Recently, I was meeting with a client who has been dealing with anxiety. A stressful professional career, a baby on the way (their first!) and other relevant issues have all contributed to my client’s proclivity towards anxiousness. And now enter the Corona virus pandemic on top of everything else – it’s no wonder that our levels of personal anxiety are at an all-time high, becoming in fact the new normal. But does it have to be that way? Although I counsel from a faith-based perspective and encourage clients to first and foremost lean daily on their personal faith as a means of dealing with anxiousness, I’ve also asked myself what tools are available to help my clients deal with the ever-increasing levels of anxiety? I recently encountered an online post entitled “Why You Need to Give Your Brain a Break” by Debbie Hampton. Debbie is a brain injury survivor and presents an interesting perspective on brain health, which correlates directly to an individual’s anxiety level. Much of what I share in this article is borrowed from her.
It goes without saying that our brains today, especially in light of our health pandemic, are being literally overwhelmed with information. The conflux of the internet, social media, television, smart phones and yes, even print media (still) all contribute to this overload. The amount of information presented to us daily is staggering, and much more than our minds are able to sort, process and comprehend. As Hampton points out, “most Americans sprint through life, working 10 hours a day, doing the same thing all day long. Then, they come home and spend hours on the computer doing more work, playing on their phone, watching TV, or engaging in some other mind stimulating activity. After getting too little sleep, they jump out of bed only to do it over again.” Is it any wonder that we’re all walking around feeling anxious, worried and upset? Additionally, adding to this overload is the anxiety created by the Corona pandemic. It’s a source of fear and uncertainty for the multitudes. It’s as if we can’t help but be overcome with anxiousness, can we? But are there steps we can take to effectively reduce our anxiety and better equip us to deal with so many day-to-day unknowns?
In her article, Hampton suggests that one solution is to give our brains a break. She notes that our brain never gets a break, so we have to be intentional about giving it one. You may not have ever considered this, but your brain is an organism and gets tired – just like muscles – and can’t go indefinitely without some rest. The brain’s ultradian rhythm provides for no more than about two hours of attention span before “bottoming out” and needing a break. By working within these mind limitations instead of against them we are ultimately more productive, creative, and innovative. Ok, you might be saying. I can sign up for brain breaks. But just how does one go about giving their brain a break?
Hampton offers up several simple suggestions for giving you brain a brief but beneficial holiday:
According to Hampton, research shows that being outdoors and, in the sunshine, activates different brain regions and also increases your production of Vitamin D and serotonin not to mention how good it feels.
Just as exercise benefits the muscles of your body, it also benefits your brain. It’s one of the best things you can do to improve your mental health. Even if you’re limited by your location, you can still take a brief walk, take the stairs or park farther away from your destination. You can take five minutes and stretch, do some yoga postures, jumping jacks or push-ups.
Take a nap
According to Hampton, neuroscientist Dr. Sarah McKay notes in “The neurobiology of the afternoon nap,” a brief nap not only reduces sleepiness, but it also improves cognitive function and enhances short-term memory and mood.
Hampton suggests that meditation (think also prayer) increases activity in the brain’s frontal lobes, the rational brain, and reduces activity in the amygdala, the fear center. Science has determined that meditation stimulates activity in regions of the left prefrontal cortex—an area of the brain associated with positive emotions while decreasing activity in parts of the brain related to negative emotions.
I like this one in particular. If only for a few minutes several times a day, silence your phone and don’t answer it. Let the computer go to sleep. Turn off the TV or music. Silence is good for your brain.
Let yourself do nothing for a while and just let your mind wander. It may even make you more productive. Research shows that “creative incubation” happens during mind-wandering. You are more likely to problem-solve successfully if you let your mind wander and then come back to the challenge.
Take a mental holiday
As opposed to freely letting your mind wander, visualize images that you find relaxing and happy. The thoughts, words, and pictures that run through your mind have physiological consequences for your body. In your brain, there’s not much difference between actually being at the beach and visualizing it.
While it goes without saying that we can’t totally eliminate all anxiety from our lives, we can take proactive steps to help reduce our anxiety, ultimately resulting in a more peaceful day-to-day existence. So, give your brain a break. You and your brain will be glad you did.