What the brain really needs
The lead up to the holidays can be busy and stressful.
Even without the holidays, there’s always something or someone needing our attention. Although busyness is sometimes unavoidable, it can get us out of balance.
In order to help us get everything done, the body releases higher levels of chemicals like cortisol and adrenaline. But research has shown that high levels of these chemicals affect the brain, shifting the neural patterns from a slower, reasoned response (from the prefrontal cortex) to a rapid, instinctive reaction (largely in the amygdala).
Being busy and focused in task-mode (e.g., remembering to-do lists, multi-tasking and making decisions) not only takes a lot of energy – the brain will literally burn more calories – but it can change the brain’s connections away from patterns associated with greater thought and regulation to ones of reactivity.
Given the craziness of our schedules and the overwhelm we can feel, if our brains could write a holiday-wish list, I think at the top – along with sleep and healthy food – would be the space to do nothing, to just be.
Doing nothing is like a reset for the brain, a settling of the snow globe, and a reconnecting to different parts of the brain that need some more use. How do we do it?
Downtime is about giving your mind the space to wander. You’re alert but not actively engaged in any task or thought that requires focus.
In downtime, the body has no need for the rush of chemicals like adrenaline or cortisol that it needs when we’re on the go. It’s a signal to your brain that it can slow down and get out of task-mode (sometimes called the task positive network).
During downtime, the brain works in a different way, engaging a network called the default mode network (DMN). When in the DMN, the brain shuts out the external world and reflects internally.
The DMN helps the brain process information about the self, about others, about the past and about the future. It helps us to make sense of the world and ourselves, and is also a place of great insight. Although an overactive DMN can be associated with anxiety and depression, with healthy connections throughout the brain, we can use the DMN for positive insights, making meaning, and connecting ourselves to others and the world around us.
Have you ever noticed that some of your best ideas come when you’re not trying to think about anything in particular? You may be in the shower or brushing your teeth, and suddenly the thought comes. That’s the DMN.
Without a task or problem to focus on, the brain can wander, make new connections and explore new ideas. We just need to give it a chance, with more downtime.
Similar to downtime, mindfulness helps the brain get out of doing and task-mode; but unlike downtime, the mind is focused.
Mindfulness can take various forms and is about keeping our attention focused in the present moment in a particular way. Forms include focused attention (e.g., on the breath, a sound or a sensation), open awareness (e.g. focusing on your present-moment awareness), and kind intention (e.g. focusing on kind intentions towards self and others, also called compassion or lovingkindness practice).
Mindfulness is often a formal practice of sitting for a period of time with a chosen focus. (The usual recommended time is 20 minutes a day, but positive results have also been shown from 12 minutes a day.) However, we can also have moments of mindfulness at any time of the day by simply pausing and paying full attention to the present moment.
More and more research is showing how much mindfulness can benefit our brains, and our bodies. For instance, studies have linked a mindfulness practice to:
– reduced cortisol levels;
– improved immune system functions;
– improved cardiovascular system functions;
– a healthier prefrontal cortex (PFC);
– an improved hippocampus (which is associated with memory); and
– an amygdala that becomes less activated in response to stress.
(For more on the research, see studies from Dr. Sara Lazar at Harvard and references from Aware by Dr. Dan Siegel.)
Even short-term meditation training can improve attention and self-regulation, according to recent research.
Getting started with a practice is as easy as deciding how much time you have, and finding an online meditation or app. to suit your needs (e.g., Insighttimer.com or Calm.com). For a practice that incorporates all 3 forms of mindfulness training, see Dan Siegel’s Wheel of Awareness.
With practice, you will strengthen the brain’s neural connections, particularly in the all-important PFC, and you and your brain will begin to reap the many benefits. As Dan Siegel says, “Where attention goes, neural firing flows, and neural connections grow.”
Given all our brains do for us each day of our lives, isn’t it time we did something to give back?
The holidays are a great time to schedule some serious downtime and mindfulness. So take a rest from doing, and just be. Do it for your brain, and your well-being.
Photo by Evelin Horvath on Unsplash