Air, water, nutrition, sleep. It’s what keeps us alive. It’s all we need. OK, I agree life wouldn’t be so much fun without the donuts, wine or Netflix. But we would endure.
Survival experts use the rule of ‘threes’: we can live for three minutes without air, three days without water and three weeks without food. Add in sleep too, which is about seven days, although by then you’ll be quite doolally. Some people have lasted longer – 25 weeks without nutrition and 11 days without sleep. Randy Gardner gained the world record for staying awake in 1965. As a high school student, he went without sleep for 264 hours – for fun. It was part of a school science project. He sounds like a bundle of laughs.
We often talk about wanting to ‘thrive’ in our lives, but sometimes we fail to even ‘survive’. Imagine this – we have a work deadline and we sit at our desk all day, bashing away at our laptop. We hardly drink. We eat an unhealthy sandwich and definitely don’t move. That’s except for pee breaks which we offer up to ourselves as some type of reward. We finally finish at 7pm. We stop, exhausted, yet we’re still pumped up – adrenaline coursing round our veins. We want to treat ourselves. And why not? We deserve it after all the hard graft. So what will make us feel better? What will we reach for first? This is my guess about what we often do:
First: We may grab at food, likely to be low in nutrition and high in fat and sugar.
During a very difficult time in his life Tim was “self medicating by eating like a fat bastard. Pizza and chocolate and god knows what.” He lives in Switzerland where the chocolate is very good. “When I did my grocery shopping, I’d eat a whole big slab of it whilst walking home. I was just eating a lot of crap.”
Rebecca was similar during a challenging time. “When I was off on sick leave with stress it was very tempting to watch Homes Under The Hammer and just eat biscuits all day.”
Sometimes it’s not what we eat that’s the issue. When Katerina was really stressed at work she could go three or four days without eating at all. “I realised I was hungry, feeling very weak, very tired, very cold. And then I ate something tiny and felt like I wanted to throw up because my stomach had got used to not eating anything.”
Second: After eating we might turn to alcohol, gulping down a drink or three. This will dehydrate us as alcohol is a diuretic. We often don’t drink enough water, so we’re dehydrated, even though water makes up 50–70% of our body weight and is vital for our health. Drinking alcohol will make things worse – we’ll be dehydrated and mistake this for hunger. The symptoms of dehydration (fatigue, headache, concentration difficulties) are similar to those of hunger. One study found that just 2% of participants drank when they were dehydrated – most just ate instead. We’re fatigued because we’re dehydrated and then over-eat to boost our energy.
Misha said, “when I was stressed and working long hours my health was so bad. And my mental health wasn’t great either.” She would search for things that would stop her thinking about the stresses of work. “So to get comfort I’d go shopping and buy jewellery or drink alcohol.”
For Morgan it became a habit. “I’d come home and I’d drink a bottle of wine and pass out on the sofa and wake up at 2 am.” He just wanted to numb himself – to lose himself. “If you’re hungover you’ve got excuses. I don’t have to cook lunch the night before. I don’t have to make an effort for work – I can throw on a creased shirt. I was working hard but being hungover gave me an excuse for not being fully involved in the world.”
Third: We will eventually fall into bed late that night to snatch some sleep. When we’re busy it’s easy to compromise on the quality and length of time we sleep. This creates a behavioural loop that we need to break. We sleep less (and less well) because of lack of exercise and lower levels of vitamin D (because we’re inside all the time). Exposure to artificial light (phone, computer screens and indoor lights) is too high and this leads to stress. In turn we’re awake for longer and get poorer quality sleep.
When Julie gets stressed she becomes internalised and closes down. “I don’t ring my family and I get caught up in my head, I can’t sleep. I am awake all hours of the night tossing and turning. I lose self-esteem and isolate myself so my friends don’t hear from me as much.”
For Steve it became a longer-term issue. “I got to the point where I had broken sleep for two or three stints of four or five months at a time. Definitely a period of about six months of tears in the car park at least once a month.”
Fourth: There is one thing that barely registers for us – how we breathe. For most of us it’s not part of our self-care repertoire. Studies show that we can take in 30% less air when sitting at a desk. Breathing from the chest and shoulders, not breathing deeply, can also lead to feelings of panic.
Ellen sometimes has panic attacks. “When I panic I can’t breathe, I get hysterical and start trembling. There’s absolute fear. I will cry and have to calm myself down and go, ‘it’s going to be alright.’”
Jacqui was stressed and wasn’t sleeping. “I’d sit in meetings and almost didn’t hear what people were saying because I was so tired.” And she wasn’t breathing properly either. “Then my heart would get a palpitation or a flutter and that started to really worry me. I thought, ‘Oh, God, am I headed for a heart attack or something?’”
Funny isn’t it. How we often get things the wrong way round. Instead, why don’t we tackle our stress and fatigue in a different way? Focus first on the ones that have the quickest impact – I mean, how long does it take to breathe (a few seconds) or to hydrate (a few minutes)? Why don’t we try to sort out our breathing first, then get hydrated. Then focus on sleep, followed by nutrition.
1) Breathe properly – mindfulness and yoga will help. Even the National Health Service in the UK has stress reducing breathing exercises on its website.
2) Stay hydrated – we know this one, but just in case, here are five tips to remain hydrated.
3) Sleep well – there’s so much advice out there that is helpful. And in all honesty, we know what we need to do on this one too. But if you’ve forgotten here are 17 things you can do to improve sleep.
4) Eat healthily – it’s hard to contemplate cooking when we’re tired but it will make such a difference to our mental and physical health. Here are 20 healthy and nutritious meals you can make in 20 minutes or less.
Air, water, sleep, nutrition. Hmm. Does that make an anagram? AWNS, SAWN, SNAW (yup that’s actually in the Scrabble dictionary)… I have it – SWAN.
The word swan derives from the Indo-European root of ‘Swen’ and (fortunately for me) swen means to sing. The word sing can also mean to resonate. So perhaps this whole idea will begin to resonate with you?
OK, enough with the wordplay. Let’s just try and be more SWAN-like in the way we live our lives.
This is part of a series called Spoon by Spoon — a project I’ve run interviewing 100 people going through career, relationship and wider life changes. If you’re looking for support with your own career or life change find out more here.
Photos copyright of Charlotte Sheridan