Stressed? 5 minutes a day to reboot and recharge

Lynne Everatt is co-author of the book, The 5-Minute Recharge: 31 Proven Strategies to Refresh, Reset, and Become the Boss of Your Day. She also co-authored a sequel: Acts of Friendship: 47 Ways to Recharge Your Life, Make REAL Connections, and Deepen Your Relationships.

She describes herself as “a recovering MBA,” an author, and a certified personal trainer. She is also a LinkedIn Top Voice in management and culture and a nominee for the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humor for her first book, E-Mails from the Edge, a novel with the theme of workplace mental health.

An ardent advocate for mental health through physical fitness, Lynne has competed in two half-marathons. Just as challenging, she has also completed a marathon six minutes and twenty-three seconds of stand-up at the Absolute Comedy Club.

Dr. Murad: Thank you for talking with me, Lynne. I want to begin with a question you ask on the homepage of your website: Why is depression still the world’s leading disability and anxiety the most common mental health disorder in North America?

Everatt: Thank you, Dr. Murad, for inviting me to talk about my favorite topic. For far too many people, depression and anxiety are lifestyle disorders fueled by a lack of sleep, loneliness, and physical inactivity. In your work, you highlight the effects of Cultural Stress, a key enabler of anxiety and depression: never before in human history have we had so many distractions, so many people to compare ourselves with and find ourselves to be wanting, so many ways to give ourselves the illusion of human connection, so much convenience to engineer physical activity completely out of our lives, and so many opportunities to experience the types of pleasure that lead to pain. We live in a world accidentally designed to create psychological anguish. We must therefore actively guard against the habits of thought and behavior, and the kinds of environments that can lead us toward anxiety and depression. My mission is to let people know how to safeguard their mental health, manage Cultural Stress, and make their minds stronger.

Dr. Murad: What motivated you to dive so deeply into the study of anxiety and depression—and how to combat these conditions?

Everatt: I have always had an intellectual curiosity about psychology, but my interest became deeply personal. Early in my career, I felt intense anxiety to the point of panic. In other words, I had panic attacks. It was debilitating, and I struggled for months trying to deal with it, but it gave me the opportunity to experience how profoundly lifestyle change can address psychological issues. My relationship to anxiety changed when I adopted the mindset ‘Bring it on!’ and when I began working out. Aerobic physical activity normalized my relationship to the sensations of my heart pounding and a loss of breath that are the hallmarks of panic disorder.

Dr. Murad: In my own work on Cultural Stress, I notice that one of the most debilitating factors of modern life is the tendency to compare ourselves to others and then try to live up to what we imagine others expect of us, rather than being true to ourselves. How do you counter that tendency personally? And how do you advise others to do so?

Everatt: Social comparison is one of the most destructive forms of Cultural Stress, and technology is the delivery device. Social comparison used to mean comparing yourself face-to-face with the other members of your tribe. Today, it means comparing your life and your appearance to an entire world of highly curated lives and digitally altered people. The images aren’t real. We know that on an intellectual level, but try to tell that to your primitive emotional brain that doesn’t speak the language of rationality and only sees beautiful, unattainable images. In my personal life, I don’t trust my emotional brain to respond to unhealthy social media in a healthy way, and therefore I refuse to join social media platforms that promote social comparison. Similarly, I carefully manage my screen time to minimize the amount of bad news that I am exposed to and the type of entertainment (I’m looking at you, “Squid Game”) that I know will unsettle me. My phone is a source of useful information and upbeat musical accompaniment to my workouts. I encourage everyone to be mindful of how technology makes them feel, to use it facilitate human connection rather than be a replacement for it, and to think about whether their digital environment supports their wellbeing or erodes it.

Dr. Murad: You describe yourself as “a recovering MBA.” What do you mean by that?

Everatt: I am a victim of Cultural Stress, of doing what was expected of me rather that than what my heart yearned to do. For years, I toiled in the kind of corporate job for which my MBA was designed, but my talents and temperament were ill-suited. I believe my intense anxiety was triggered by a lack of authenticity in my life. It was as if my body was trying to tell me that I was on the wrong path, and when I wouldn’t listen to its whispers, it began to scream in panic. I was fortunate to have been able to change paths, to seize the opportunity to study an undergraduate degree in English at the University of Toronto part-time in the evening after work (and once during the workday when my phenomenal boss let me take a creative writing class on Wednesday afternoons). After getting my degree, I left the corporate world to pursue my dream of becoming a writer, but the good fortune of my MBA recovery demands that I make amends: I want to help people avoid the anxiety, stress, and chronic sleep deprivation that I experienced.

