Articles and Updates from Phoenix Children's
For many of us, it’s difficult to remember the last time we woke up feeling rested, full of energy and excited about the day ahead.
Many of us feel exhausted and stressed, despite all the technologies we have available to be more efficient and connected. While it may seem that these tools should provide us more time and energy, it turns out that the ‘foggy’ feeling many of us experience — along with moodiness, exhaustion and lack of energy — has a lot to do with the very things that are designed to help us. We live in an overstimulating world, one that our nervous systems were never designed to manage.
Our amazing, adaptive and efficient brains are still highly influenced by pathways formed thousands of years ago — known as the primitive or reptilian brain— whose primary purpose is survival. Always in survival mode, our brains work 24/7 year-round to constantly prepare and protect us from potential threats. It’s this primitive part of our brain that has enabled us to not only survive but thrive through evolution.
The downside: Our primitive brain responds to any and all stimuli. In a world where stimuli are constant, coming in the form of information, light, movement and noise, our brains are always ‘on’ — many times not receiving enough much-needed rest.
As part of our larger autonomic nervous system (ANS), the brain is divided into two systems:
- The sympathetic nervous system (our ‘flight, fight or freeze’ instinct)
- the parasympathetic nervous system (our ‘rest and digest’ response)
The ANS is designed to remain in parasympathetic mode about 95% of the time, and switch to sympathetic mode less than 5% of the time.
When activated, the sympathetic nervous system is designed to respond for 20 minutes at most. It increases our heart rate, blood pressure, blood flow, and delivery of oxygen and nutrients (including glucose) to our organs. It also slows down our intestinal function and decreases our ability to plan, organize and connect with other people. After the 20-minute response, the ANS is supposed to switch back to the parasympathetic nervous system to rest and heal.
In today’s world, it is very likely that most of our nervous systems remain predominantly in sympathetic mode due to all the stimuli that surround us, such as:
- Excessive exposure to technology and screens (for example, social media delivers a stream of constant mental stimulation).
- Leading a sedentary lifestyle and spending too much time indoors.
- Feeling the need to be ‘on the go’ constantly (for example, overscheduling commitments).
- Eating sugar and processed foods and drinking caffeinated beverages.
As a result, our brains are often overworked, causing wear and tear on our mind and body, which can lead to …
- Poor attention span and memory
- Mood swings
- Social disconnect and isolation
- Poor physical health, such as heart disease and diabetes
- Poor mental health, such as anxiety and depression
The upside: Simple changes in our daily routines can limit, decrease and even reverse the negative emotional, physical and mental health effects of an overstimulating world.
Here is a helpful checklist for six foundations to emotional, physical and mental well-being — designed to help your brain and body get the rest they need, so you can wake up feeling energized and happy, with better memory and attention span, and a renewed capacity for making interpersonal connections.
Foundation 1: SLEEP
Sleep activates the ‘rest and digest’ system (parasympathetic nervous system), which enables our bodies to heal and reduce inflammation. While we sleep, our brains also rest and heal, and consolidate memories we gathered during the day. Ways you can improve your sleep habits include:
- Go to sleep and wake up close to the same time every day (for example, try not to stay up late and sleep in too long on weekends).
- Avoid caffeine and sugar, especially in the afternoons and evenings.
- Avoid stimuli close to bedtime (i.e., stressful studying, screen time and physical exercise).
- Remove TV and other digital screens from your sleeping area.
- Dim the lights at least one hour before going to bed to get your brain ready for sleeping.
- Position clocks away from your sleeping area, and use a nonilluminated, battery-operated clock to avoid light.
Foundation 2: NUTRITION
Avoiding sugar, processed foods and fast foods — and opting for healthier options that include fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and whole grains — help decrease inflammation in the body and brain. As a result, you’ll be able to think more clearly, enjoy more positive and balanced moods, and improve your overall well-being. Not taking into account special dietary needs, recommendations to improve eating habits include:
- Incorporating foods that reduce inflammation (WebMD offers more information).
- Eating something healthy for breakfast, avoiding foods high in sugar (including juice).
- Increasing your intake of fresh fruits and vegetables (ideally, 3 – 5 servings daily, incorporating one or both at every meal).
- Reducing or eliminating refined sugar, fried foods and caffeine from your daily diet.
- Avoiding foods that contain a lot of preservatives, additives and sulfites, as these are generally low in nutritional value.
- Drinking plenty of water daily (general rule: at least one-half of your body weight in ounces of water).
- Getting your vitamin D! Take a daily vitamin or a multivitamin that contains vitamin D and get some sun exposure (10 minutes 2 – 3 times a day; using sunscreen!).
Foundation 3: EXERCISE/PHYSICAL ACTIVITY
Physical activity has immense health benefits for the mind and body. Exercising and physical movement helps to break down the body’s chemicals and hormones that are released when we experience stress in our day — which helps to improve our mood and enable us to think more clearly. Physical activity also decreases overall inflammation in our mind and body.
It’s important to engage in some type of physical movement for a minimum of 15 minutes every day (recommended goal is 30 – 60 minutes seven days a week). The following recommendations for daily physical activity can fit into anyone’s busy schedule:
- Vary the types of physical activity to make exercise more enjoyable.
- Exercise with your family (take a bike ride, hike or go for a walk).
- Combine physical activity with our recommendation to get sun exposure (exercise outside, when safe to do so; did we mention sunscreen!?).
Foundation 4: CONNECT
At varying levels, we all need social interaction to not only survive but thrive. Healthy, supportive and caring relationships decrease the stress response in our brain and create an environment of love, protection and belonging. Try these tips:
- Surround yourself with positive people who encourage and support you (and avoid people who are negative).
- Read encouraging and inspiring books.
- Listen to music that is positive and uplifting.
- Choose funny and inspiring articles to watch on TV or your electronic device (during the day!).
- Spend time developing good friendships and relationships.
Foundation 5: DISCONNECT
While technology is a necessary tool in today’s world, it’s important to achieve a healthy balance with the use of technology and time “offline.” When we focus on technology too many hours a day, we can become detached and lose our ability to socially interact in a healthy way with others. Consider the following to enjoy more of the human interaction and connection that is essential to our health:
- Limit non-school, non-work associated screen time, which is called ‘recreational screen time,’ to no greater than two hours a day. This includes TV, computers, iPads, mobile phones, gaming devices, etc.
- Limit access and use of social media, which can be a factor in poor self-image and negative thinking.
- Enjoy meals, non-digital games and activities, and time with family and friends.
Foundation 6: TIME OUT
Find time to simply ‘be.’ Down time, such as calm or stillness, enables your body, mind and nervous system to rest, recover and heal — which is essential to your emotional, physical, mental and spiritual well-being. Here are some ways to develop calm and rest in your world:
- Turn off all nonessential electronics and be present in the here and now. Take in the sounds and smells around you and be attentive to the people and environment around you.
- Participate in a mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) program to learn proven ways to pay attention to your thoughts, feelings and your body’s response without judging those feelings and thoughts.
- Some other activities to consider include yoga, meditation, deep breathing exercises, hiking in nature, reading an enjoyable book, drawing, painting, dancing and praying.
Now that we may have overstimulated your brain with this blog, try to incorporate at least one of the abovementioned techniques and see how it changes how you feel. Remember, small changes over time can recharge your brain and body!