Do you ever feel that life is just too complicated? The modern world seems to move faster and faster, there are more and more demands for your attention, and your brain feels like it's trying to think of seventeen different things at once. Life becomes a series of competing deadlines; you can't relax and switch off even when you're tired. And you're exhausted even when you've slept. If you feel like your brain is being overloaded, you need to make some changes, for your mental health and your overall health.
Gyms make money from people who sign up for a year's membership (usually at New Year) and then only go twice. When you're feeling tired and stressed, it's easy to promise that you'll go to the gym tomorrow... or the next day... or next week. In fact, getting regular exercise reduces stress and improves brain function. Regular cardiovascular exercise (something that makes you start to sweat and feel short of breath) raises the levels of growth factors in your brain and actually increases the size of the hippocampus. Your hippocampus is involved in your brain's learning and memory systems; increasing the number of brain cells there means increasing your ability to remember what on earth you're supposed to be doing right now.
Sometimes called fast and slow thinking, these two ways of reasoning use different areas of your brain. Type 1 thinking is how you recognize a familiar face, form an immediate impression of a person or read the words on a poster without consciously paying attention to it. Type 2 is how you learn a new skill, work out a complex problem or read through a contract. Type 2 thinking uses more areas of your brain and needs a lot of energy. If you're constantly having to concentrate or process lots of new information, your energy levels drop and your brain switches over to Type 1 thinking. This means that you skim read documents, don't pay attention to what other people are saying and make assumptions about the best course of action. You can't stop your brain from doing this; it evolved to choose the energy-efficient Type 1 thinking by default. But you can give yourself regular breaks, find ways to boost your energy levels and avoid making important decisions when you're tired.
When you do get a break, try and find somewhere with plants. Sitting in a park or looking at natural features, such as gardens or woods, will be more calming than reading a magazine or scrolling through your phone. Research in attention restoration theory suggests that the kind of patterns and movement found in the natural world produce "soft" or involuntary attention, enabling the voluntary attention areas of the brain to switch off and rest. You don't have to go hiking through wilderness to benefit: a study found that nurses who took their break in an area with plants and flowers were more refreshed and better able to concentrate for the remainder of their shift.
Smartphones are designed to be addictive; app creators use neuroscience to trick your brain into paying more attention. Social media depends on keeping you swiping and clicking. Your brain gets a little hit of dopamine when you make a connection with another person and then drives you to keep on checking your phone in order to feel good again. If you really can't manage without your phone, at least turn off notifications for a while. There's evidence that constant demands for your attention lead to hypervigilance and chronic stress. Instead of chatting to friends online, arrange to meet up in person (and turn your phone off while you're talking).
Some people who feel constantly tired or overwhelmed are actually suffering from depression or anxiety. Stop telling yourself that you just need a break or a holiday or that everyone else is coping so you should too. Around one in five people experience mental health problems. There's nothing wrong with talking to a doctor or a counsellor. Even if you're not given a formal diagnosis, short term therapies such as CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) or attending a relaxation class can give you useful coping skills for life.
If you feel like your brain is full of fog and you're finding it hard to concentrate, or if you feel like you're unsuccessfully trying to remember dozens of things at once, there are ways that you can learn to think clearly again. Talk to a doctor or mental health practitioner: there may be a problem that can easily be solved. Whether or not you have a mental health diagnosis, take regular exercise and learn to understand the way your brain processes information. Take a break from your phone and look at the natural world instead. A little time out for your brain can make a huge difference to the rest of your life.
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