It’s safe to say these have been challenging times, with most of us suffering from an increased amount of distraction or lack of focus at the very least. How can we create more agile brains to manage our emotions and improve our overall physical well-being during times of stress? Recently, The Rubin Museum hosted a virtual event discussing simple acts to energize your brain and increase neuroplasticity with MIT Sloan faculty and neuroscientist, Dr. Tara Swart. We recapped some of the valuable lessons she shared in case you missed it.
Neuroplasticity is the ability of neural networks in the brain to change through growth and reorganization. This happens rapidly during our formative years as we learn to walk, talk, think critically, etc. However, active growth drops off after the age of 25, which means as we get older, we need to make a more concentrated effort in making our brains more flexible. The good news is that by forcing our brain to change, we are automatically able to handle any change more easily (planned or not) when it happens.
Dr. Swart emphasizes that it’s important to set up conditions that encourage neuroplasticity. Here are some ways to get started:
Get Your Zs: Sleep allows our brain to complete its emotional and psychological processing. Dr. Swart recommends getting seven to nine hours of sleep per night. Consistency is just as important as quality and quantity of sleep – so make sure you’re going to bed and waking up at the same hours each day. (Yes, even on weekends).
Nourish Your Brain & Body: Eating a nutrition dense diet, including good fats and hydrating foods, helps lubricate the chemical processes in your brain to let neurons properly fire and counteract “brain fog.” One should approach food with the mindset of “What can I eat today that will help me make best decisions?” Also, make sure you’re drinking plenty of water as cortisol (your primary stress hormone) can literally dry out your system. Want an extra boost? Take vitamins and probiotic supplements.
Shake It Off: Crack open a window for fresh air and try not to be completely sedentary during the day. This might take more effort than usual, as many of us are working from home and experiencing cold winters. Still, it’s good to get some type of daily exercise, even if it’s not your normal routine. A brisk walk around the block after lunch or some jumping jacks in your living room can work wonders.
Just Breathe: Yoga or meditation can help regulate your mind-body connection. Nowadays, there are several apps out there so you can do this anytime/anywhere. Studies have shown that just twelve minutes a day of meditation can significantly increase your mental resiliency. Even if meditation or yoga isn’t your “thing” – just checking on your breath several times a day can help. When we’re stressed, we tend to hold our breath – so maybe set an alarm every hour to take some deep breathing breaks where you exhale for longer than you inhale. (Some apps and smart watches offer breathing reminders as well.)
Dr. Swart stresses this is not the year to change one predominant behavior by 10%. Instead, you want to focus on embedding micro-habits into your routine – changing ten things by 1% each – and then you can feel well-resourced to tackle something bigger down the road. Some micro-habit changes can include things as simple as, drinking an extra glass of water a day, going to bed 30 minutes early, or adding an extra five minutes to your daily exercise routine.
Lastly, it’s important to conduct self-checks on what you’re feeling physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. Due to the brain body connection, if you’re compromised in any of these one areas, it can show up elsewhere. For example, emotional stress (anxiety) showing up physically (insomnia). So continue to focus on these connections to build your agility and neuroplasticity. Once you start, even with small micro-habits, you can make long lasting changes that will benefit you personally and professionally.
You may be interested in the following courses by Dr. Tara Swart:
- Applied Neuroscience: Unleashing Brain Power for You and Your People (live online)
- Neuroscience for Business (self-paced online)
- Neuroscience for Leadership (live online)