Yesterday was one of those days when I felt like my brain was constantly “on”. It isn’t all that unusual for me to feel this way when my to-do list is long, but this happened on a Saturday – free from pressing obligations. The truth is my brain never really takes a complete vacation day, and neither does yours.
All human brains are designed to scan the environment for cues and information while at the same time regulating normal processes like breathing. Even as we sleep, the brain is processing information! Although the human brain is designed to fire on all cylinders, this isn’t always ideal.
Just as the physical body becomes taxed through things like intense weight training or cardio sessions, your brain can easily become taxed through mental gymnastics. I’m sure that doesn’t come as a surprise, though it may be surprising to know that not everyone honors the need for mental breaks or intentional time to decompress.
Over time, without intentional decompression, stress silently rises. According to the American Institute of Stress, 73% of individuals experience some degree of mental health challenge as a result of stress. With so much uncertainty and stress in our world today, it makes sense that mental health challenges are widespread.
There is no denying that some degree of stress can actually be a helpful tool for boosting energy and attention. I think sometimes this idea is lost in translation, and stress constantly gets a negative rep. On the other hand, it is quite easy to let stress levels rise above baseline to an uncomfortable degree, and stress then becomes more of a negative force.
So what does stress have to do with structure? Let’s stop and think about what happens when your stress level rises above your tolerable or baseline level of “good stress”. Like many, you may find yourself making poor food choices, skipping meals or missing workouts, grazing throughout the day, choosing less healthy and more convenient foods, or finding comfort by distracting yourself with snacking when you aren’t even physically hungry.
Passing up the jar of little chocolate goodies on your co-worker’s desk is more challenging on a day when you are highly stressed compared to a day of more predictability and calm. The drive-thru seems much more appealing after an overly busy day compared to a more relaxed day when having a home-cooked meal actually sounds like a better option. The choice to unwind with a glass of wine rather than a leisurely walk is a no-brainer.
Now consider the snowball effect of these decisions. You may not realize that there are inherent mental changes that come along with making less supportive health-related decisions. When you choose to give in to your stress by eating lots of processed food, higher sugar snacks, or missing out on opportunities to move more, you are creating more physical internal stress. In turn, your overall stress load continues to increase.
If you know that you are heading into a stressful week, or you’ve been going through a more stressful season in life, structure can be the thing that actually becomes stress-reducing. Structure can add some predictability to your day. A basic plan for nutrition, movement, exercise, and sleep can help you to feel less stressed and more organized.
“When people don’t have a routine or structure to their day it can cause increased stress and anxiety, as well as overwhelming feelings, lack of concentration, and focus.”~Rachel Goldman, PhD
Although as a company we collectively promote the idea of using “structured flexibility” as part of your wellness plan, I understand that there is push and pull between knowing when to be more structured versus when to let in flexibility. Implementing a structured plan versus adding in your own flexibility can be a source of stress for some. It can be somewhat draining to have to rely on the detective process to distinguish the parts of structure that are most versus least helpful.
Humans are pattern-seekers in that we crave order and clarity, sometimes through the development of clear rules and repetitive actions. There can be comfort in knowing that a repeated sequence of steps is part of your daily routine. Having some degree of rigidity can lead to energy preservation, mentally and physically.
So what is the ideal “time and place” for structure? When you have precise or repetitive tasks, like eating three times daily, structure works well. When you have been given a protocol or plan to follow, like a specific weight training program, structure is helpful so you understand exactly what to do and when to do it. When tasks involve some degree of automation, like a consistent bedtime routine with specific steps to take as part of preparation for sleep, structure is your friend.
If you find that structure has been too loose, or too flexible, for you to see results with your wellness goals, it is ok to tighten up. You can keep the actual structure of your plan simple so it is easy to follow. For meals, focus on higher protein, higher fiber foods. For workouts, identify the workouts you want to follow and plan them into your weekly calendar. For your bedtime routine, have an exact time to start winding down and follow a system for getting yourself prepared and ready for sleep.
The truth is that, over time, structure can be something that you rely on to perform optimally when stress is rising. Because structure can save you some mental energy, you can use that additional energy for tasks that are more draining or require more brain power. The trick is making sure to check in with yourself often so that you can identify the times when structure starts to feel like an overly rigid plan.
If deviating from structure causes negative self-talk, self-sabotage, or feelings of guilt and shame, check yourself before you wreck yourself! This is a sign that it is time to add in flexibility. Don’t beat yourself up about getting off schedule for a day or two if you know that structure is best for you. There is beauty in being flexible, but there is also something wonderful about utilizing structure when nothing else is predictable in life.