From Resolution to Reality: Part II

Last week, I wrote about how “focus is the currency of resolve.” Without focus, we cannot maintain resolve. In a sense, focus and resolve are similar.

When we resolve we “settle on a solution” or “decide firmly on a course of action.”

I also wrote about notional boundaries, the beginnings of days, weeks, or months that often inspire so much enthusiasm. The new year is, perhaps, the ultimate notional boundary, the moment when so many of us, inspired by the very idea of beginning, resolve to change.

I am reminded of the famous quote, often misattributed to Goethe:

Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now.

Beyond the misattribution, the problem with this quote, however inspiring it may be, is its utter lack of specificity and practicality.

A resolve to change, then, must be accompanied by a focus, “the center of interest or activity” or a “clear visual definition.” It is no coincidence that visualization is associated with a host of benefits, including “confidence, courage, focus, concentration, and…resilience.”

In other words, you start with solution and you maintain your resolve with a clean vision of what you need to do, each and every day. Of course, I am using these words for my own purposes here. One could define the calculus of change in many ways.

I like both words, resolve and focus, because they imply centeredness: a solution, a center of activity.

However, in my experience, resolve and focus are also helpful because they speak to another key element of change.

To make a change, you must begin it now, yes, but you must also begin it the next hour, and the next hour, and the next day, forever focused on your goals. Even as you remain rooted with your “robust soul” you must venture out, and “level that life, to pass and continue beyond.”

Walt Whitman: Robust Soul

Momentum: The Key to Change

Momentum is “the quantity of motion of a moving body, measured as a product of its mass and velocity.” This popular definition from physics is helpful because it speaks to the basic element of movement.

For our purposes, we can simplify momentum into two parts: positive momentum and negative momentum.

Positive momentum: Good choices lead to more good choices.

Negative momentum: Bad choices lead to more bad choices.

We all cycle through both types of momentum, each and every day. This is life. On one day, you exercise, feel inspired to eat a healthy dinner, and then enjoy a beautiful night’s sleep, which leads to a new day of good choices–at least the start of a new good day.

On another day, you drink too much wine, sleep poorly, and wake up yearning for a donut. Incidentally, science tells us why we have this sort of craving. And we know, as Matthew Walker writes in Why We Sleep, that “too little sleep swells concentrations of a hormone that makes you hungry while suppressing a companion hormone that otherwise signals food satisfaction.”

Most of us understand, intuitively, how our habits, good or bad, create their own sort of momentum.

Despite this knowledge, many of us feel helpless to escape our cycles or good and bad; many of us feel stuck in our “rat race.” As Bob Marley sings: “Don’t forget your history/ Know your destiny/ In the abundance of water/ The fool is thirsty.”

Happily, you don’t need to be thirsty. You can escape the rat race quickly and easily, and once you’ve learned how to escape, you don’t have to look back.

Bob Marley: “In the abundance of water/ The fool is thirsty”

The Autonomic Nervous System: The Root of Momentum 

How do you feel right now? To a large degree, your physical and emotional state at any given moment is defined by the relative balance of your autonomic nervous system.

The nervous system, which is comprised of the brain and spinal cord, is the body’s communication network. When we receive sensory input, our brain sends messages to the rest of the body through nerves that branch off from the spine. Many these impulses govern our conscious actions, like getting out of bed, picking up the phone, and checking social media.

The nervous system also communicates impulses with the autonomic nervous system (ANS), which governs unconscious actions. The ANS includes the enteric nervous system (responsible for digestion), and the sympathetic and the parasympathetic devious.

These two divisions are often defined as antagonistic in nature because they often perform opposing actions in the body.

The sympathetic nervous system is our “flight or fight” response, which “directs the body’s rapid involuntary response to dangerous or stressful situations” (source). As Live Science notes:

A flash flood of hormones boosts the body’s alertness and heart rate, sending extra blood to the muscles. Breathing quickens, delivering fresh oxygen to the brain, and an infusion of glucose is shot into the bloodstream for a quick energy boost.

The parasympathetic nervous system is our “rest and relax” response. As Science Daily notes: “the parasympathetic system conserves energy as it slows the heart rate, increases intestinal and gland activity, and relaxes sphincter muscles in the gastrointestinal tract.”

Ideally, these two systems perform in concert, creating a harmonious balance, a condition few moderns humans enjoy. This fact that should be obvious to anyone who wakes up, picks up the phone, and checks social media, instigating an immediate sympathetic response.

We may not have to fend for our lives like an ancient ancestors, in whom the fight or flight response developed as a response to threats. But our modern body cannot differentiate between a ferocious lion and a triggering social media post–and so, too often, we are thrown into a sympathetic mode in our day-to-day lives.

