Provision #586: Panic No More

Laser Provision

The headlines scream of a worldwide panic attack. With every passing day, more and more people are succumbing to the stress. What about you? How are you doing? If you are not doing as well as you would like, it may be time to develop new routines for stress management and sleep enhancement. This Provision describes a few approaches that have worked for me, including supplementation with melatonin. If that sounds interesting and relevant, then read on for the details.

LifeTrek Provision

How many ways can we catastrophize a change? Over the course of the past week, financial headlines ran out of adjectives. Consider, as a case in point, the following headlines taken from the Wall Street Journal digital network:

  • Global stock free-fall
  • Worldwide wreckage
  • Japan dives further
  • Capital fears slam capitol
  • Recession fears hit Europe
  • Bears maul global markets
  • No end to the bleeding
  • Sell-off tsunami
  • Worldwide wipeout

You get the idea. Indeed, you probably get the feeling as well. That’s what behavioral scientists call “emotional contagion.” When one person feels something, a person close to them, either in proximity or in affinity, feels it as well. When enough people feel something, everyone feels it as well. It’s the flock of birds phenomenon: when a few birds get spooked, the whole flock takes off. No sense waiting around to find out you were wrong.

That’s what’s been happening with many people and the market. As the headlines come in and anxiety levels increase, panic ensues. The resultant decisions of large numbers of sleep-deprived and panic-stricken people, from those trying to manage the situation to those being victimized by the situation, end up being tainted with stress hormones. And we just don’t do our best thinking under those conditions.

I know. As I mentioned a few weeks ago, in my Provision titled Step Back, I suffered a panic attack in December of 2007. I bring it up again now, for three reasons. One, panic is becoming a more ubiquitous experience. Just look at the headlines; panic is a virulent virus. Increased ER admission for mental health problems in the wake of the current crisis testify to the problem. Two, I’ve made a lot of progress in both my understanding and management of the condition. The experience of panic and of an overactive nervous system has largely abated in my daily life. Three, when I wrote about panic attack the first time many people responded with panic stories of their own, suggestions for me, and requests for help.

I appreciated that outpouring of concern, sympathy, and support. In this Provision I would like to share a little more of my own experience, particularly during these anxious times, in case any more readers find it helpful.

Sleep deprivation, in my experience, is both cause and symptom of panic. Let’s understand the basic rhythm of work and rest, day and night. During the day we exert ourselves and work to meet our needs. Such exertion stimulates the production of stress hormones, whether we think of something as stressful or not. We may enjoy chasing down that tiger, whether literally or figuratively, but it still exacts a price on our systems. Whether it be the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat, we still experience the same rush of effects.

Stress hormones that our bodies produce naturally during the day include epinephrine, norepinephrine, and corticosteroids. The more stimulation we experience the more stress hormones we produce. That’s good, up to a point, since those hormones assist us to get our work done. In the extreme case of chasing (or being chased by) real tigers, these hormones gear us up for the fight-or-flight response. Our blood pressure rises, our hearts pump faster, the flow of blood is diverted from the digestive system to the muscle, our metabolism rises, our pupils dilate, and our blood sugar levels soar to provide fuel for the muscles to burn.

Anyone who’s ever had a panic attack will recognize those symptoms. They’re not fun, but they have their place. The problem arises when these hormones accumulate in our systems to high levels over time. That’s when they injure every organ system in the body, from our hearts to our brains. Stress literally kills by damaging tissues, triggering diabetes, weakening bones, injuring brain cells, agitating the nervous system, and suppressing the immune system. There’s no way to be happy and healthy with ever increasing levels of stress hormones in our bodies.

So what’s a person to do? There’s really only two strategies, and both are important. First, we need to manage our stress by day. Then, we need to sleep well by night. Since my panic attack last December, I have focused on both strategies. By day I have done such things as breathwork, meditation, taking breaks, automating systems, bolstering reserves, avoiding stimulants like caffeine, and appreciating the present moment.

Such stress-relieving activities are essential daily habits. They are not effective as one-time treatments. The more we do them the more relief they offer from the daily influx of stress hormones. That’s especially true now, as people deal with the changes in global markets and financial systems. The more threatening we perceive the changes to be, the more stress hormones they generate.

One way to take a break from the catastrophizing headlines is to just not look at them for certain periods of time. It’s called a news fast, where for 24-hours you don’t look at any of your normal information outlets (print, screen, radio, etc.). The point is not to bury your head in the sand or to pretend that nothing is happening. The point is to lower both the volume and the frequency of those stress-stimulating stories. Taking intentional breaks can be an effective strategy for managing stress by day. So, too, with reducing or eliminating caffeine and other stimulants from your diet.

