It is almost cliché to say that 2020 is a year that many wish to forget, or at least hope to accelerate into hyperdrive for the last few months in hopes that the New Year will bring a fresh perspective...and some exciting Chiefs football.
Okay, I guess I don’t want to forget 2020. The Chiefs won the Super Bowl this year! My son Felix has grown from a smiley, babbling 3 month old in January to fast approaching his first birthday! His constant change, growth, innocent curiosity, and laughter has been a privilege and joy to observe. The world may not give us many reasons to smile right now, but he sure does.
As you may have already surmised, this is not your typical blog entry. I will not be reviewing the anatomy and biomechanics of your shoulder when you lift that weight overhead or discuss the 3 best exercises to fix hip stiffness.
Today’s topic pertains to strategies that frankly we all need right now, myself included. It’s called downregulation. A quick disclaimer, I am not a pharmacist or biochemist. I cannot tell you about a medication’s effects on down-regulating or suppressing a signal at the cellular level. However, I can talk about what it means to me in reference to stress management.
The body’s stress response is absolutely essential to mobilizing its reserves to fight off or flee from a lion (metaphorically, I hope). If we are in true danger, we need this stress response in order to survive. Increased heart rate, blood pressure, and shunting of blood to our big muscles effectively prepares us to manage that threat.
However, unfortunately, there are several external signals in our modern-day environment that can distort our threat perception or sense of danger, thus perpetuating our body’s stress response. There may not be a Grizzly bear blocking our exit path, but our body sure feels like there is. This can be in reference to that car that cut you off in traffic the other day, which may have caused you to honk, scream, and utter a four-letter word. It can refer to the latest news segment that left you wanting to punch the injustices of the world. Don’t get me wrong, 2020 has revealed several legitimate threats to our survival by way of a virus and its tether to our physical, mental, emotional, and financial health. The issue lies in what happens to our body if left in this constant state of stress, or fight-or-flight.
Remember when I said that our body mobilizes its reserves to fight off the threat? What do you think happens if it is constantly relying on its reserves? Put simply, our immune, cardiovascular, and musculoskeletal systems pay the price. We become more susceptible to getting sick, laying down plaques in our arteries, storing fat, losing bone density and lean body mass, on and on.
Recognize that our body’s health thrives on being in a state of homeostasis, which basically means being able to effectively manage our environment. We need to efficiently toggle between two nervous systems when interacting in our environment: the sympathetic nervous system (fight-or-flight) and parasympathetic nervous system (rest-and-digest). If there is no direct threat to our survival, then it is in our body’s long-term interest to know how and when to downregulate our fight-or-flight switch.
How do we do that? I am glad you asked!
First, we need to develop strategies that are in OUR control. These are not solutions to the existential problems that 2020 has brought. These are individualized physical and mental coping habits, designed to rebuild your resilience, mental fortitude, and clarity when approaching these threats or your daily stressors. We will get through this year one way or another, and much of what we face can be more effectively managed if we integrate simple, but effective habits into our day.
The following strategies are examples gleaned from my perspective as a physical therapist, strength coach, and athlete. Some are directly supported by research. Some are based on clinical experience when applying techniques to help a patient relax and facilitate the healing process. Some are just common sense. Regardless, as is consistent with forming any new habit, start small. If this article resonates with you, consider trying one of these methods on a consistent basis, and see if it is a worthy tool to combat your daily stressors. The wellness industry is robust and constantly churns out self-help tools. Based on my perspective as a professional and consumer of those products, I find that the most effective strategy is the one that you perform consistently. Here you go:
1. Self-Myofascial Release
Basically self-massage. Use a foam roller, lacrosse ball, pool noodle, rolled towel, or dog toy and lay on a tight or tender muscle while practicing deep, diaphragmatic breathing. As a clinical pearl, I would especially apply this to the thoracic spine, or your upper back, as well as to your hip flexors. Applying self-massage to both areas seems to be very effective at inducing a state of relaxation. Here are a couple of examples:
A Thoracic spine foam roll variations:
B. Hip flexor self-massage (gut smash!):
*Notes on the gut smash: make sure to avoid the belly button area and midline of your abdomen. You don’t want to be pressing on your abdominal aorta! If you have the time, spend up to 10 minutes on the gut smash, 5 minutes on each half of the abdomen. For readers who struggle to shut their brains off before bed, try this technique. It can do wonders on helping the body wind down and prepare for a good night’s sleep.
