletes serotonin. It sounds right, doesn’t it? What they won’t say is that caffeine has actually been shown to increase brain serotonin, at least in rats.https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16162447‘>16

Get Your Micronutrients

This should really be standard advice for any health issue. Many problems go away when we eat more micronutrients—vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients—because micronutrients are essential to fundamental physiological processes and pathways. It’s a safe bet that all of us are at least mildly deficient in a handful of important nutrients—like B6, which regulates serotonin synthesis.https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2944661/‘>1 Understanding our environment allows us to predict, with some degree of accuracy, what will happen in the future. From an ancestral perspective, certainty allows us, theoretically, to avoid danger, reap desired rewards, and ensure survival.

The need for certainty is a central tenet of psychology. Human development is all about testing and forming theories about the environment, from toddlers throwing objects and learning about physics, to young children acquiring theory of mind, to adolescents pushing social boundaries. Even our language reflects this. Consider how many words we have around the concepts of agency, self-determination, personal freedom, and free will, especially in more individualistic societies.

At its crux, the need for certainty reflects a desire to control and master the environment. We assert control through our choices, whether that’s deciding what to eat for breakfast, opting for the highway or surface streets on our commute, or choosing whom to marry. Every decision, from mundane to life-altering, depends on our ability to weigh the odds of getting a favorable outcome. We can only do that if our world is predictable, at least to a degree.

Consequences of Uncertainty

When faced with ambiguous or uncertain circumstances, brain regions associated with fear and vigilance light up.https://link.springer.com/article/10.3758/s13415-016-0443-2‘>3 Subjectively, uncertainty may result in freezing or shutting down, excessive negative emotions, worry about the future, or worsening of certain mental health conditions.https://psycnet.apa.org/doiLanding?doi=10.1037%2Femo0000876‘>5

Everything feels worse when you don’t even step outside for days at a time, and that’s easy to do nowadays. You also get the secondary benefits of unplugging. We all need a break from the news cycle and partisan social media posts.

Hang in There

These strategies aren’t just about weathering the current storm. Becoming adept at using them means you’ll also be more resilient in the future. As trite as it may be, hard times can also be times of growth. Knowing this won’t change the unpleasant realities of the current situation, nor protect you from future hardships. Neither does succumbing to the temptation to hide under a weighted blanket until all this is over.

If you’ve ever driven on ice, you know that if your car starts to spin out, you have to steer into it. It does no good to slam on your breaks, jerk the wheel in the other direction, or close your eyes and pretend your car isn’t doing a 360. Instead, hold the wheel steady and slowly regain control. The same goes here. Ultimately, keeping it together boils down to controlling the things you can control and holding it together long enough to weather the storm.

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2020 has been something, huh? Because of all of the things, we are thrilled to be sharing this guest post from Bernadette Pleasant, the founder of The Emotional Institute, an online resource and educational center that offers courses, workshops, and interactive experiences that provide pathways to cultivate emotional wellbeing and gain insights that bring about a balanced mind/body connection. Bernadette has spent a lifetime exploring celebrations of the mind and body, from sensual dance to somatic healing. As a woman of color who comes from an esteemed tradition of natural healers, she is recognized as a leader in the mind-body…

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what it means when you're overwhelmedRaise your hand if you’ve been feeling a little overwhelmed. Aside from the fact that being in the middle of a pandemic makes everything more stressful, you’ve got work obligations and family commitments, then there are food choices to make, at-home workouts you think you should be doing, and non-stretchy pants you’re feeling bad for not fitting into.

It’s a lot. I get it, and it’s totally normal to feel overwhelmed. That said, staying in a state of overwhelm is a choice.

Yep, you heard me, it’s a choice. And if you’re ready to get out of the seemingly relentless spin cycle of life (and the tight chest and racing mind that come with it), stick around. I’ll be unpacking the real reason you get overwhelmed — spoiler alert, it’s not because your to-do list is too long — plus, four things you can do to change it.

Why Do I Get Overwhelmed?

