Lately, I’ve been using the word frazzled more and more to describe the way my brain feels after a day of work at the computer, or even just down time spent surfing the net on my phone. Believe me, I am not glued to screens like some. In fact, I avoid social media, and switch to ‘airplane mode’ as much as possible. However, the fact is, we cannot avoid the 24/7 streaming of information (whether it’s work, pleasure, good news, bad news), and undeniably, it is affecting us. Basically, it’s a hi-tech form of stress – our brains are having to process the enormous amount of information thrown at us by the speeded up digital technology we use everyday.
This leads to that never ending ‘to do’ list and a constant overwhelming feeling of not enough hours in the day which can be very unsettling and dissatisfying. It’s all too easy to think it’s our own fault, that we’re simply unable to keep up, or that we’re losing brain cells. However, when I started to read around the subject, there was a lot out there to put things into perspective. For example, American Neuroscientist and author of The Organized Mind, Daniel J. Levitin has a good way of explaining why we feel so brain fogged by pointing out that even just looking at our emails throws us into decision making mode – keep, answer, file? As does doing a ‘normal’ food shop – the options are endless; Jersey Cow, Semi Skimmed or Almond milk? That’s before we even get to work.
This decision fatigue is real and can be detected in our brain chemistry, he explains. ‘Turns out, the neurons that are doing the business of helping us make decisions, they’re living cells with metabolism, they require glucose to function, and they don’t distinguish between making important decisions and unimportant ones. It takes up almost as much energy and nutrients to process trivial decisions or important ones.’
No wonder our brains feel fried. Ruby Wax has even named her latest book Frazzled, and in it she writes that it’s not just a feeling, but a technical term. ‘A neurobiologist might say that someone is stuck in a state of “frazzle”. They mean that, for this person, constant stress is overloading their nervous system, flooding it with cortisol and adrenaline; their attention is fixed on what’s worrying them and not on the job in hand, which can lead to burn out.’ That’s the serious side.
Since recovering from a breakdown, Wax has completed a Masters in Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy at Oxford and now devotes her time to sharing what she has learned through her writings and one-woman shows. She is also running ‘Frazzle Cafes’ at branches of Marks & Spencer around the country as a place for those who are feeling frazzled to go and share their experiences with like minded people. For details, go online. At a meditation event in London last week, she had the room laughing out loud (and what a great stress reliever that is), but her message is clear:
‘500 years ago no-one died of stress: we invented this concept and now we let it rule us. We might have evolved to be able to miraculously balance on seven-inch heels, but as far as our emotional development is concerned we’re still swimming with the pond scum. If we don’t advance our more human qualities then we’re doomed evolution-wise to become cyborgs, with an imprint of an ‘Apple’ where our hearts used to be.’
And, there is a lot we can do to help ourselves. Rather than trying to make huge changes, it’s about developing small habits we can incorporate daily to maintain balance. Starting with eating well which is going to give our bodies and brain cells the nutrients needed to cope. And bringing in simple meditation and yoga techniques help a lot. This doesn’t mean sitting for hours crossed legged in a monastery.
We can’t go from totally wired to calm, and we can’t (and don’t want) to get rid of our thoughts. It is about finding the breathing space in between them, and relaxing the body is a key step towards this. I know this through teaching yoga – the 10 minutes of relaxation at the end if class (known as Shavasana) is where we can truly begin to feel our mind slowing down. It is a very simple practice which we can do for ourselves 5-10 minutes a day. Here is the method:
Lie down comfortably on your back (keeping the knees bent if you have lower back issues), arms by your sides, palms facing the ceiling, feet hip width apart toes falling out to either side. Allow yourself to fall into the floor, your eyes to settle and close, and bring your attention to your breath. Watch your body as it breathes. Then start to scan your body from toes to crown, telling each body part in turn to relax. Feel your muscles melt away from your bones, and allow the full weight of your body in the floor. Resist the temptation to move, and give yourself permission to ‘not do’. Whenever thoughts come up, bring your attention back to your breath. Become the observer of your body and breath. You will be amazed at how you can fall into a deep relaxation. The idea is to stay alert by scanning the body and keeping your attention on your breath, but you might fall asleep – if that’s the case, allow yourself to do so. If you’re worried about time, then set your alarm to a gentle, soothing ring tone to wake you up.
With practice, you will be able to train your mind to deeply relax for 5-10 minutes.