My recovery truly began in the corporate fitness center. I worked out every day for an hour and over time, my body became stronger and my mind became more resilient. I felt a sense of self efficacy, the belief that I was capable of transforming myself and my life. I want as many people as possible to experience how transformative fitness can be, and that’s why I became certified as a personal trainer and why I take every opportunity to evangelize about the mental benefits of physical activity.

Dr. Murad: You also pursue stand-up comedy. I love that you continue to pursue your passions alongside other pursuits. That’s one of my “Insights” for managing Cultural Stress. Will you tell us a little bit about the role comedy plays in your life?

Everatt: I’ve always loved to make people laugh. As a child, I enjoyed listening to comedians such as George Carlin—I really shouldn’t have been listening to him at a tender age!—drawing cartoons, and performing funny skits in front of my classmates. Because I was shy, disappearing into outrageous characters was liberating for me. After doing only 6 minutes and 23 seconds of stand-up comedy as an adult that took weeks of preparation and a tremendous amount of energy, I gained an appreciation for the intellectual dexterity, courage, and stamina of comedians. I try to insert some humor into my wellness writing wherever I feel it’s appropriate, especially to make fun of myself. Just as I rediscovered a childhood passion in comedy, I’ve found that a great way to manage Cultural Stress is to travel back in time to your childhood and think about what you used to love to do, and then try to bring as many of those activities as possible back into your adult life.

Dr. Murad: You point out that, paradoxically, small amounts of pain can lead to greater well-being. Why is that?

Everatt: Thank you for asking this question because it’s critical to understanding how Cultural Stress often appears in our lives disguised in the glittering promise of perpetual pleasure that ultimately makes us miserable. Back in the prehistoric day, to get a hit of the pleasure neurotransmitter dopamine, humans had to do things like track down a gazelle for miles and miles without memory foam shoes, moisture-wicking clothing, or navigation devices. Today, all we have to do is track down a food delivery app. In our distant human past, pleasure was infrequent and something you had to work for. Today pleasure is everywhere from the ping of a text notification to the ding of the doorbell proclaiming your food delivery has arrived. Every ping and ding gives our brains a shot of dopamine. But a world that offers you an abundance of pleasure demands that you pay a painful emotional price. One of the most significant scientific findings of the past century is that pleasure and pain are processed in the same part of the brain, and that when you reach for pleasure, you get a dose of pain, often felt as craving. When you repeatedly reach for pleasure, especially intense pleasure, your brain will compensate by resetting your “hedonic set point”—your baseline happiness—to a lower level. The opposite therefore is also true: if you intentionally seek out discomfort by exposing yourself to extremes of heat and cold, boredom, physical exertion, or hunger, you signal an injury and set in motion your body’s natural healing mechanism that releases a cascade of feel-good chemicals and resets your hedonic set point in the direction of joy. You don’t have to be a masochist. You just have to recognize that dopamine is precious and you need to manage it carefully.

Dr. Murad: Is there anything “magical” about “five minutes”?

Everatt: Behavior change is difficult, and people are extremely busy. Five minutes is a manageable amount of time to try out a new habit and see if you can make it stick. For example, a five-minute walk is doable for most people, especially if they can combine it with another activity such as a phone call or an email. A five-minute meditation is really all you need to calm down in the middle of a busy day. It’s important to pair your attempts at behavior change with what researchers call an implementation intention—the when-where-how of your first small step toward greater wellness. For example, when there is a commercial break or a new episode in a Netflix series, I will get up of the couch and walk for five minutes. Or when it’s an hour before bedtime, I will say goodnight to my phone and put it to sleep in a room other than my bedroom, and I will have a warm bath. Your bath needn’t last for five minutes. The idea behind the 5-minute recharge is that when it comes to wellness, every little bit helps.

