We waste a lot of time and energy around stress that, when left unchecked, can disrupt various aspects of our lives. While stress is not new to anyone, our relationship with it can ultimately break or make us. In this episode, we take a look at how to handle stress with the Founder of AIM7, Dr. Erik Korem. He joins host Penny Zenker to share his insights on why increasing adaptability can also increase our capacity to take on the stressors around us. Dr. Korem then identifies the five pillars to build more capacity for stress and the importance of consistency over capacity. With years of working with high-performance athletes under his belt, Dr. Korem is no stranger to stressful environments. Tune in as he shares more valuable information about handling stress. Let him help you increase adaptability and capacity in this conversation.
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The Pillars To Increasing Adaptability And Capacity To Handle Stress With Dr. Erik Korem
I’m excited to talk to you about all types of things around helping you to be more focused and helping you to take back time. It is possible to take back time by spending it and investing it most efficiently, and also knowing where you’re wasting time. One of those areas in that we waste a lot of time and energy is stress and our inability to be able to manage stress and to self-regulate.
In this episode, we’re going to focus on adaptability. Our guest has a different phrasing for it, but I’m going to use the phrasing that you might most understand right now. That’s how to make ourselves more adaptable and be able to adapt to different stresses that are all around us. Dr. Erik Korem is here and he just told me that he has three degrees.
He is one smart dude. He deals with high-performance or elite performance. Whether it’s feats of the NCAA athletes or the US Department of Defense, implementing one of the NFL’s first sports science programs, or coaching Olympic gold medalists. This guy knows high-performance and also stressful environments. I’m super excited to have Dr. Erik here with us to help us see how we can be more adaptable. Dr. Erik, welcome to the show.
Thank you, Penny. You could just call me Erik. It’s totally fine. It’s a pleasure to be here. I would start by saying that stress or burnout is at an all-time high across all professions. I believe the American Psychological Association recently said this. Across all professions, it’s at an all-time high. As a matter of fact, in the fall of 2022, there was something called the US Preventative Task Force that was put together. They recommended that all adults under the age of 65 get screened for anxiety. That’s pretty alarming. Three in five employees report the negative impacts of work-related stress, including cognitive weariness and emotional exhaustion. Forty-four percent of people say that they feel physical fatigue. Is stress the enemy? The answer is no.
What’s our relationship with stress? That’s a good question to ask around. It’s funny because I use the term “relationship with stress” because we have all types of relationships that we don’t think about. We only think about our spouse, our kids, or our parents. What about our relationship with time, our relationship with stress, and a multitude of other things? How would you see the current state of our relationship with stress before we get into whether it’s the enemy or not? I guess that’s a relationship.
You need to reframe what stress is. Your body is an adaptation machine. That’s what it’s designed to do. It is adapting to environmental stimulus. If you want to improve your physical fitness, what do you have to do? You have to exercise. What is exercise? It’s a stress. Stress induces adaptation. If you want to learn a new skill, the only way that your brain undergoes plastic changes is through engaging in stress. Eating food is stress. Stress isn’t exactly bad. It’s something that we’re encountering all day long.
A good friend of mine is Dr. Alex Auerbach. He’s a Director of Wellness and Development at the Toronto Raptors. I’m giving him full credit for this quote, “Stress is our brain in our body preparing us to do something effortful.” It’s not a negative thing. When we get “burned out,” or we have mental health issues, or physically we get injured, it’s because we’ve exceeded our capacity to adapt to either an acute stressor and more likely long-term chronic stress. The gateway to growth is stress like acute stress. Go exercise or learn something. You’re trying to upskill yourself at work, or your kids are learning something at school. It’s stress. The key is the right dose of stress with the right dose of rest.The gateway to growth is stress. Click To Tweet
You’ve worked with a lot of high-performance athletes and whatnot, they are major on and off. They’re on, and then they take a period of rest, and that rest is essential. You even talked about exercising and working out. It is essential to the building of the muscle that there’s also a period of rest so that they can rebuild.
Even elite athletes get injured when they’re doing the on and off. Why is that? It’s because of the global stress of life. It’s like you have a gas tank and that’s your capacity to adapt to stress. Every day you wake up with a different amount of gas in the tank. That tank can be full if you had a great night of sleep. You didn’t have any social stressors the day before or anything like that. You may wake up with a full tank. Let’s say you’ve got into an argument with your spouse, something bad happened at work, and you got in a car wreck on the way home. Guess what? You’re going to wake up empty.