Recently, Marcelo Campos noted on the Harvard Health Blog:

If we have persistent instigators such as stress, poor sleep, unhealthy diet, dysfunctional relationships, isolation or solitude, and lack of exercise, this balance may be disrupted, and your fight-or-flight response can shift into overdrive.

Essentially, this is the rat race, and this is the momentum of our stressful lives, which creates anxiety and depression, and ultimately distracts us from our resolves.

Heart Rate Variability: A Key Metric 

To recover, we must shift our momentum. We must find balance. Balance can be quantified in a precise way. One recent determinant is heart rate variability (HRV), a measure of the variation between two heartbeats.

As Jay T. Wiles recently noted on the Wild Health Podcast: “The heart does not operate like a metronome…There should be variability. More variability of the heart demonstrates more psychological and physiological resilience to outside and internal stressors.”

As noted above, of course, most of us do not enjoy this resilience. As the data analytics company Firstbeat notes:

HRV level changes naturally from day to day, based on the level of activity and amount of, for example, work-related stress, but if a person is chronically stressed or overloaded – physically or mentally – the natural interplay between the two systems can be disrupted, and the body can get stuck in a sympathetically dominant fight state, with low HRV and high stress hormone levels, even when the person is resting. This is very consuming on the body and can result in various mental and physical health problems.

Sound familiar?

Find Your Center: Breath

We have many, many options for halting the momentum of the sympathetic state and downshifting into the parasympathetic state.

All of us have within us the power to try perhaps the easiest, most effective, and most time-honored of all healing techniques: breathing.

In his recent book Breath, James Nestor argues that breathing exercises can change your life. As Nestor notes, up to 80% of us are breathing inadequately and 25% suffer from chronic over-breathing. We are meant to breath primarily through our noses, yet “up to a half of us habitually take in breath from our mouths” (source).

Mouth breathing is terrible for our health. Thankfully, for those who wish to make a change, the wellness world is ready with legions of videos and apps. Nestor himself has a wonderful resource page on his blog.

Some of my favorite breathing exercises include the 4,7,8 method (which influences the autonomic nervous system) and the Wim Hof Method.

Be Uncomfortable (For a Bit): Hormetic Stressors

Wim Hof is also famous for cold exposure, a form of hormesis: a moderate (and usually intermittent) stress that produces an adaptive, beneficial response in the cells.

Hormesis is the very essence of resilience–by exposing ourselves to small stressors, we condition the body and mind to better handle the all-embracing stress of modern life.

Beyond cold exposure, which can change your life too, common examples of hormetic stress include heat exposure, certain plant compounds (like sulforaphane), and exercise and fasting.

Hormesis may have a significant influence on aging. As the popular aging researcher David Sinclair says, each day be a little bit out of breath and a little bit hungry.

Of all the hormetic stressors, fasting may be the simplest and most straightforward way to develop emotional and physical resilience (or “metabolic flexibility“).

I’ve followed a routine of “time-restricted eating” for a decade or more. Most people might do this inadvertently, but most of us also snack and nibble throughout the day between meals. My practice is quite simple: I skip breakfast. By skipping breakfast, I usually create about 16 hours (from about 8:30 PM the previous night to 12:30 PM that day) when I do not consume food.

More on Time-Restricted Eating Improving Healthspan

I also often stack my stressors, which may enhance benefits. Exercising on an empty stomach may increase fat oxidation.

Recover: Sleep

Sleep is undoubtedly the single best tool for optimizing mental, emotional, and physical resilience. As the sleep researcher, Matthew Walker writes, “sleep is the single most effective thing we can do to reset our brain and body health each day.”

Learning about the dynamics of sleep, including the various sleep stages, and the importance of different types of sleep, including REM sleep and “deep” slow wave sleep, has profoundly changed my life.

Matthew Walker is a wonderful resource. I recommend his three-part podcast with Peter Attia: start here. I also recommend his book, Why We Sleep.

In concert with learning, by tracking my sleep on my Whoop strap, I have learned to associate certain behaviors with better sleep.

I now pay attention to the deeply biological wisdom of my circadian rhythm, and I try to support my own rhythmicity with daily habits like morning sun exposure, avoiding blue light at night, and sleeping in total darkness. For several years now, our house has not had one single blue-light lightbulb. (We use amber bulbs instead).

My nighttime ritual, which includes a magnesium tonic and CBD, is non-negotiable in much the same way Walker says that, for him, eight hours of sleep is non-negotiable.

Learning about sleep and developing your own sleep-supportive ritual is, in my opinion, the best way to set yourself up to meet the challenge of your resolves on any single day, week, month, or season.