Dr. Murad: Please tell us about your summary prescription for recharging: sleep-step-sweat-reflect-connect and how they fit into the five-minute recharge strategy.

Everatt: “Sleep-step-sweat-reflect-connect” summarizes the science on good mental health.

Sleep comes first because it’s the foundation of wellness. As a dermatologist, you know firsthand that “beauty sleep” is real. Not only does a good night’s sleep make you look better, but it’s also a form of emotional first aid that takes the sharp edges off stressful events of the day, consolidates memories, and cleans up harmful waste materials that have built up in your brain.
Step refers to walking, the best exercise for body and brain, and the antidote for hours of sitting. Walking, even for a few minutes every half hour, wakes up your brain and body that starts to power down when you sit.
Sweat is moving with some intensity in a way that triggers the release of a cascade of feel-good hormones and growth factors. Harvard Medical School professor and brain-fitness expert Dr. John Ratey talks about sweat being a little bit of Ritalin (for focus) a little bit of Prozac (as an anti-depressant) and a shot of Miracle-Gro (fertilizer for brain cell growth).
Reflect encompasses all the things you do to get to know yourself better and make friends with your mind. It could include things as simple as pausing to take a breath, to thinking about the “why” of your emotions, or jot down your answer to “What would George Clooney do?” in response to a problem you’re grappling with. (George Clooney is a stand-in for anyone you think might give you some good advice.)
Connect relates to the people in your life who are vital to your wellbeing. Good relationships help you live happier, healthier, and longer.

Dr. Murad: Your “sequel” to The 5-Minute Recharge is the book Acts of Friendship, which offers strategies for countering the epidemic of loneliness that, ironically, has accompanied our increasing digital connectivity. I, too, have found loneliness and isolation a debilitating consequence of Cultural Stress, the stress of modern living. Please tell us about the importance of connection and some of the strategies you recommend in Acts of Friendship.

Everatt: Connection, because it is so vitally important, is one of the bookends along with sleep of our recharge strategy. The clearest message of the Harvard Study on Adult Development, the longest wellness study ever undertaken that followed hundreds of people throughout their lives, is that good relationships keep us happier and healthier. You’ve probably heard that loneliness has the same negative effects on health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. It’s worse than obesity as a risk factor for premature death. Connection is vital to wellbeing. Our mission with Acts of Friendship is to deepen connection and bring it into the physical world, away from digital world where loneliness incubates. Each of the 47 activities in the book encourages people to get together face-to-face in the real world to do real things. In Acts of Friendship, we draw on the work of relationship expert Arthur Aron and his 36 Questions that Lead to Love as the catalyst for the kind of deep conversation that enriches relationships; we encourage friends to get together for outdoor physical activity and to give back with volunteer work, to expand their horizons by exploring different cultures and ways of worship, and mine their childhoods together to discover what they truly love. Connection needn’t just be about making time to get together and do what you always do. You can also use connection as a way to wake up your brain with something new, and make stepping, sweating and reflecting more potent. For example, going for a hike outdoors with friends is one of the best things you can do for your wellbeing.

Dr. Murad: My “go-to” 5-minute recharge exercise is to move into an empty space without devices, close my eyes, and clear my mind and body of any activity. I think of it as giving myself a reboot, like we do with our computers. Shutting them down and powering them up again often does wonders! Do you have a favorite 5-minute recharge exercise? If so, what is it?

Everatt: I love your recharge, Dr. Murad! Taking five minutes to clear your mind in a quiet device-free space is a great way to reboot. My favorite 5-minute recharge is the 4-7-8 “Ted Lasso” breath that you can do a few times a day to train your central nervous system’s “relaxation muscle” so that it’s stronger than the stressful urge toward fight and flight. Once this muscle is trained, you can call on it at a moment’s notice to calm yourself down in a stressful situation or relax into sleep. Simply breathe in through your nose to a count of four, hold your breath for a count of seven, and breathe out forcefully through your mouth to a count of eight. Do four cycles of the 4-7-8 breath a few times a day.

Dr. Murad: Thank you so much, Lynne!
This has been wonderful. I so appreciate your work!

Everatt: Thank you, Dr. Murad. Thank you for all you do to make the world a happier, healthier, and better hydrated place.

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