Five New Year Resolutions for Your Brain

Calm.  Clear.  Creative. That’s what you can be when your brain is happy.

When we are stressed and feeling overwhelmed, our brain is in threat response.  When we’re in threat response, our ability to think rationally and be creative is compromised.

Here are five things you can do to make your brain happy in 2012:

1. Constructive Venting: Something bothering you?  Vent it! Those of you familiar with Motivation Factor know that we use this technique as part of our Energy Drainer exercise to help calm the brain’s threat response and prepare us to generate forward-looking options and actions.  In order to think rationally and creatively about a problem, you’ve got to get out of fight/flight mode.  Take a few moments to list all the ways the problem is affecting you or causing you frustration. Who or what is letting you down?  What are you putting up with?  Write until you run out of steam.  That’s a sign that your amygdala is getting calm and you’re more ready to think.

2. Password Protect Your Hot Buttons: My phone had a habit of reaching out and touching someone on its own before I password protected it.  Our hot buttons do the same thing sometimes.  When someone inadvertently presses one, before we know it, we’re lashing out at them for some perceived offense – without any rational intent on our part.  Much like unintentionally dialing a client at 3am in their time zone, our hot-button-fueled, knee jerk reactions put our brain into threat response.  To avoid hot button mayhem (and to keep relationships healthy), practice the half-sec-pause.  It takes just a half second to name the offense (disrespected, embarrassed, dishonest, disorganized, etc.)  – like a password – to have a positive and calming effect on the brain’s stress response mechanism.  Then, you can respond just a tad more rationally.

3. Zone Out: “Meditation” can sound too heady and unattainable.  Relax.  Seriously, just relax.  That’s all your brain wants.  You know the difference between wearing a tight belt and being in sweat pants?  Picture your brain taking off that tight belt and putting on a nice pair of fleece sweats.  Aaaahhhhh.  That’s it.  Just get comfy and zone out for 5 minutes or more.  Recent studies show that insights (those “aha” moments) only happen when the brain is quiet.  Maybe you’ll have more of them.

4. Do What You Love: Did you know your brain lights up when you do what you’re best at?  Doing what you love also triggers feel good hormones, putting us in better moods and states of mind.  Are you creative? Bring more creativity into your work and life.  Love winning? Compete more.  Enjoy communing with nature?  Get the heck outside.  Doing more of what you love is restorative.  It’s good for the soul – and the brain.

5. Ask (and Answer) “Why?”: Why do you do what you do?  The best cocktail for the brain is made by combining equal part skill and challenge (shake, garnish with purpose and serve).  The brain is most balanced and alert when we are doing something that a. we have some skill at (ie we’re not totally overwhelmed or in over our heads); b. challenges us to learn or stretch (ie we’re not totally bored) and c. has some meaning to us.  Whether that meaning is in the doing itself (“I help save lives”) or an indirect result of the doing (“this awful job feeds my precious family”).   Whatever you do, are you doing it purposefully?  Your brain likes that best.

What do YOU do to keep YOUR brain healthy?



When I was about ten years old my family took a trip to Misquamicut in Rhode Island – a classic New England beach boasting hot sand, pounding surf and a never-ending supply of body-boarding wave perfection.

The waves were taller than I was and they came crashing one after another after another creating a frothy and frenetic threshold into the fun.  As we flung ourselves toward the next wave, timing was everything.  To catch it just right was to feel the whole ocean beneath you, speeding you forward as you crested and sloshed into shore.

Scrambling to our feet there was no time to savor the victory before the powerful backwash threatened to suck us under and the next wave was upon us.  It was real-time, physical, thrilling fun.

There have been many times in my work that I’ve felt a similar rush – when the waves of problems and fires and demands come fast and furious and I’m tested to the limits of my skill and stamina.  I’ve loved those times.  I even grew a bit addicted to them.  The adrenaline rush of accomplishing the impossible; the “I can do it” mentality.

Misquamicut is also known for its challenging undertow. Because of the beach’s steep grade, the backwash (the subsurface current of water that returns to the sea after a wave breaks) is pretty powerful.  And with so many waves coming in, it can often cause an unsuspecting swimmer to be knocked down under the water and beaten to a sandy pulp before being (hopefully) spat out to enjoy her next wave.

After a particularly fabulous wave run, I had waited too long to scramble out of the way.  As I tried to get to my feet, the undertow kept pulling the sand out from under me.  The next wave slammed down over me, knocking me flat and pulling me further from shore.  Unable to break the surface before the next wave crashed down, I was tossed and flipped under the water as I felt my face and limbs scraped against the ocean floor.  Starting to panic, I tried to figure out which way was up.  I needed to breath.  I needed to stand.  I need to get out of this. Does anyone even see that I’ve gone under?!?

While it may be gratifying to solve a million problems, douse a million fires and still stand to shout “BRING IT ON!”, those waves can get the best of you if you’re not careful.

Here are some tips:

1. Don’t be an adrenaline junkie. It’s easy to get swept up in the urgency and the chaos of your work environment.  If you want emergencies, become an EMT or a pediatric intensive care nurse.  Know your work, understand your goals, perform triage and move on.

2. Pay attention to your resources.  YOU are a resource.  If that resource is tired, distracted, overwhelmed or unhealthy, it will not serve you well.  Pay attention to your own health, strength and focus.  If your resources need restoring, do it.  It is irresponsible to do otherwise.

3. Have a buddy system.  Whether it’s your manager, colleague, coach or family member, having someone with whom you can review what’s going well (and what’s not) is invaluable. Often we’re the last ones to notice that we’re about to be swamped by the next wave.  Good to have a spotter.

4. Relax.  When we’re in the froth it’s natural to tense up against the onslaught and fight your way through.  It may be counter-intuitive but the best thing to do when the waves are getting the best of you is to relax.  Take a moment or an hour or a day to step back, gain perspective, go with the flow, follow a lead.  Our panicked reaction is not representative of our smartest, most creative self.

The ocean spat me out.  I was shaken, relieved, embarrassed, and a little miffed that no one had noticed that I had nearly drowned.



Forget Positive Thinking

We’ve been beaten repeatedly about the head and shoulders in recent years to remember to “think positively”.  Woe to the team member who voices concern.  The trusty contrarian is now disdained and the nay sayers are summarily silenced.

Ironically, by squashing these Negative Nellies we are slowing down positive progress toward our most critical goals.

Research shows that our human brains are wired against change.  Introducing a new direction (information, competition, pace, etc.) causes a physiological stress reaction against the change.

The Value of Venting

Interestingly, one of the fastest ways to reduce the emergency brake effect of this stress reaction is to allow a bit of venting.  “What don’t we like about this news?” “What problems will it cause?”  “What can go wrong?” “Why is it stupid?” What may not have been taken into consideration?”

Our stress response is linked to survival.  Adrenaline is triggered which sets off flight/flight/freeze behavior.  At work this takes the form of the contrarian who fights back, the star team member who dusts off her resume to prepare for flight, the long timer who’ll bide his time, frozen in place.

Brain scan technology shows that just naming the threat – thinking it, saying it or, even more effective, writing it down – counteracts the threat response.  By giving credence to the stress factor and addressing it, we return out of threat mode and can enter a more rational state.

Once all the big bad stuff has been vented, we are in a physiologically more receptive place to ask: “How will we handle this?”