It is estimated that work related stress costs UK businesses about £6.5bn each year.
We all work ever longer hours, battling with an ever growing demand for our time. In an increasingly competitive environment, stress can soon become a way of life. The cost to business is vast – but what about the cost to us personally?
Your Brain Under Stress
In the short term, stress can impact your ability to think straight; decision making, concentration and productivity can all suffer. Chronic stress has also been linked to a loss of grey matter (brain cells) and the onset of dementia. In order to sustain performance and maintain mental and physical health, we need to somehow take control of our stress.
Subjective stress is a factor of the demands put on us, relative to our capacity to cope. It may be hard to reduce the demands, but we can build our own resourcefulness; we can develop ‘resilience’.
How to Build Resilience
One of the best ways to improve your resilience is to improve your brain’s overall fitness. By improving the flexibility of your brain, you will become more capable of responding well under pressure. As your mental performance improves you will also enjoy greater productivity. And as you improve the adaptability (or ‘plasticity’) of your brain, you’ll also improve your memory and capacity to learn.
The SENSE Model (Dobson, 2013) describes the five keys to improving brain fitness:
Stress Management, Exercise, Nutrition, Sleep, and Experience (S.E.N.S.E.).
I’ll provide a bit of context for each, and then offer suggestions for you to:
a) improve your own brain fitness (‘YOU’)
b) improve brain fitness in your business (‘BUS’)
1. Stress Management
One of the most effective ways to manage stress is to practise meditation. Meditation is known to reduce stress as it is typically very relaxing, but perhaps just as importantly, it improves attention and emotional regulation. Meditation can even lead to increases in grey matter, and corresponding cortical thickness.
It wasn’t long ago that the word ‘mindfulness’ was received with raised eyebrows and a cynical smile. Nowadays its popularity is growing rapidly amongst executives keen to enjoy the benefits of improved working memory, focus and mental performance.
So, by way of recommendation:
YOU: Learn how to meditate, download a meditation app such as Headspace.
BUS: Consider lunchtime meditation workshops. Encourage breaks (especially lunch breaks), and ensure people take their holidays. Invest in your health and wellbeing strategy.
Physical exercise helps build resilience, performance, and learning capacity. As you exercise you enjoy increased blood flow to your brain, and this brings valuable oxygen and glucose – and a corresponding improvement in mental performance.
Exercise also increases levels of BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor), the protein that supports neural growth, brain plasticity, and learning capacity.
YOU: 20 minutes walk every morning – exercise every day. Incorporate more movement in to your day. Increase activity and decrease inactivity.
BUS: Encourage breaks and get people moving. Consider ‘walk and talk’ meetings, standing phone calls, and other ways to promote movement.
Healthy brain function requires certain nutrients and vitamins; your mind and body are one system, and what you eat affects both physical and mental health. Eat a healthy and varied diet, and plenty of fresh vegetables. Your brain needs vitamin B12 and omega 3 fatty acids – so if you choose not eat meat or fish, ensure you get these from other sources.
The two most significant improvements you can make are probably drink more water, and eat less sugar. Try to avoid high GI foods to avoid energy crashes, and moderate your sugar consumption from drinks and snacks. There is a strong link between diabetes and the onset of Alzheimer’s – Alzheimer’s is often described as as Diabetes Type 3.
YOU: Eat lots of fresh fish and vegetables. Snack on nuts, seeds and berries during the day. Drink plenty of water. Cut down on sugar and processed foods.
BUS: Provide nuts and seeds as snacks in the office. Provide lots of water points. Remove 16oz and 20oz caffeinated drinks from your canteen. Provide a good salad bar, and review the food you provide in meetings – less white bread and biscuits.
So often neglected, sleep is critical to brain health and function. As you sleep your brain and body enjoy restoration that’s critical to short term performance and long term health. Studies suggest we are more affected by sleep deprivation than we might think (e.g. subjective scores of performance after sleep deprivation are often wrong), and we don’t make up our sleep as well as we might like. In the long term, chronic sleep deprivation has been linked to dementia as it results in a build up of a ‘plaque’ called beta-amyloid, associated to the onset of Alzheimer’s.
How much sleep do you need? The research is clear: the vast majority of us need between 7-8 hours every night. If you think you need less, you are probably wrong!
YOU: Create the right physical, environmental and mental conditions for sleep. Use meditation to bring your cortisol levels down. Moderate caffeine and alcohol consumption. Cut out blue light as you near bedtime (download F.lux). To quieten your mind before sleep, do a weekly ‘mind sweep’ (search ‘David Allen, Mind Sweep’).
BUS: Address the destructive culture of sleep deprivation. Ask if people are sleeping enough. Give people the space they need and discourage the email culture that has people checking their phone first and last thing.
I mean new experience. Your brain is like muscle: inactivity leads to atrophy, activity leads to growth. To keep you brain adaptable and resilient, you need to keep challenging it. Embrace novelty and continue to learn new skills.
The lasting plasticity of your brain is up to you. By training your brain you will enjoy improved flexibility in the short term, and perhaps even more importantly you will keep your brain young in the longer term. It will remain flexible and agile, and will stay sharp for longer.
YOU: Learn a new language this year, or learn a musical interment. Continue to learn new skills, seek out new experiences, and embrace your curiosity.
BUS: Invest in learning and development. Initiate learning at work weeks, encourage learning for its own sake. Provide language classes, guitar lessons and other learning events that might be popular.
You now understand the five ways to improve brain fitness for yourself and your organisation:
Stress Management, Exercise, Nutrition, Sleep, and Experience (S.E.N.S.E.).
For now, give yourself a ‘SENSE score': mark yourself out of 10 for each of the five variables, based on your behaviour over the last seven days.
Whatever your score, decide now on one thing you will do differently next week to improve your score.
A Final Note
Your brain is the greatest asset you have. Invest in it accordingly. Much like your physical fitness, your brain fitness is very much up to you. If you work at it, your brain will respond like a muscle; it will strengthen and grow. And you will not only enjoy improved resilience, you will also enjoy improved performance, productivity and long term mental health.
Phil is the founder of BrainWorkshops, a clinical hypnotherapist, and coach.
Using his background in psychology, hypnotherapy and NLP, and insights from neuroscience, Phil applies what we know about the brain to help you or your organisation work better.
He provides learning and development solutions and well-being strategies that help people build resilience, improve productivity and enhance creativity.