This week, our spotlight shines on someone from outside of the industry – but who has something important to say about the stress levels connected to your work. Jenny C. Evans is the author of the new book “The Resiliency rEvolution: Your Stress Solution For Life 60 Seconds at a Time,” published by Wise Ink Creative Publishing. She is also founder and CEO of PowerHouse Performance, where she works with C-suite executives, leaders, and employees worldwide to help them improve their resilience, performance and productivity, while enhancing their health.
Q: You talk about something called “Play It Out” in your book – what is this, and why it is a crucial part of becoming more resilient?
Jenny C. Evans: Play It Out is the crucial step in the stress response that many of us are missing. Whenever the stress response (also known as the fight-or-flight response) is triggered, the body releases stress hormones like adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol. These hormones signal the body to release energy from storage sites around the body to provide the fuel necessary for fighting and/or fleeing. The intense physical activity of fighting and/or fleeing uses up the stress hormones, then triggers the release of a second set of hormones: the bliss molecules. These are things like endorphins, endocannabinoids, dopamine, human growth hormone and brain-derived neurotrophic factor. These bliss molecules restore balance after the stress response and neutralize the negative effects of stress. It’s a beautifully designed system, and we’re all hard-wired this way.
As I explain in my new book, the key step for restoring balance however, is the short burst of intense physical activity. What I call “Play It Out”. We have to play out the entire stress response in order to return to balance. Unfortunately, the sedentary nature of our lives today prevents us from Playing It Out – it’s short-circuiting the system. We can’t take off running or punch our bosses in the face. We’re stuck sitting in long meetings or in rush hour traffic.
Because we don’t have the opportunity to Play It Out, the stress hormones continue to circulate throughout the body. This leads to more fat stored around our midsections, cravings for high-fat, high-sugar foods, insomnia, diminished cognitive function and many other negative side effects. In the book, I show how you can Play It Out and restore balance in a matter of 60 seconds.
Q: You also stress the value of exercise as a stress reducer. How can a mere sixty seconds of intense exercise use up negative stress hormones and release a host of feel-good neurochemicals?
Jenny C. Evans: This almost sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it? But the body releases endorphins in response to 30-60 seconds of intense physical activity.
Two things are important here: endorphins are powerful neutralizers of the stress response. They provide a sense of well-being, alleviate anxiety and depression, and slow the heart rate. Second, the 30-60 second timeframe makes sense when you think about the fight-or-flight response as a result of stress. Our stress responses are designed to deal with short-term emergencies. For our ancestors, things played themselves out very quickly: either it was over with or they were over with, and it didn’t go on for hours, weeks or years.
Q: What is the role nutrition plays in building resilience – and why is it a bad idea to have a candy bar to keep you going?
Jenny C. Evans: There’s a cyclical relationship between food and stress: how and what we eat can increase stress, and stress can increase how and what we eat. Many of us don’t realize how many of our nutrition habits increase the stress in our lives. Going more than four hours without eating stimulates the release of stress hormones. So does excessive sugar, fat, caffeine, alcohol and nicotine. As our stress increases, the stress hormone cortisol makes us seek out high-fat, high-sugar foods in large amounts. It also makes us store more fat around the midsection.
In my new book, I talk about the importance of “eating in the temperate zone”: keeping your blood glucose levels steady throughout the day by eating several moderate-sized meals and low-glycemic snacks. Preventing large spikes and crashes of blood glucose ensures we’re not adding additional stress on the body or stimulating the stress response ourselves.
Having sweets as an afternoon pick me up creates a large spike in blood glucose levels. This means the pancreas has to work hard to produce enough insulin to quickly process the large amount of glucose, then blood glucose levels fall dramatically. When blood glucose levels get too low, the stress response is stimulated, cortisol is released, we’re back seeking out more high-sugar foods, and the body is in fat storage mode.
The book provides all sorts of ideas for 60-second snacks that are better, more resilient choices. And they don’t take a lot of time or planning!
Q: How can a stressed out business person create “optimal defaults” that will enable you to implement lasting change when it comes to exercise and diet
Jenny C. Evans: Our environments unconsciously impact our rate of success or failure in making lasting lifestyle change. We’re living and working in environments that aren’t conducive to eating moderately and moving more. There are high-fat, high-sugar foods available everywhere, in large amounts. Many of our jobs no longer require much physical exertion, and we’ve got an endless amount of laborsaving devices. It’s a world full of disastrous defaults.
It takes a lot of willpower to resist the abundance of food and to make ourselves get regular exercise. Unfortunately, research shows that willpower is a very limited resource, and the more we use it, the less of it we have. Instead of having to rely on an unreliable source for making change that often times doesn’t work, I show people how to create an environment of optimal defaults where change becomes automatic and they don’t even have to think about it.
When we have optimal defaults in place, we actually have to go out of our way and expend extra effort to do something that doesn’t match our goals – they make a desired behavior automatic. For example, when looking at organ donor programs, the default makes a large impact. In countries where people have to opt in to donate their organs, the participation rate is a mere 15%. In countries where donation is the default, and people must opt out if they don’t want to participate, 98% of people participate. In each case, the individual has full control over the choice. But the optimal default gets participation rates that no education program could dream to achieve.
One great example that I share in the book is the optimal default of switching from a 12-inch dinner plate to a 10-inch one. We will subconsciously eat 22% less when using a smaller ten-inch plate than a larger 12-inch one. When we do this at every meal, every day, it adds up to significant behavior change. Other examples of optimal defaults I include are:
- Keep food serving dishes in another room instead of on the table.
- On the phone = on your feet. The phone ringing is your signal to stand up to take the call.
- Make the “worst” spot in the parking lot your spot.
- Keep candies or snacks off your desk or out of sight.
- Stick to the perimeter of the grocery store where more of the unprocessed foods are located.
- At a restaurant, ask the server not to bring bread or chips to the table.
- At a restaurant, split an entrée or have the server box ½ of it right away.
- Volunteer to be sober driver when out with friends.
- Join a social group that is centered around exercise (meet-ups, leagues, training groups, etc.).
- Always take the stairs instead of the escalator or elevator.
- Put the alarm clock across the room so you have to get out of bed to turn it off. This will give you more time to wake up instead of automatically hitting the snooze button.
- Keep a stash of healthy snacks in your car, desk, briefcase or purse.
Q: How can a business professional use the stress response to his or her advantage?
Jenny C. Evans: The reality is that our jobs or loved ones are never going to ask less of us, which means the stress in our lives will continue to increase. Talking about “reducing” or “minimizing” stress is a silly conversation to have, because it’s not the reality of the world we’re living in today. This means our only option is to train to recover from it as quickly as possible and to be able to handle it more successfully.
When we Play It Out with a short burst of physical activity, it not only hits the reset button on stress, it trains the body to recover from stress more quickly and efficiently. It also raises the threshold for what the body perceives to be a stressful event. Play It Out improves our resiliency to stress.
When we understand the how the stress response works, and what it’s trying to do, we can work with it instead of against it. The Resiliency rEvolution provides realistic and manageable tactics to stop the devolution that’s happening to many of us in response to the demands in our lives. We can realize our full potential and perform to our absolute best – both professionally as well as personally – in the face stress.
“The Resiliency rEvolution” is available on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/The-Resiliency-rEvolution-Solution-Seconds/dp/1940014263. An earlier version of this interview was originally published by Business-Superstar.com.
Phil Hall has been (among other things) a United Nations-based radio journalist, the president of a public relations and marketing agency, a financial magazine editor, the author of six books and a horror movie actor. Also, as you will discover, he is not shy about stating his views.