I’ll give you an example from my own life. As a health coach, I’ll often hear my clients say that they just can’t do it. They can’t swap out their toast and cereal for breakfast. They can’t make time to get outside. They can’t get to bed earlier. They can’t…fill in the blank.

In my opinion, “I can’t” statements reflect limiting beliefs. They aren’t real; they’re just stories we tell ourselves, and identities we accidentally end up identifying with. It’s not that you can’t, it’s that something is holding you back. I find that most of the time, when I dig a little deeper, that thing is fear.

Types of Fear That Cause Overwhelm:

  • Fear you won’t be able to handle it
  • Fear of getting it wrong
  • Fear you won’t get it done (on time)
  • Fear that you’ll be judged
  • Fear of the consequences
  • Fear of not being in control
  • Fear of being embarrassed
  • Fear that you don’t really deserve it

Whether you’re experiencing worry, stress, or complete overwhelm, fear is usually at the helm, just FYI. But the goal here isn’t to be fearless (there actually are some benefits to fear),https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2882379/‘>2 The stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol flood your system, preparing you to fight or flee. Not only that, the amygdala instantly shuts down the neural pathway to your prefrontal cortex which temporarily impairs all rational thinking, making you feel disorganized and out of control.https://www.marksdailyapple.com/deep-breathing/‘>5 It doesn’t matter what kind of breathing you do — box breathing, alternating nostril breathing, and diaphragmatic breathing all work. Just make sure that the method you choose is rhythmic, meaning that you breathe in and out for about the same amount of time. After a few minutes you’ll notice that your mind has slowed down and your energy is much calmer.

Try this: Here is a triangular breath exercise that I’ve created for my clients. Inhale through your nose, counting slowly to 6; hold for a count of 2 at the top; and exhale for a count of 8. Repeat for 1-3 minutes or until your mind feels calm again.

Check Your Stories

You know the limiting beliefs and thoughts that prevent you from achieving your goals? These are your stories. And I call them stories because they’re just not true. You may have picked them up from things you heard your parents say growing up or from an experience you went through. Maybe you decided along that you always drop the ball. Or that things always feel too big for you, and who were you to achieve big things anyway?! These narratives become a form of identity that not only reflects who we think we are, but also what we think is possible for us.

Try this: Next time you catch yourself doubting your greatness, turn it on its ear. Instead of saying, “I don’t think I can stick to a new way of eating” try “I am fully capable of doing new things.”

Take the Stairstep Approach

When I work with new clients, they often feel overwhelmed by all the things they think they have to do. There’s cleaning out the cabinets, figuring out which brands are canola-free, learning how to make their own bone broth/kombucha/beet kvass… This is about the time I sneak in my stair-stepping approach. This technique is awesome because it breaks the journey down into smaller steps, which is less intimidating than trying to leap to the end in a single bound.

Try this: On a piece of paper, literally draw a staircase. Identify the bottom step (this is where you are now) and then identify the top step (this is where you want to go). Figure out the very first thing you need to do to get to the next step, then do that thing! The rest of the steps will reveal themselves as you go.

Delegate

Just because you can do all the things, doesn’t mean you need to. A lot of times we get overwhelmed simply because we put too much on our plates. Just like there’s no gold medal for getting more done, there’s no punishment for doing less. Your worthiness has nothing to do with how much you accomplish or don’t accomplish. That being said, there’s also no shame in delegating out tasks and responsibilities.

Try this: Think about what areas of your life could use some assistance. Can your spouse cook up a healthy dinner tonight? Can your kids help you sort through Primal recipes? Make a list of the tasks you want to dole out and if you need help getting more comfortable with asking for help, read this.

Go From “I Can’t” to “I Got This”

Life can be overwhelming, even when you’re not in the middle of a pandemic. But by paying attention to your triggers, your stories, and your breath, you can restore your ability to think, to listen, and move forward. It does take practice, but eventually you can train yourself to respond rather than react. Follow these four steps and see how it works for you:

  • Breathe
  • Check your Stories
  • Take the Stairstep Approach
  • Delegate

How do you manage overwhelm? What tactics do you use to move through it or avoid it all together?

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