Do you want to have a better brain? One that gives you more happiness, fulfillment and less stress and anxiety? There are many ways to improve your brain power. It’s important not to miss any of the crucial ones out.
In this article, I will cover the Bottom-up, Top-down and Outside-in approach to brain power and brain health. It’s the key to improving your brain power and fundamental in understanding the causes of stress, anxiety, depression, and even insomnia. It also provides the solution to these issues.
If you want to have a better brain, then keep reading as I reveal a lot of useful information that will help you improve your brain power and brain health.
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Factors That Cause Stress, Anxiety, and Depression
Many people think that one thing, often a life event, causes their stress, anxiety, and depression. They also believe that one thing, usually changing their mindset, will solve all their problems. If they change their mindset, everything will be better! But in reality, many things influence stress, anxiety, and depression.
A few weeks ago, I attended a great hypnotherapy workshop here in Sydney. The presenter was Dr. Sarah McKay, a neuroscientist. One of the slides in her presentation showed various factors that cause depression. She then displayed a slide that showed the factors that cause anxiety. It was exactly the same slide as for depression. She then covered the factors that cause insomnia, and that was the same slide too!
I reached out to Sarah and asked if I could share this slide with you. She agreed and here it is.
The above diagram illustrates the 3 areas that influence our brain health. Sarah calls them:
- Bottom-Up. This area includes genes, hormones, immune system, nutrition, exercise, and other lifestyle factors.
- Outside-In. This is social and environmental factors – stress, life events, education, current circumstances, and family background.
- Top-Down. Our thoughts, emotions, mindset, and belief system.
Each of these areas influence the others.
- Our thoughts influence our physical health. For example, long-term psychological stress can lead to heart disease.
- Our social environment impacts our brain health. Isolated people have a greater risk of getting dementia.
- Also, physical health is closely linked to our mood. So, exercise is a key emotional regulator.
When you focus on mindset and forget other factors, you miss some vital components. Maybe you are struggling to get over depression or anxiety because you are ignoring some of these components.
Bottom-Up: Change Your Biology
Improving your brain power starts with understanding and changing the biological and physiological factors.
You might feel that you are genetically disposed to depression or anxiety because someone in your family had it. That could be true, but you can still manage and deal with it. First, by working on the Outside-In and Top-Down components that I’ll cover shortly.
Second, by knowing that something has to fire that gene. It may be dormant in your body, but something has to activate it. You can read more about this in my article on epigenetics.
There are lots of different hormones in our bodies that affect anxiety, depression, or our general mood. The most important ones are:
- Cortisol. This is the stress hormone. It is produced in our adrenal glands. It gives us energy, immune function and influences our mood.
- Thyroid. An overactive or underactive thyroid contributes towards depression, moodiness, and tiredness.
- Serotonin. The good, happy chemical that stabilizes your mood and makes you feel joyful!
- Women also have hormones that affect menstruation and menopause. If you find that you have psychological mood swings around those times, then that can be hormonal.
3. Immune System.
When you get a cut or a bruise, your immune system will bring blood to that area to help it heal quicker. It will often become inflamed during that time. That’s supposed to be a short-term thing and go away when that part of the body is healed. The problem is, sometimes we can get long-term inflammation. That is very harmful to the body and is often caused by psychological stress.
Scientists now believe that we have brain cells in our gut. Also, there’s a very strong and sensitive connection between our gut and our brain. That’s why when you are stressed, you often feel it in your stomach. So don’t underestimate your gut.
Research has shown that a Mediterranean-style diet is the best diet for improving your brain health and your brain power and reducing symptoms of stress and anxiety. It consists mainly of plants, olive oil, nuts, some fish, and a little meat. Wine and coffee are fine in moderation.
Exercise is very important. It releases muscle tension and increases oxygen levels. Exercise boosts endorphins, the feel-good hormones. It also helps use up excess adrenaline and cortisol, released during stressful times. That’s why exercise is so beneficial to stress.
Sarah believes that sleep is the cornerstone of brain health and can improve your brain power. In sleep, our brain consolidates memories and does an amazing cleanup process. Sleep also helps regulate emotions, and cortisol levels. Sarah is also a big fan of napping. A 20-minute nap recharges your brain and improves your brain power and health. To find out more about napping, you can watch her video here.
Outside-In: Change Your Environment
To improve your brain power, it is important to understand and change certain social and environmental factors.