All of those things are sucking that energy. Usually, I use a cup of water and I just keep poking a toothpick in it. As much as you can fill up into it, if you’ve got holes in your cup, it’s going to seep out. It’s going to seep out faster or as fast as you put it back in if you don’t plug the holes.
From a scientific perspective, you would call that your adaptation reserve. There is a cost to adaptation. There’s something called allostasis. It’s your body and your brain wanting to achieve stability through change. That’s what everybody wants. Allostasis is the body and the brain trying to achieve stability through change.
Stability through change. That almost sounds like an oxymoron.
If you think about it, if you go exercise, your heart rate and respiration rate go up so you can pump more blood to your working tissues. When it’s over with, everything tries to go back to normal because it doesn’t want to be up here all the time.
The body wants to adapt at whatever level you’re at, and then quickly go back down.
It wants to ramp up, and then go back down to normal. If you go in for a presentation, it’s the same exact response. The brain and the body don’t know between mental and physical stress. The same systems turn on every time. Heart rate and respiration rate go up, palms get sweaty, and pupils dilate. You’re biased toward action. That’s good and productive, but you don’t want to get stuck there. The body is like, “How do I get back to normal?” The way that your body does this is it has to have periods where the stress system is turned on, and then these systems are turned off. There are different periods when that system turns off when you sleep at night. There are five pillars if you want to build more capacity for stress. It’s really simple.
Let’s hear them real quick. I know we’re only on here for a short time. You’re going to have an opportunity for people to be able to come back to you and learn more about those five.
I’ll give them to you right now. There’s a little nuance, but sleep, exercise, mental fitness, nutrition, and fostering healthy relationships. The scientific literature is very clear. If you hit specific thresholds in each one of these categories, not only do they help the body and the brain adapt to more stress but you can do more with less cost. When it comes to focus, if your cup is always overflowing, you’re going to feel like you’re out of control. If you can build a bigger gas tank, the same amount of stress isn’t going to feel the same. Every one of us has gone through a situation where you start a new job or start something new and you first feel overwhelmed. After a few weeks, you’ve been inoculated with that stress. You’re like, “It’s not too bad.” You have one kid, and life feels like it’s crazy. You have another one, you build more resilience.
Sleep, exercise, mental fitness or mental health, nutrition, and fostering healthy relationships. Outside of fostering healthy relationships, all of those are taking care of ourselves. The other is too, but you know what I’m saying. It’s feeding ourselves, getting ourselves rest, and so forth. We suck at that. We are the first to go, “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.”
My son just sent me from college. I’m like, “You got to take it easy. You got to take care of yourself. Make sure you get to the gym.” He’s studying like crazy, and he’s like, “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.” I hate that expression because you’re dead when you’re dead, and you’re going to be dead a lot sooner. How do we bridge that gap? Knowing the five pillars is one thing, and doing the five pillars is yet another. What’s in the gap for us? Why are we so bad at taking care of ourselves?
I’ll tell you why I think, and then what you can do about it. The busyness of life takes over. We don’t have a plan and we have no way of measuring. Some of us don’t even know what good is. We don’t know where the bar is and what we need to hit. First of all, you need some education and awareness of where the bar is. Number two is you need some way to track and measure progress. Number three, you need some type of behavior loop that reinforces the actions that you’re taking that are anchored in your values of who you are so that you continually make progress even when you don’t feel like it.
You got to know where the bar is. You got to be able to track and measure change. You got to have a behavior loop or what we call a behavior design process that reinforces these positive behaviors with the stickiness and messiness of life. I think that’s the problem. You got smart folks tuning in to this. As soon as they start putting these pieces together, it’s like, “That makes sense. It’s not that hard. I can take this one little step and focus on this one little area. I can track and measure change.” Don’t try to do everything at once. Focus on one.
A mistake that a lot of people make is that they try to do it all at once, and then they give up because it’s not working. Also, impatience is something that keeps us from getting the result that we want because we want it all and we want it now or it doesn’t work. Don’t put the baby out with the bathwater.
It’s consistency over intensity. Small, tiny, consistent behaviors repeated over time will lead to radical changes. When it’s the new year, we’re like, “I’m going to fix everything.” Three weeks later, it’s over. If you were like, “I am just going to walk. I’m just taking something simple. Instead of 10,000 steps a day, I’m going to walk 500 more steps a day. That’s ten minutes of walking. I can do that.” You then do it over and over, and you’re like, “This is the new normal. Now, I’m going to do a little bit more.” It’s, where the bar is, track and measure change, and you have to have a process to put it together. That’s why I left sports. That’s basically what I do now. I have a company called AIM7. We leverage wearable technology like your Apple Watch to help people improve these things.Consistency over intensity. Click To Tweet
Is it its own app or does it link with the existing apps that pull your data?
