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?

 

Electrocuting Yourself and Others

My husband and I celebrated our 21st anniversary last month and, as a gift, my parents thought it would be nice for us to replace the bare wires hanging from our home office ceiling with an actual light fixture.  (Do you know how hard it is to find a decent light fixture with a pull chain?)

We were delighted.  My parents suggested that we may want to exchange the fixture for something more to our liking so we unpacked the fixture and held it up to the ceiling to see how it looked and

GZZZZTTT

…the exposed wires hanging from the ceiling touched, causing a startling spark and some equally startling foul language. Thankfully no one was hurt and within minutes my husband had capped the wires with those neat little twisty wire cappers.  All was well.

Many of us walk around with our own exposed wires just ready and waiting for some poor, unsuspecting soul to touch them off.  We call them “triggers” or “hot buttons” and when someone presses them…GZZZZTTTT!  Whether it’s the guy on the highway cutting you off, someone interrupting you, chronic tardiness or a disrespectful comment, we’ve all experienced that shot of adrenaline that tells us that our buttons have – yet again – been pressed.

Interestingly, while we accept the fact that electricity is conducted through wires and that they must be capped to avoid unnecessary or uncontrolled current, we seldom apply the same mechanics to ourselves.  It’s the other guy’s fault for doing the stupid thing.  She MADE us feel angry/sad/hurt/embarrassed.  They deserved our wrath in response to their lateness.

In fact, our personal wires – or hotbuttons – are unique to us.  Not everyone is wired to be aggravated by the same things.  Not everyone is annoyed by tardiness, not everyone is enraged by stupid driving habits.  So the currents flowing through these wires are our own.  And it’s our responsibility to know what those currents are and how to effectively manage them.  Because if we let our wires flail around uncapped, we find our hotbuttons get pressed more and more often.  And if our hotbuttons are constantly pressed we get worn down and either lash out or check out; or we decide that things are hopeless; or we decide that everyone else is at fault and we become isolated.

These wires – if figurative – are real and they originally existed in our brain to protect us from danger.  Today, with information overload, the fast pace of technology and the ever-more-demanding social and economic landscape, we need to become better managers of our brain’s threat response system.  To avoid hotbutton overload, here are a few ideas:

1. Give yourself a break.  Do something fun or relaxing – even for a short time (though the longer you can responsibly have fun or relax, the better).  The overloaded brain needs some quiet time.

2. Put words to your hotbuttons.  Instead of going straight for the jugular of the other guy (“idiot driver”, “lazy colleague”, “disrespectful oaf”…), PAUSE for just a second to name the impact of whatever just happened.  For instance: “Being cut off on the highway was scary and dangerous”; “When kept waiting, I worry. “; “Hearing disrespectful comments is embarrassing”. This lets your brain’s threat response system know that the rational part of you is aware of the threat and can handle it from here.

3. Ask yourself what you want instead.  “To get to work safely”, “to be in control of my schedule”, or “to be unaffected by others’ comments” are examples.  These “insteads” engage your the rational part of your brain and sets you on a path of positive solution rather than letting your threat response system go off half cocked.  Left to it’s own devices, your threat response would likely be hopping around shaking its fist saying: “run that idiot off the road”, “make the late person pay for their laziness” or “punch that person in the nose – that’ll teach ’em!”.  As gratifying as it may feel to flip someone the bird, it has no positive effect on you, your brain, or the other person’s driving habits.

4. Have fun and relax.  Life is extremely short.  Dr. Phil’s guests should not be our role models.  No one is waking up in the morning plotting how to ruin our day (and if there IS someone doing this to you – maybe you should find different folks to hang out with).  You have more control over your own well-being than you may be aware of.

These four steps are your own neat little twisty wire cappers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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?”

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?”