This is the human function curve, the model which underlies what I wrote about our sense of unbreakability yesterday.
Performance (the capacity to act effectively on what we intend) is shown on the vertical axis. The horizontal axis shows what happens as stress or bodily arousal increases.
Some features of this graph that are worth noticing.
(1) The anabolic phase
Up until the inflection point in the middle of the graph, performance increases as stress increases. Some people call this ‘good stress’. It’s a function of our active engagement, our awakeness to what we’re doing, and our care.
In straightforward terms, the more we care and the more engaged and active we get, the more our capacity to act effectively increases. In this phase the body is in an anabolic state, actively supporting its own growth, energy, and self-maintenance.
And with sufficient attention to cycles of self-care, rest, exercise, and support – which help us stay towards the left side of the curve – it can be possible to remain in the anabolic phase over long periods.
(2) The catabolic phase
But there is a certain level of stress and activity, which differs for each of us, when the body’s response changes. In this catabolic or over-extended phase, the body starts to break down its own structure in order to supply the energy that’s required.
Just past the inflection point – if we notice – it’s still possible to restore ourselves by stopping and taking exquisite care. Sleep, appropriate and nourishing food, rest, and attention from others can return us to our self-generating capacities.
(3) Tipping past exhaustion
Because we’ve experienced increasing performance with increasing effort, and because we live in a culture which pays the body scant attention and seriously underestimates the need for renewing practices, we readily misinterpret what’s going on in the catabolic phase.
We think that our shrinking capacity is because we’re not trying hard enough – and our extra efforts push us to the right on the graph, exactly the direction that will cause us most harm.
What works in the anabolic phase is totally inappropriate for the catabolic phase. Here, the more we try the more we damage ourselves and the more our capacity decreases.
The appropriate move at this stage is to stop. Completely.
But stopping, admitting we are not perfect, letting on to our vulnerability, asking for help – all of these are considered undesirable or impossible by so many of us.
Just when we most need to get on to our own humanity and physical limits, just when recovery without serious damage is still possible, we push on.
(4) Towards ill-health and breakdown
But they need me. But I’ll fail my performance review. But everyone is working this hard. But it’s the end of the quarter. But that project is about to ship. But it’s not possible to stop.
But I’ll be letting them down.
But you don’t understand.
If we continue, as so many of us do, our bodies cannot cope any more. We get struck with a fever, an infection, or a much much more serious condition.
In this phase, let’s be clear, we put our ongoing capacity – and our lives – at profound risk. Though it rarely feels that way because, let’s face it, I’ve been ok so far.
And even though it’s abundantly clear that what’s required is taking care of ourselves, and insisting those around us take care of themselves too, so many of us continue to tell ourselves that it’s a luxury, an indulgence, and something we’ll get to only someday.