Tuesday, 17 January 2012
7 Daily Tricks to Fight a Frazzled Brain
Your poor, overwhelmed brain. In today’s multitasking, goal-oriented world, it operates at a ridiculously fast pace, bouncing tirelessly from one thought to another. This non-stop mental activity can be harmful to your mind and your body, but too few people know how to properly care for their mental muscle, says David Rock, DProf, director of the NeuroLeadership Institute in Sydney, Australia. “A healthy brain gives you the capacity to think clearly and be creative and innovative,” says Dr. Rock. “You’ll also be more resilient to everyday stressors and feel happier overall.” Rock and his colleague Dan Siegel, MD, associate clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of California-Los Angeles School of Medicine, recently developed what they call the Healthy Mind Platter (a riff on the U.S. government’s new MyPlate icon for healthy eating). It includes seven daily habits your brain needs to function at its best today, and which may stave off dementia and other serious health issues later in life. Just as the right balance of fruits, veggies, grains, protein, and dairy helps fuel your body, this mix of activities helps bolster your brainpower. Focus Time Has a co-worker ever called your name three times because you were concentrating so hard you didn’t hear him? Your mind loves such focused moments because they help you learn. “The brain is continually reorganizing itself through experience,” says Dr. Siegel. “Paying close attention keeps the connections between brain cells strong and continually growing.” Boost your intake: Getting your brain to focus is like keeping tabs on a toddler in a toy store, Rock says. “The brain is very easily distracted, constantly flitting from one thing to the next,” he says, so you have to make an effort to eliminate disruptions. When you need to focus on a work project, turn down the volume on your email so the pinging doesn’t divert you. Tuck away your BlackBerry when you’re reading for pleasure so you can dig into the novel’s plot without distraction. Play Time You’re a long way from the playground and make-believe days, but adult minds still crave the stimulation that comes from being unstructured and spur-of-the-moment. “Play time literally means just doing spontaneous things, which sparks new connections in the brain,” says Rock. “It’s really about novelty.” He says new activities stretch your brain in different ways, which may help stave off age-related cognitive decline. Boost your intake: Start by simply saying yes more often: Take your girlfriend up on her invite for coffee instead of automatically declining because you’re too busy. Try a Zumba class instead of your usual treadmill routine. Scrap your typical Saturday round of errands to check out a new museum exhibit with your family. Connecting Time If you’re staring at a computer screen right now, you know that people spend so much time disconnected from others and nature — we’re online, driving, watching TV, or doing any number of things that don’t involve responding to the emotions on someone else’s face or listening to the wind as it moves through the trees. Such personal connections release stress-busting, mood-boosting brain chemicals like oxytocin and serotonin. And spending time in nature can lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol. “People need to connect to other people, and to the Earth,” says Rock. Studies have even linked social isolation to a greater risk of dementia and breast cancer, and more damaging and deadly strokes. Boost your intake: Make a phone call or visit a colleague’s desk instead of firing off an email. Plan a date night with your partner — no peeking at cell phones allowed. Simply sit for five minutes before bed petting your dog or cat and watching his face grow more content with each soft stroke. Embrace nature by eating dinner outside or walking in a neighborhood park instead of hitting the gym. Physical Time Your brain on exercise is a healthier, happier one. Aerobic activities flood the brain with its most important fuel: oxygen. The result, Rock says, is a flush of mental energy. Exercise also releases chemicals that help the brain produce new cells, which may improve memory and learning. It also reduces the risk of stroke and can improve memory. Boost your intake: Even if you’re not an avid gym-goer, simply walking 40 minutes three times a week can combat age-related memory loss and improve cognitive function, according to a University of Illinois study. Make a walking date with a girlfriend and you’ll get connecting time and physical time at once. Take the stairs at work instead of the elevator, and make a point to get up from your desk to stretch your legs (and mind) every hour or so. Time In We feel things all day long — frustration over the traffic jam on the way to work, a twinge of envy over your sister’s fancy vacation plans — but are often too busy to really think about why we feel the way we do. “Time In” is a moment of internal reflection to contemplate your feelings. This practice also helps build those neuronal connections that Siegel says could reduce your risk of dementia. It’s just another way of putting your brain to work. Boost your intake: Activities such as meditation, yoga, and prayer encourage focus on internal thoughts, says Rock. People who meditate regularly have more brain activity in the areas responsible for empathy and memory, according to a study from Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. If that’s not your style, pick an issue to ponder when you’re walking or resting in bed before you fall asleep. Be warned: The mind likes to wander, so this is harder than it sounds. But the brain does love a challenge. Down Time During down time — the opposite of focus time — you let your mind meander. Down time is passive and unstructured; it allows the brain to rest and recharge. Think of your muscles after a strenuous workout — they need to rest in order to repair and gain strength. The same is true for your brain circuitry. Boost your intake: Let your brain savor down time when it naturally crops up. When your mind wanders after lunch, indulge that daydream for five minutes before you return to the project at hand. “Down time is when you’re completely non-goal oriented — sitting in the back of a car staring out a window, just allowing thoughts to just occur,” says Rock. Sleep Time Anyone who’s ever felt sluggish and cranky after a spotty night’s sleep knows how desperately the brain needs sleep to function optimally. Sleep deprivation spikes levels of cortisol, which lowers immunity, fogs memory, and stunts creativity. Boost your intake: Give yourself a firm bedtime so you’re not tempted to cram in “just one more” chore. If you tend to toss and turn before falling asleep, making a list for what you need to get done the next day may help you feel less overwhelmed. Put your two or three “must-dos” at the top and the rest of the “nice-to-dos” at the bottom. These 7 are the Fight a frazzled brain.