2. Diaphragmatic Breathing
a. Crocodile Breathing
*Notes on crocodile breathing: spend 5-10 minutes on this one. Focus on slow inhale and slow exhale. Remember, if we are at rest, our breathing pattern can be a simple but useful tool that reveals whether we are in a state of fight-or-flight or rest-and-digest. If we are at rest, we should breathe diaphragmatically, which means that as we breathe in through the nose, our abdomen should expand or push out.
Nowadays, advising meditation is like saying you should drink water. Practicing the skill of meditation has such far-reaching benefits on our health that it is difficult to quantify. There are multitudes of books, videos, apps, and celebrities that talk about it, which can sometimes make it intimidating to know which method or resource to use. Personally, I have heard and found value in the following resources:
1. OMM The One Minute Meditation (if we don’t have one minute to spare,
then something is really wrong with our environment!)
2. Ten Percent Happier Meditation
3. Headspace: Meditation & Sleep
1. Wherever You Go There You Are. By: Jon Kabat-Zinn
2.. Stillness Is The Key. By: Ryan Holiday
3. Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics. By: Dan Harris, Jeff Warren, and Carlye
4. Making time in nature.
Again, this is common sense, but the caveat also includes being in nature WITHOUT.YOUR.SMARTPHONE. Don’t try to fill every void with music, podcasts, or some other artificial noise. This counteracts the whole idea of being present in your surroundings.
5. Going for a walk.
I know, the next thing I tell you to do is to make sure to use the restroom if you have a full bladder. This goes along with making time in nature. Try to avoid filling your walk with time on the phone. Use it to be present in your surroundings, walk with a friend, or just provide your brain the opportunity to declutter and provide clarity to your stressors or challenges.
6. Express gratitude.
Again, this is heavily supported by research. We all face a different set of challenges built on variable degrees of complexity and threat. It is vital to consciously take a moment every day to acknowledge what you are thankful for, whether it’s family, friends, or sipping on some hot coffee while watching the birds (shout out to all you bird watchers!)
7. Turn off all your screens at least 30 to 60 minutes before bed.
This helps optimally stimulate the natural hormones that help us sleep deeply and restfully.
Take your sleep and your bed routine seriously. It is how we recover from our day and best prepare for the next one, mentally, physically, emotionally, hormonally, etc. If you’re dragging as soon as you wake up, relying on caffeine to keep your eyes open, then you might need to revisit your sleep routine.
There are seemingly innumerable resources out there designed to teach you how to relax, or downregulate. They may seem simple, but ask yourself how consistently you are applying at least one of these methods. I by no means intend to marginalize the threats we have all faced and continue to face this year. However, this doesn’t mean we should sacrifice our body’s health by constantly living in a fight-or-flight state.
Again, I am not a medical doctor, but I am a physical therapist and strength coach who believes passionately in teaching and encouraging people to move well, age gracefully, and be strong until the end. This includes addressing common sense human needs. With that, stay strong, vigilant, kind, respectful, and start practicing some downregulation.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dr. Michael Hauber, PT, DPT
“I absolutely love what I do. There is never a dull day in physical therapy. You have such a unique opportunity to learn from your patients and be a resource to helping improve their quality of life – physically, mentally, emotionally, socially just by virtue of being their “movement detective” and guide. It is so fun to observe movement and so fulfilling to see how you can change it for the better!⠀
I try to stay pretty close to the fundamentals of strength and conditioning no matter the tool I use. For the past few years, I have gravitated toward a hybrid of kettlebell training and MovNat as my form of strength and conditioning.⠀
On other days, I honestly just love going for a walk with my wife and our son. Walking is such a foundational, almost spiritual movement. It is our time to connect with each other, watch our son make faces, and just try to attain some mental clarity after a long day’s work. If I had my choice, I would play pick-up basketball, spikeball, or beach volleyball any day of the week. Team sports sustain my training!”⠀