After two years of pandemic stress, we now have back-in-the world stress, which comes in many different flavours, and is a lot noisier. For a great number of people, Covid stress caused health anxiety, job insecurity or lockdown-induced loneliness. Now we’re returning to normal, this is being replaced by (or in some cases, still coexists with) the demands of “working from work” and rebooted social relationships. None of this is exactly helped by the extra layer of worry caused by the rising cost of living.
Dr Sara Mednick is a professor of psychology at the University of California, and an expert in sleep and cognition. “Before the pandemic, we were pushing ourselves to ‘do do do’ as much as possible,” she says. “Then the Covid period arrived, which was terrifying and debilitating for many. We were thrown off balance. Our natural rhythms were disrupted – we had to create our own schedule of work, home-schooling kids, exercise and eating, and it was stressful in a different way. Finally, we are stepping into the post-pandemic phase, we have to re-acclimatise.” Many of the slower-life lessons we’ve learned for the past two years have been good for us, says Mednick. “We have to find a way to hang on to these, and go back into our old lives with a new, healthier balance.”
The result is Mednick’s new book: The Power of the Downstate: Recharge Your Life Using Your Body’s Own Restorative Systems. Mednick’s premise is that our days are divided into two alternating states. “We are rhythmic animals,” she says. “First of all, we prioritise time and space for activity, using our muscles, and thinking – a period of high metabolism.” Mednick terms this the “upstate”: rushing about, at work, exercising, on social media. Each upstate phase is inevitably followed by a period of “downstate”, where a person repairs, replenishes and gets ready for the next upstate.
“The downstate refers to a wide range of recovery systems you can tap into on a daily basis to restore your most vital functions at a cellular level,” says Mednick, “giving your heart, brain and metabolism a rest, repairing overtrained or inflamed tissue, and allowing yourself some time to process… your emotions, memories, and carefully made decisions.”
The purest form of the downstate is sleep. During Mednick’s research, she discovered a significant association between sleep and cognitive improvement. By monitoring a combination of EEG (brain) and ECG (heart) activity, her results showed clearly that her subjects woke up more alert and energised after a short nap. If sleep and autonomic activity (your body’s automatic functions) had a restorative downstate, she wondered, what other systems might have them, too – so contributing to a longer, healthier life?
“My attention turned to big-picture questions about how all our rejuvenating subsystems – not just sleep, but cardiovascular, circadian (body clock) and metabolic – fit together,” she says. “In particular, I wanted to figure out why these systems seem to simultaneously fall apart in older adults, and what these insights could tell us about the same, but milder, cognitive changes that occur in midlife.” She also flags what many of us know already: too much stress causes short-term mental health distress, and raises the risk of long-term physical health issues such as cardiovascular problems.
The book’s major premise is that you do not have to be asleep to achieve the downstate: you can learn to behave in a way that harnesses your body’s natural restorative processes – balancing the “rev” with the “restore”.
Or, as Mednick puts it: “The downstate is the time for housekeeping the brain’s toxic by-products of everyday living. It’s your opportunity to plug yourself into a metaphorical outlet and power back-up.” The goal, she says, is make the most of our restorative processes via four systems, or “domains”: our autonomic nervous system, sleep, exercise and food – then encourage them to work together to boost our overall wellbeing, helping us to live longer, and more healthily.