5 weeks. 5 experiments. 1 human.
Here’s What We Learned About Stress.
This is Mark. Mark lives a normal life. He works, has a family, runs around London, and spends his free time Instagramming pictures of his shoes. Mark is our test subject. He agreed to undergo a series of experiments in the interest of stress research. We’re still not sure why he said yes. Please note, none of Mark was harmed during the making of this report.
Exercise is magic. But as life gets more complex, it’s hard to fit in.
Before this trial, I only ran or cycled a couple of times a week. But for this experiment, I ran, cycled, or rowed every day for a week, for at least 40 minutes. I knew that exercise made me feel ‘better,’ and that when I don’t do enough I feel ‘down.’ But it’s hard to measure ‘better’ and ‘down,’ so I chose to measure blood pressure and sleep time, as well as an overall stress level.
I used a scale of 1–10.1 being oblivious to worry and 10 being frazzled. So how did I get on? I exercised early each morning. I set off at 6am and generally did 60 minutes of exercise. Top line findings were:
- Better sleep. I was going to bed much earlier to accommodate getting up early, and I found I slept really well. Not just sleeping longer, but having fewer waking incidents.
- The days where I had to be out of the house for work, I replaced the running/biking/rowing with at least an hour of fast walking (enough to sweat) in London. These days weren’t as effective in terms of my stress level or how well I slept.
- I ate better. When I was active, I didn’t want to fill my body with shit. So I didn’t. This is likely to have other benefits and amplify the impact of the exercise. What did that look like?(Some context: My blood pressure is normally relatively high. My pulse is normally relatively low. My standard measure of how stressed I am sits around a 7).
I’m a bloody fidgeter. I can’t sit still and ‘do nothing.’ It feels like a waste of time. So although I’ve dabbled in meditation, it was a bit of a challenge to focus on it for a whole week.
But still works.
For this trial, I used a couple of approaches. I utilised apps for guided meditation, and also tried some freestyle meditation. I found the guided meditation most effective, as I need a set of guiding rails to keep me from wandering. The strengths of using the Headspace app were the explanatory films that are bundled with it, while the benefit of using the Calm app was the guided body scan.
The hardest approach was the un-guided meditation. My mind wanders. I know that this is normal, and that the key is to let it wander, notice it, and come back, but I found this less effective for a beginner. What were the impacts?
- I felt great. I used it in moments of peak stress, to slow my breathing and focus my mind. I was even able to meditate in quite busy environments, including on the train whilst being kicked by a fellow passenger.
- I found that my perceived stress levels were lower across the week and that I was able to control them at tense points using simple meditation.
- Even 10 minutes worked.
Look for yourself.
I often declare, “I’m a big man and I don’t fold-up very neatly” when I talk about yoga. This is true. It’s also true that decades of sprinting and playing rugby have produced quads and calves that hinder the wearing of skinny jeans. I find yoga really hard. Consequently I never gave it the time it deserved. Until now.
There are many different types of yoga, and to my mind, the best one to do is the one you like the best. I couldn’t care less about the difference between Ashtanga, Kundalini, Hatha, Bikram, Vinyasa, or Iyengar. I called mine ‘morning yoga,’ as I did it in the morning.
The yoga week coincided with a few days in Australia, so when I was at home I did yoga with my wife, and whilst away I followed Michael Townsend Williams’ Soundcloud yoga classes — ‘Yoga for neck and shoulders’ and ‘15 minutes of gentle yoga.’ I found the yoga brilliant. I had a mega-stressful week, with a workshop and keynote in Sydney, and the yoga really helped manage my stress and sleep, despite the jet lag.
What did the numbers look like?
As someone who believed the whole ‘sleep is for wimps’ bollocks, I have probably not given anywhere enough attention to sleep in my lifetime.
Indeed, I have often enjoyed moaning about being up since 4am or being cursed with insomnia. So I was looking forward to nailing that tricky bugger sleep during this week. I did some digging and came up with a mixture of approaches to get me to sleep (see below).
This was the best week of sleep I’d had in years. So everything worked. Or maybe nothing worked. Maybe it was setting my intention to have a good night’s sleep that worked. I don’t know. It was hardly scientific but surely slowing down earlier, not using a screen, spending some time meditating, and setting your intention will work? It won’t hurt, that’s for sure. Throw in some sex and that’s a great night in.
Good sex before sleep. I don’t mean sex with yourself or a rushed quickie. I mean proper thoughtful sex. You know the sort, when you slip into a coma afterwards. Result? One-all and 8.5 hours sleep.
John’s Wort. This herbal remedy is thought to reduce anxiety and promote sleep. I took it 2 hours before bed and determined to have a good night I slept a full 8 hours and was woken by the alarm.
Herbal sleeping remedy. This is mainly hops, valerian root, and passion flower. I took two tablets an hour or two before bed, imagined waking up at 6 feeling refreshed, and did indeed get 8 hours fantastic sleep.
Meditation just before bed. I’d been meditating anyway, but tended to do this in the morning. This time I meditated for 20 minutes just before sleep. This did the trick. I hopped (crawled) into bed, focused on getting a good night’s sleep and bingo, I got 8.5 hours. I also think this would work really well when I need to go to bed early if I have an early start the next day.
Tart cherry juice. Studies say that a glass of tart cherry juice aids sleep. And hey-ho, I thought I’d give it a go. The secret is that sour cherries are a natural source of melatonin that regulates the sleep cycle, and the red skins contain an enzyme that reduces inflammation and allows the body to recover from exertion faster. So I bought a bottle, swigged it down, and slept a solid 7 hours and 50 minutes.
Non-herbal sleeping tablets. I have no idea what was in them, and no memory of going to sleep, no memory of any dreams. They knocked me out for 8 hours and I felt groggy as hell for a couple of hours that morning. To be avoided I’d say.
No screens after 8pm. You know the way we live today: Googling, working, and Facebooking until odd hours of the night, then starting again as soon as we wake up. So I decided to set a screen curfew. I put my phone down at 8 o’clock, had a bath, read my book, and got a full 8 hours of sleep. Again.
And so to the last of my experiments, a week without a smartphone.
This was the trial I was most nervous about and therefore, it was the one I put off to the end. Because how will anyone know how bloody great my life is without me Instagramming the fuck out of it all the time?
My relationship with modern media is complex and tied to self-worth and ego. That’s why I was dreading this week. So, how’d it go?
I tried to wriggle out of it, so I chose a week that included a bank holiday, only one trip to London, and a trip to Cardigan. Theoretically, a doddle. But the findings were interesting. What I lost: Being able to do something instantly. Googling, finding a route somewhere, listening to a track I’d forgotten existed, taking a photo, recording a voice memo, reading the news, and texting in a normal fashion (old school texting is a complete pain in the arse).
What I gained: Time. Bloody buckets of time. I did so much more, whether that was working on the train, talking to the kids, getting stuff done at home, or taking photographs with my 35mm Voigtlander. When I arrived somewhere, I was truly there, and I realised how shittingly rude most people are with their heads in their phones. What I didn’t miss: Social media.
But what about stress? It was a mixed experience. Getting lost, not being able to see appointments, not being able to send one important email from the train — these were stressful, but could have been overcome by better planning. Otherwise, I felt free, less stressed, and less driven by other’s agendas.
I loved it.
This is an excerpt from The Stress Report.
You can follow Mark Shayler via Twitter: @greenape
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