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November 8, 2021
I’ve been there many times, and far too many of my clients have as well. As a neuroscientist, the brain and mental health impacts of constantly feeling overwhelmed are crystal clear to me: poor memory, brain fog, hard time concentrating or learning, irritability, depression, poor sleep, low energy. The list goes on and on. Through a brain science lens, a stressed brain is a literal sponge for sugar – scavenging it from the rest of your body to help you think through a stressful situation. When this stress is constant (like it has been for so many during the pandemic), the sugar drop in your body triggers your stress hormones, namely adrenaline and cortisol, to be constantly secreted to bring the sugar back up. And you probably know how adrenaline and cortisol chronically coursing through your bloodstream make you feel: OVERWHELMED.
It’s awful that a “normal” biological reaction to stress is feeling overwhelmed (thanks, hormones!). But the good news is that science tells us we can nip this in the bud. As a nutritional consultant (or NeuroTritionist!) working with clients to improve their brain and mental health using accessible, achievable nutrition and lifestyle tools, I have three that you can implement right away and make part of your everyday easily.
Science says that ten deep breaths before a meal can effectively shift you from that overwhelmed “fight-or-flight” sympathetic branch of your nervous system into the “rest-and-digest” parasympathetic branch. And it takes just 60 seconds, three times a day! This allows you to feel calm during meals (which, from a NeuroTritional perspective, is the most important thing to start with). Choose one meal a day, and do your ten deep breaths before it; once you’ve mastered that, add in another pre-meal breath work session. Before you know it, you will be in a routine of doing this three minute (60 seconds x 3 meals) anti-overwhelm exercise everyday.
A daily mindful meditation practice has been shown to produce measurable changes in brain regions associated with stress. Studies have even documented changes in the brain’s grey matter over time (especially in the prefrontal lobe responsible for planning, problem solving, and emotion regulation). Essentially, mindfulness helps you think through a situation calmly, which is less likely to make you feel overwhelmed by it. Interestingly, these effects are seen with as little as two minutes of mindfulness meditation for as little as six weeks! Download the Head Space app and start with one minute per week (I recommend first thing in the morning or before you go to bed at night) and work up, at a pace that feels right for you, to two minutes per day.
This tool was recommended by a psychologist I saw to learn life hacks for dealing with my own stress during these unprecedented times – and it is genius. Basically, we need to flip our calendars on their heads and un-learn how we fill them up. Instead of scheduling (and often over-scheduling, well into the evenings and weekends) my work, and then seeing what time (if any) I had left for something for me, he suggested that I schedule in the things that fill my personal cup FIRST. For me, this includes things like taking my special needs rescue pup to the park every morning, going for a walk later in the day to clear my head, a yoga class in the evening, and a spin class 3 times a week. It was really hard for me to initially wrap my head around this concept, and I am still challenging my own misconceptions and conditioning around work-life balance. But I’m getting there, slowly but surely. Begin by applying this strategy one day a week. I promise that you will start feeling a sense of control over your schedule – which, for me, was a huge piece of the overwhelm pie.
Our brains need a number of tries at new tools before they become ingrained habits. So be gentle with yourself as you add these into your life. It’s important not to become overwhelmed with incorporating these three new tools – so please go nice and slow, there’s no rush. Commit to working on one tool at a time and keep working to make each tool a part of your daily life. Because they work. The science says they do. And I know for a fact from my personal life and the lives of my clients that they do. You deserve to feel free from the overwhelm that stress can cause us to feel, and it is achievable.
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