1. Life Events
Sometimes something external, like a life event, can cause depression, stress or anxiety. That life event could be:
- Being made redundant, especially later in life
- A relationship breakup or a divorce
- Long-term health challenge
It also includes a feeling that you have lost your mojo. That life was better in the past. It’s when you look back at how things used to be, and you feel that life cannot be that way again. As you get older, this can become a common one that can give you feelings of depression and anxiety. The key is to accept it and then work on changing it.
For me, stress is a little different to life events. These are stressful situations that you can control, reduce or perhaps avoid altogether. If certain people in your life cause you stress, maybe you can spend less time with them. If certain activities and commitments cause you stress, perhaps you can stop doing them or do them less often. So unlike life events, you have more control over stressful situations.
3. Social Support
We are social animals and we crave connection. Having supportive friends, family and social connections can help you overcome stress. This will help you live a longer, happier and healthier life. The reason for this is a bonding hormone called oxytocin, which is released in the brain when you connect with other people. Oxytocin makes us feel good, and it lowers the effects of the stress hormone cortisol.
Social connection also requires you to think, feel, reason, and make use of your intuition. And do this quickly! When communicating with others, you often think on your feet and make quick decisions on what to say next. You’re also sensing how they’re responding to you. That is good for the neurons in your brain. Also, research has shown that loneliness can be as bad for you as smoking.
This is about learning how to deal with depression, anxiety or stress. It’s consuming articles like this one, reading books, watching videos or investing in courses and seminars. The more information you know, the more techniques or strategies you’ll have to resolve your problem.
This is one of my favorites. Getting out in the sun and enjoying the fresh air can help you relax and gain a perspective on life. When you take a walk and allow your mind to just think about things, you can come up with amazing new ideas and perspectives.
Getting out in nature also improves your mood. It reduces blood pressure and improves concentration. Being out in the daylight helps you sleep better because it regulates your circadian rhythm. This is the brain’s way of differentiating between daylight and nighttime. The sunlight also helps you feel better and happier. It increases your serotonin and vitamin D levels.
I think many people underestimate the importance of natural light and sunlight. It is a known fact that in Nordic countries, where there is less sunshine in winter, the rates of depression are a lot higher.
Top-Down: Change How You Think
The last area that helps improve your brain power and reduce stress, anxiety, and depression is called Top-Down. This one is about changing the way you think. It’s the area you’re probably most familiar with.
1. Thoughts & Cognitions
We’ll start with thoughts and cognitions, especially your perception of stress. The way you think about stress has a considerable effect on your body. So it’s not the stress itself, it’s how you think about stress.
Kelly McGonigal did a wonderful video called “How to make stress your friend”. In that video, she says that stress itself isn’t harmful. It’s your belief about stress. When you have a negative belief or a negative perception about stress, your body changes in unhealthy ways. When you see stress as helpful and as a preparation for the challenge ahead, your body responds more positively to further stress.
The next time you have any symptoms of stress, whether that’s a feeling in your stomach, sweaty palms or tightness in your shoulders, start reframing that stress. Think about it in a different way. Could that stress be the energy, the excitement, and the anticipation that you need to get on and achieve your goal?
When you’re fixating on a future problem or past regret, that creates worries and rumination. Rumination is having the same thought repeatedly and this will often keep you stuck in a loop. That creates stress and anxiety. Mindfulness is a way of training your brain to focus on the present moment. When you can let go of past regrets and worries about the future, then you can release the stress and anxiety.
Mindfulness is being aware of the present moment and connected with your senses. Connected with what you can see, hear, feel, maybe even taste and touch. You can also use your breath to slow down your heart rate. Mindfulness is a great thing to practice.
3. Feelings & Emotions
Your emotions and your thoughts are closely related. Remember, it’s your thoughts that create your feelings. However, it’s often a lot easier to spot a negative feeling than it is to spot a negative thought.
People tend to either hold their feelings inside (suppress them), or express them. Holding feelings inside is not good for your body in the long-term. However expressing your feelings (especially negative ones) can upset others, especially if they are close friends or family members.
So other options are better. One of them is just to sit with the feeling. A lot of us use alcohol and food to suppress uncomfortable feelings. But, just facing that feeling and sitting with it for 5 minutes, can help it dissolve by itself. So acknowledging and sitting with that feeling can be very helpful.
Or you can practice releasing that feeling or emotion. My favorite way of doing that is the Sedona method. To learn more about the Sedona method, you can read my article about it here.
4. Mindset & Beliefs
This one is about having a positive mindset and beliefs that support you, especially beliefs around stress. I go into this in more detail in my article on how to change limiting beliefs.
So now you have lots of ways to improve your brain power. As I mentioned at the beginning, much of the inspiration and information for this article came from Dr. Sarah McKay. Check out the links below to find out more.
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