No matter what trade you ply, you’ve no doubt been taught to look after your tools. If you are a chef, you sharpen your knives. If you are a lumberjack, you oil your chainsaw. If you are an astronaut, you probably make sure the tube which supplies you with oxygen hasn’t been clogged up with belly button lint that somehow went astray in zero gravity.
Our minds are our most magnificent tool, yet for some reason this phenomenal bit of circuitry is all too often neglected. We overwork our brains, deprive them of all the things they need, and generally treat them with less diligence and care than the office photocopier.
Most things will tell us when they need some attention. When your computer tires of you operating with 53 open tabs, blue spinning circles start to appear and you are forced to close things down and give it a break. When your car is on the verge of breaking down, convenient little dashboard warning lights appear to tell you it needs fuel, coolant or a trip to the mechanic.
Your brain sends its own signals. If any of the warning lights below have been appearing for you, it’s important to take notice and take action.
Warning Light 1: Cognitive fatigue
When your brain is fatigued, it stops working nearly as well it should. Suddenly you may find you can’t get your words right. You may be forgetful or make uncharacteristic errors. You may re-read the same email seven times and make no sense of it. You may be standing in a supermarket aisle staring at the 30 different types of mayonnaise and find it near impossible to make any sort of decision. If you feel you are cognitively fatigued, it is advisable not to perform surgery, operate heavy machinery or try to put together that thingamajig with the whatchamacallit because dealing with that doovywhacker turny thing is all too hard and what’s going to happen if you return to IKEA with a half-assembled IDÅSEN?
Warning Light 2: Reactivity
Tired is synonymous with cranky because when fatigued our Wise Mind clocks off and our Reactive Mind takes over. Instead of using the full faculties of our prefrontal cortex, much of the work gets left to the lymbic system, which is designed for survival rather than emotional regulation, discerning nuance and maintaining social graces. If you find you are jumpy, wound-up or have a very short fuse, it’s a sure sign you are running on empty. A little brain maintenance may be in order, particularly if you want to retain good relationships with anyone around you.
Warning Light 3: Mood Shifts
When our brains are run into the ground, our mood can quickly follow. We may start to feel down, disengaged or lethargic. We may look at the giant wall of stuff in front of us and not give a stuff about any of it. This state is unlikely to be shifted by hearing James Brown’s I Feel Good, Pharrell Williams’ Happy or Katrina and the Waves’ I’m Walking on Sunshine. Such agitating upbeat-ness may instead trigger expletives and an urge to change radio stations. Instead of relying on pop songs, performing some basic brain maintenance can help bring about a more positive state of mind.
Warning Light 4: Racing Mind
When we are trying to achieve 1001 things our brains can be kept extremely busy attempting to plan it all out. While our thoughts circle round and round like an annoying amusement park ride, we may become highly distracted and half-present. Sometimes our thoughts may start to feel very urgent or very loud and we may feel anxious or on edge. We may have difficulty getting to sleep or wake up far too early, thinking about work, chores or problems that are very unlikely to be solved under a doona at 4.00 am.
Warning Light 5: Tension
Psychological stress doesn’t stay neatly contained within our brains. Research shows that it significantly impacts our physical health and immune system. When stressed we may often experience horrible headaches and tightness in the neck and shoulders. We may start clenching our jaw or grinding our teeth at night. We may literally feel wound-up, with knots of tension in our calves, glutes or chest. Take a moment to scan your body. Hopefully you’re as loose as a goose, but if not don’t keep ignoring it.
Something important to remember
If anyone were to keep driving their car with a whole bunch of warning lights on, we would undoubtedly label them reckless. Unfortunately, humans have a tendency to treat our brains with far less care and concern than we would the average Hyundai.
It’s not because we are stupid. Often, it’s because there are some really important values that we care a lot about and want to take care of. We may really want to do well in our jobs, look after our families or succeed in our education. In service to these values, most of us have become used to self-sacrifice and pushing through. While these strategies are culturally ingrained and societally approved, they can set us up for disaster.
Remember, your brain is more valuable than your car, bike or any other machine you may own. Psychological resilience is not about ignoring all the warnings and pushing on. Rather, it is about looking after our brains and bodies so that we can effectively navigate life’s challenges and honour what matters most. Below are a few basic mind maintenance tips that can really help.
Sleeping is probably the single best thing you can do for your brain. During sleep our brains repair, build connections and detox. Prioritise sleep over work, Netflix or anything else which is enticing you to stay wide-eyed to the wee hours. If you are having trouble getting to sleep, take care of your sleep hygiene and try drifting off with a relaxing guided mindfulness meditation.
- Cut down your to-do list
If you are mentally exhausted, the annoyingly simple solution can be to do far less. Take time out, book a holiday and remove everything from your to-do list bar the bare essentials. Deligate tasks or ask for practical help with your list. Remember reaching out for support is one of our oldest and most important resilience strategies. It’s also important to go easy on yourself – research has shown self-compassion, rather than self-criticism, is a more effective motivator. If what you are regularly doing is simply not sustainable, find ways to create change rather than continue to push yourself beyond your limits.
Exercise is a natural brain booster and you don’t have to run marathons to benefit. Rather than push yourself to do something you don’t particularly enjoy, prioritise things you love, whether that’s dancing, swimming in the ocean or riding your bike. Don’t feel guilty about taking time for your favourite activity – you are also performing essential mind maintenance.
- Take a technology time-out
Many of us spend many hours each day using technology. Designed by neuroscientists to be highly attention-demanding and addictive, relentless exposure to such technology is fraught with dangers for our brains. An effective antidote is to step away from the screens and step out into nature. Pair time in nature with exercise for an even bigger brain boost.
- Fuel up
Increasingly, research is showing the links between nutrition, gut health and mental health. Fuelling up with nutritious foods can play a significant role in boosting mood, so be sure to stock up at the greengrocer. Good evidence also exists for Omega 3s, prebiotics and the use of D or B vitamins for those who are deficient. The science can be complex, so if you are unsure of what you should be fuelling up with, talk to a doctor, dietician or nutritionist.
- Visit a mind mechanic
Just as there is no shame in taking your car to the mechanic, there is no shame in taking your brain to a psychologist. And remember, you don’t have to wait for a breakdown. Seeking early support is a brilliant act of resilience. Psychologists can help provide you with effective strategies to manage the challenges you may currently be facing and also work with you to plan a path towards a healthy and fulfilling future.
For a list of available services, please visit the support services page in Mindarma.