The clock is ticking, the deadlines are looming, and the stress is mounting. We’ve all been there. Persistence, inertia, determination, or a combination of the three keep you trapped in the hamster wheel. Sadly, the harder you try to get ahead, the more overwhelmed you feel. Pretty soon, you're in overload mode.
The human brain is amazingly complex, but it isn't designed to operate nonstop under high levels of stress or fear. And, you don’t have to be a neuroscientist to know when it isn’t performing at peak performance. As it turns out, all those smart guys back in the lab have discovered a few simple, yet intentional, strategies to enable us to rewire it when we need to.
Here are 5 simple ways to get out of the ditch and back into the zone.
1. Move the body and the brain will follow.
Over the last 100 years, the connection between the mind and body has been explored in depth. Today, neuroscientists agree that motor activity and cognition are powerfully linked. Not only do we know that physical activity increases neuron growth that contributes to overall cognition, but there is also a direct correlation between movement and memory, attention, and language.
The cerebellum controls most of our gross motor functions. It takes up one tenth of the brain by volume but contains more than half of the neurons in the brain. In addition, most of the neural pathways from the cerebellum are outbound connecting to other parts of the brain that control spatial perception, attention, vision, and memory. Fire up the cerebellum and you’ll activate those other brain regions you need to be working.
This doesn’t require a trip to the gym, although the more you increase your heart rate, the more oxygen you send to the brain. However, something a simple as a quick walk around the building or a trip up and down the stairs can wake up the cerebellum and enable you to refocus.
2. Fire up your favorite playlist.
Music and brain function are inextricably linked. Hearing an old song from high school can transport you back in time before you can even remember the name of the group who sang it. The link between music and memory has been applied to improve language learning and even advance the study of traumatic brain injuries.
One reason why music has such a powerful impact on cognition and memory is because it engages such large areas of the brain. The auditory (temporal lobe), emotional (limbic system), and motor (cerebellum) regions are all activated when the brain processes music. Whether you prefer the classical sounds of Andrea Bocelli or the country croons of Luke Bryan, engage the whole brain with music for deeper cognition and improved creative thought.
3. Get a serotonin boost.
Serotonin is an important neurochemical that plays a significant role in our moods and behavior. Over the last decade, there is a wealth of research that explores how serotonin levels affect us. The brain releases serotonin when we feel significant or important, and most antidepressants are designed to stimulate the production of it.
Surprisingly, the brain has trouble distinguishing between past achievements and current ones. Reflecting on a past accomplishment or victory can produce serotonin the same way it does in the moment. Research also correlates the practice of gratitude with serotonin production. Write down three people or things for which you’re grateful to generate a quick boost and a powerful psychological shift. A few minutes in the sunshine can also stimulate serotonin production.
4. Create a change of scenery.
The technical phrase is "episodic encoding." Encoding is the process of receiving and processing information. The human brain has a remarkable ability to process and remember pictures because they automatically engage multiple representations and associations with other knowledge we have about the world. When we create a change of scenery, we encode that cognitive experience with spatial references. The more spatial references we have, the more data points we add to the brain map created to process the information.
In addition, research shows there is a direct correlation with natural green spaces and stress reduction. Natural environments are also shown to promote recovery from mental fatigue and support executive functioning and self-regulation processes. Grab a legal pad and a pen and think through that project on a park bench. If you simply can’t leave the room, consider a seat facing the window or change seats after a break. Just seeing the room from a different vantage point can make a difference.
5. Get some sleep.
When we sleep, the brain doesn’t stop working. Instead, it sifts through the memory banks deciding what to discard and what to consolidate and save. This is an energy intensive activity that is only possible during sleep when we are processing fewer inputs and distractions.
Recent studies have shown how that inadequate or disturbed sleep patterns are associated with structural brain changes in certain regions of the frontal lobe (remember… that’s the brain region responsible for executive functioning). When we don't sleep well, proteins build up on synapses, making it harder to think, process new information, and store that information for later use. Furthermore, chronically sleeping poorly (in contrast to not enough) is associated with reduced gray matter volume in the entire brain.
Train your brain to expect sound, quality sleep by scheduling your body clock. Try to go to bed and wake up at approximately the same time each day. Avoid big meals right before bedtime as well as foods that contain a lot of sugar or caffeine. Make it a practice to clear your mind of worries or residual thoughts from the day. Do a “brain dump” in a journal, meditate, or do whatever you need to shift into relaxation mode. But give yourself permission to take a break from the pressures of the day and let your brain do it’s thing.
When we understand how the brain works, it’s quite empowering to take control over those negative functions that impact energy and performance. Like any other muscle in the body, the brain needs exercise and maintenance. A few simple intentional behaviors can give your brain a tune-up when you need it. So, fire up your favorite playlist, take a walk in the sunshine, get some sleep, and see what happens. Your brain will thank you!