We are a data aggregator, so we pull in your wearable data. If you do Headspace, Calm, or Nutrition, we suck it all in, and then we provide you with daily personalized recommendations for your mind, body, and recovery. We tell you exactly what to do for busy people. The busy people that are tuning in to this don’t have time to go download spreadsheets and do all this stuff like, “What do I do today to move the needle?” That’s what we built.
Give me an example. I know you don’t have my data or anything, but let’s say you have person X. What would be an example that you might give them for the day? Just so we can get a feel concretely of what a daily suggestion looks like.
I’ll give you two. One, let’s say for your mind. We can assess your acute mental state. Let’s say we notice that you are stressed out at the moment. We will push you a breathwork tool that will help regulate your autonomic nervous system to help you calm down and perform better. We take all the mystery out of it, “Do this for five minutes.”
At the moment, you can sense from my watch that I’m stressed and you’re going to send me a breathing technique.
What about 11:30 at night when I should be in bed? Are you going to text me and tell me, “It’s your bedtime?”
No. It’s in the app. We’re not going to disturb you and wake you up.
No, but I’m not in bed. You know that I’m moving.
We don’t want to bug people. You know that you’re not feeling great. You go into the app and you go to the mind section like, “Here’s the coach’s pick. Here’s what you should do right now.” We built this to take all the mystery out of the science behind this stuff.
That’s fantastic. What didn’t I ask you that you feel the audience needs to know about adaptability and being able to increase their capacity to manage stress?
I wouldn’t say it’s something you didn’t ask me, but I would reinforce something. Everybody can build the capacity for more. Your body is designed and wired for adaptation. You just have to create the right conditions. It’s not something that happens overnight. It takes time. If you have patience and you would want to focus on one thing at a time, you can see dramatic changes in a year.
If you could fast forward a year and be like, “I just spent one year focusing on one little thing over and over again,” your body’s going to adapt. It maladapts. It adapts to bad things and adapts to good things. You’re becoming overweight because your body is adapting to too many calories. What does it do? It stores it. Your body does the same thing in other areas. Your brain can change. Your fitness can change. You can change sleep. You can change your mood. It just takes time and consistent effort.
Thank you. Before we go, I didn’t ask you and I’m curious, how do you define productivity and why?
I would say being able to stay focused on the task that you want to stay focused on for a discreet period of time. That’s for me. I have my planner right here. I’ve blocked out the times of the day. I’m like, “I’m going to do this one thing.” For me, that is so satisfying. If I can do 60 to 90 minutes focused on one thing and I can block everything else out, to me that feels productive.
It feels productive to me too.
Tell the audience where they can find out more about you.
You can follow me on Twitter, Instagram, or LinkedIn at @ErikKorem. AIM7 is not in the app store. We’re in what’s called private beta. You sign up. We run cohorts every two weeks. We let people in. They get four Zoom calls with me and my team on building adaptive capacity. They get access to this amazing app. It’s a pretty white-glove experience.
Very cool. I’ll be signing up and checking it out for sure. Thank you so much for being here and sharing those pillars and what people can do by taking those small steps.
Thank you so much for having me. I appreciate it.
Thank you all for being here. That’s all it takes. Just pick one thing, one of those five pillars to work on. Don’t pick them all, just pick one. What’s the one that’s going to make the biggest difference for you? Is it getting another 30 minutes to 60 minutes of sleep? Would that give you more energy and more power? Maybe it would be cutting out sugar or coffee. What is it for you that you know you wanted to do it? You know what it is. Pick that one thing and take one little step. That’s all we’re asking today. Take one little step in one of those pillars.
Thank you all for being here. My name is Penny Zenker. This is Take Back Time. Don’t forget to subscribe, leave us a review, contact me, and let me know what you want to hear more about. I haven’t been asking that. I’m going to be doing some short clips that I’m doing just myself without a guest, giving some tips here and there that’ll be spread out throughout the session. Let me know what you want to hear about. It was great being here with you all. We will see you next time. This is Take Back Time. Bye, everyone.
About Dr. Erik Korem
Dr. Erik is a sports scientist with a passion for solving the data-to-action gap that exists in the wearable tech and mHealth space. Prior to founding AIM7, I spent over 15 years working as a sports scientist and a High-Performance director in collegiate and professional football. I hold a doctoral degree from the University of Kentucky in exercise science with a research emphasis on how sleep impacts the brain’s ability to adapt to stress.
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