06/07/2013 Mind-Body Health
If we look at how most people manage their day, taking time for peace and quiet is last on their list. They don’t see the difference between a brain that is multi-tasking – which our brains do brilliantly – and a brain that is overloaded. Yet finding some peace and quiet has tremendous benefits for the brain. It allows itself to reset. It allows for dozens of physiological processes to come into balance. It respects the enormous burden that your brain is under compared to your ancestors and even the last generation. Just a few decades ago, people faced only a fraction of the demands you must meet in the age of the Internet, round-the-clock news, and countless distractions from mass media to video games.
The amount of multi-tasking that you are asking your brain to do goes largely undetected. At this moment you are having thoughts, sensations, and feelings. Some of these are in the foreground of your awareness, like the attention you’re paying right now to reading this sentence. Other things are on the edge of your awareness, like the comfort or discomfort your body is feeling, the temperature of the room, and the noise going on around you. Hidden from your awareness are countless things in the background, which include dozens of physical processes and the feedback loop that connects your brain to the 50 trillion cells in your body.
The Care and Feeding of Your Miraculous Brain
Since you use your brain every waking minute, it’s easy to forget that it needs resetting. But without a chance to do this, the brain gradually loses its amazing ability to self-regulate not just itself but the entire central nervous system and every cell in your body. Until a physical symptom catches their attention, such as a tension headache, lower back pain, irregular sleep, or indigestion, most people assume that the brain needs very little attention in order to keep running. This assumption is correct – up to a certain point. Brain changes occur every second, but the bad results of those changes take years often to emerge. One of the major new findings in neuroscience, which is happening across the board, is that brain changes start much earlier in life than anyone ever suspected. The precursors to depression, schizophrenia, cancer, heart disease, and many other conditions can reach back to childhood, and sometimes even to infancy and the womb.
Benign neglect is never benign. Your brain knows how you have chosen to live, and it will respond the only way it knows how: by adapting. The brain adapts to extreme conditions like obesity, high stress, habitual rage, chronic lack of sleep, and head trauma. But each adaptation comes at a cost; the optimal functioning of the brain gets compromised. We aren’t saying that your brain is holding a threat over you. In reality, your brain’s ability to adapt and multi-task is all but miraculous.
Cultivating a Zone of Peace
Stress throws everyone off center. Yet very often we don’t realize that the greater the stress, the more crucial it is to find our center again. Usually we react the opposite way. In a crisis we let the stress reaction get out of control, feeling panicky, demanding too much of ourselves, frantically wanting a solution. The way out of panic and feeling frantic is to leave the stressful situation and let your brain reset to its normal state. We realize, of course, that this can be very difficult, but it’s necessary. The more you allow the brain to be thrown out of balance, the less able you are to handle a crisis. Be patient and give yourself time. Trust that the brain knows how to reset itself. Your role is to cooperate by giving yourself enough time for peace and quiet, even in the midst of turmoil.
At the other end of the spectrum, low-level stress throws the brain off balance without being noticed. The impairment happens a little bit at a time, like a dripping faucet. That’s a good analogy, in fact. Every tiny drip of a leaky faucet is insignificant, but hearing one after another can keep you awake all night. This is because the brain cannot ignore stress, except briefly. It processes every experience, and no matter how much you distract yourself or say that small stresses don’t really matter, over time the cumulative effect is undeniable.
Spending time in a zone of peace and quiet allows your brain to reset itself. This happens automatically, but you need to take the time for it. Set aside ten minutes in the morning and again in the afternoon. Find a quiet place free from noise and distraction. Sit comfortably and take five deep breaths, feeling the relaxation that they bring. Now close your eyes and gently follow your breathing.
When the ten minutes are up, don’t bound out of your chair. Sit and feel the relaxation in your body. Appreciate the quiet in your mind. You may want to see yourself in a peaceful setting, such as lying in a hammock under a shade tree. After a minute or so, get up and resume your day. This last part, where you allow peace and quiet to settle in, tells your brain that you appreciate being calm. You are teaching it to seek this calm again, so that day by day, it becomes a natural part of you.
Tuning in Throughout the Day
We’d also like you to be aware of the stress that’s affecting you throughout the day. Notice it, and then rate the stress as either mild, moderate, or high. Then take the right steps to deal with each level of stress. As soon as you can, center yourself again. In mild stress situations this may require no more than taking a moment out to breathe deeply. In moderate stress situations you need to step away from the task or people at hand and find your center, taking whatever time you need. In high stress situations, you need to tune in by the hour to center yourself.
When an outside influence comes close to throwing you off your center, don’t allow it to. Stay mindful of whether you are staying centered. If you feel yourself being drawn from your center, walk away and be with yourself until the agitating influence diminishes. If possible, try to get centered enough that the agitating influence dissipates totally. That’s not always easy.
Everyone has buttons that get pushed, chains that get rattled, nerves that get frayed. But you don’t have to accept agitating influences by putting up with them or fighting back. Put your own well-being first. Realize that when you passively absorb stress or fight against it, you are training your brain to get thrown out of balance again – and the next time it happens, the stress response will be easier to trigger.
On the other hand, once you get in the habit of consciously returning to your center, your brain will learn that you intend to give peace a chance. As it gets used to this new habit, your brain will stop favoring frustration, anxiety, and over-activity. It will start instead to favor a return to balance, which is where you always want to be.