But stress management by day, in and of itself, is not enough. Stress recovery by night is just as important, and perhaps even more important. The function of a good night’s sleep is to neutralize any stress hormones that may remain in your system from your daily activities. No matter how good you may be at managing stress by day, there will always be some stress hormones left over at the end of the day. Restful sleep mops those up so we can start the new day refreshed and ready to go again.

Just as stress generates its own set of hormones, so does rest. The primary rest hormone is melatonin, produced primarily by the pineal gland in response to darkness and sleep (small amounts are also produced by the retina and the gut). The natural production of melatonin declines with age and is also restricted or even eliminated altogether when we stay up all night with electric lights, electromagnetic fields, and 24-7 stimulation.

That’s part of the problem with our current worldwide panic attack. The people managing the attack may be competent and well intentioned, but in their sleep-deprived and stress-full states they cannot be expected to consistently make good decisions. That’s why we’ve seen so many deals come apart at the seams; they were designed poorly in the first place by the raging course of stress hormones.

Those same people, bless their hearts, are also suffering the health effects of having so many stress hormones continually coursing through their bodies. When every moment is a fight-or-flight moment, the body eventually gives out and succumbs to all manner of physical and psychological maladies. Without enough melatonin in the system to off-set the adrenalin, the body eventually shuts down.

That’s why many doctors and health practitioners recommend supplementation with melatonin before falling asleep at night. Travelers have long used melatonin when they cross time zones, to reset the body’s circadian rhythm to the new setting of the sun. That takes advantage of melatonin’s ability to induce sleep, but melatonin does far more than to just make a person drowsy. Taken regularly, it also promotes good health by assisting the body to recover from the stresses and strains of daily life.

Although it’s always valuable to check with your doctor before taking any supplements, especially if you are taking medications, the following dosages of melatonin are recommended by Drs. Pierpaoli & Regelson to be taken at night, within 60 minutes before going to sleep:

  • Ages 40-44: .5-1 mg at bedtime
  • Ages 45-54: 1-2 mg at bedtime
  • Ages 55-64: 2-2.5 mg at bedtime
  • Ages 65-74: 2.5-5 mg at bedtime
  • Ages 75 plus: 3.5-5 mg at bedtime

People younger than 40 can take melatonin, particularly if they have troubles with hyperactivity and attention deficits, but most people younger than 40 are making enough on their own. Once we hit 40, however, the natural production of melatonin goes down until it all but disappears after the age of 60.

I have found that taking melatonin according to the above schedule has improved my sleep and brought tremendous relief to my overactive nervous system. I no longer feel as if I am continuously managing my condition; instead, I feel as though my body has reset itself and is better able to recover naturally from stress. Even in the midst of a worldwide panic attack, I feel calm. That’s not because my investments are doing better than anyone else’s • they’re not. That’s rather because my system is getting the support it needs to recover from these and other strains on a daily basis.

If you are having a hard time coping with the changes and challenges of life, then it would serve you well to develop new stress-management and sleep-enhancing routines on a daily basis. You may want to try melatonin; if so, I have two recommendations. First, I like the sublingual formulations where you let a small pill dissolve slowly under your tongue as you go to sleep at night. It’s both soothing and more rapidly absorbed into your system. Second, I like melatonin-only formulations. Some brands come mixed with vitamin B-6 or other compounds. Those are known to cause problems with some people.

No one can go-go-go all the time without burning out and breaking down. So do what you can to make sure that doesn’t happen to you. Take charge of your days and nights to stay happy and healthy on the trek of life.

Coaching Inquiries: What do you do to manage your stress by day and to sleep well by night? What is your rhythm like between work and rest? How can you develop a better rhythm, so that your body can more fully recover from the stresses and strains of life? What place might supplementation have as part of the formula?

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LifeTrek Readers’ Forum (selected feedback from the past week)

Editor’s Note: The LifeTrek Readers’ Forum contains selections from the comments and materials sent in each week by the readers of LifeTrek Provisions. They do not necessarily reflect the perspective of LifeTrek Coaching International. To submit your comment, use our Feedback Form or Email Bob..

Thank you for forwarding Provisions to my new e-mail address. Thanks, also, for doing all that y’all do to broaden, to expand, and to inspire the world of coaching (and the world, in general). Since my first encounter with you, you’ve consistently impacted my life in a profound and positive way. No doubt, that is the case for so many others whose lives you touch! Infinite thanks for that, as well. 

May you be filled with goodness, peace, and joy.

Bob Tschannen-Moran, MCC, BCC

President, LifeTrek Coaching
CEO & Co-Founder, Center for School
Immediate Past President, International Association of
Author, Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a TimeOnline Retailers

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