All of my clients, and I believe nearly all people, would love to build a beautifully balanced life, to eat perfectly Paleo meals and be free from cravings for salt, sugar or alcohol. They'd like to sleep eight or more hours per night and wake up feeling refreshed and rejuvenated. They'd like to work out consistently except for their perfectly coordinated rest days, with always flawless technique. There would be no need for stress management, because each day would represent an oasis of fresh, colorful fruit and veggies, plenty of clear, cold water, clear mind, full heart, and joyous exercise. Chris Kresser defines these four elements: nutrition, exercise, sleep, and stress management, as the "four pillars of health," and I tend to agree with him.
Many of my clients have limited ability to focus on these four pillars because they have created a world in which they feel like they are fighting for survival - trying to make ever more money to support lifestyles ever more extravagant in cities which are ever more expensive. Fear of not having enough - money, time, accolades - drives us to enter survival mode. If you feel like you are fighting for survival, eating nutritious food, getting enough sleep, and exercising regularly can't be among your top priorities. In survival mode, all you care about is living to fight another day.
When we exist in survival mode, our bodies respond with cortisol and adrenaline, potentially fueled by caffeine. We are constantly ready to fight - no time for sleep - we stay up late and wake up early. We go from email to phone call to meeting to flight to traffic to bills. No time for nutritious meals - we forget to eat until we're starving, and then we eat whatever quick and easy calorie bomb will get us through. No time for exercise - we sit in a screen-induced trance, forgetting to even move for hours on end, slouching further into our chairs, and sagging into our standing desks, wondering why our atrophying bodies hurt everywhere. No time for stress management - we can't even breathe, much less breathe deeply, and we can't imagine finding time to go outside or play with dogs and children with no agenda. Every single moment feels urgent, critical, and time-sensitive.
If you are existing in survival mode, there are two things to evaluate: what do I really need/want, and am I doing what I need to be doing/can do to get there? Through evaluating your priorities, you can sift through the things that are meaningful - the things that bring you joy or fulfillment, and/or the things that are necessary to ensure the survival of your family - and make choices to ensure that the things taking your time or money, are also bringing you joy or fulfillment, and contributing to your survival.
Once we've fixed the foundation, and are no longer feeling threatened, we can then focus more effectively on building health. These four critical elements enable us to thrive, and the absence of any or all of these components will lead to feeling gross in the short-term, and being sick in the long term.
The foundation relates to basic survival.
The pillars relate to optimal health.
Then we can focus on the future.
Too many people confuse the roof and the foundation. You can't fight for the roof in survival mode as though your life depends on it, without crumbling in the pillars. You can't realistically talk about the luxury of fulfillment or achieving lofty goals if you're unsure whether you will actually live to see the day that you experience them.
Your life plan should absolutely ensure your foundation is solid - that you have enough money to keep a roof over your head, food on your table, and time to enjoy the people you love. If you're truly stressed because of flaws in your foundation, pay close attention to that - manage your income, your lifestyle, and your expectations so they're in sync.
If you've established that you're striving for goals that represent luxuries versus necessities,slow down, stop stressing, and focus on building the pillars. Learn about nutrition - food quality and quantity, meal prep and cooking. Get enough sleep - turn off the lights, put down the phone. Exercise regularly - find a routine you like and stick to it consistently. Manage stress, but only to recognize when it's overtaking you, and decide whether it's your foundation that's stressing you, or your roof. If it's the roof, take a step back, do more deep breathing, and realize that you're only one person, and Rome wasn't built in a day.