A Simple Way Leaders (or anybody) Can Reduce Stress

God created our brains to help us survive in our world. Whether it’s a real threat (a bear outside your tent on a camping trip) or a perceived one (a board member or boss who acts like a bear), a part of our nervous system, the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), engages the stress response. It’s that fight-flight feeling. Essentially, the body prepares to fight or flee the source of danger by shutting down or slowing non-essential body functions to send blood and energy to vital parts of our body. In this post I explain a science-based practice that can help reduce the effects of stress on your body.

Stress Man. Businessman  suffers from a headache

A simple practice that reduces stress

The stress response also activates other body responses. It releases chemicals in your body and brain to provide extra energy and focus if you need to fight or flee, slows digestion and saliva production, increases heart rate, dilates our eyes, and sends blood to our muscles.

Aside from running away from the bear or shooting it (you’d need a permit in most places), what can we do to quiet this stress response in our day-to-day experience?

Deep breathing from your diaphragm helps.

It has been proven to lower blood pressure, reduce stress hormones, decrease lactic acid buildup in your muscles (which causes cramping and fatigue), and make us calmer.

From a body perspective, deep breathing activates a nerve called the vagal nerve that travels from the back of your brain to your belly, tongue, heart, lungs and intestines. It’s an important part of the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), the SNS’s counterpart. In contrast to fight-flight, it’s rest-digest and controls the relaxation response.

Think of the SNS as a car’s accelerator and the PNS as a car’s brake.

When you activate your vagal nerve, it releases feel-good neurotransmitters like oxytocin and dopamine and dampens the stress response. So, when you’re stressed, you want your brain to release those chemicals. Here’s how deep breathing can engage your vagal nerve and dampen your stress response.

  1. Know your body. Look for signals that it’s under stress. Some people get a dry mouth. Shoulders tighten for others. For some, their hands shake. Others experience stomach problems. Some breath faster and from their chest. Listen to your body on a regular basis to ‘catch’ your stress.
  2. Remember that breathing from your diaphragm is key. It’s called belly breathing. You can put one hand on your chest and one on your belly to experience the difference. If you are breathing from your diaphragm, your belly should move more than your upper chest, although your chest will also expand some.
  3. When you know you are under stress, get away to a quiet private place and sit down if you can. In a pinch, a bathroom stall even works. The Bible often talks about the value of stillness and quietness (see Psalm 46.10).
  4. Breathe in deeply through your nose while you count to 4.
  5. Hold your breath for a count of 7.
  6. Breath out through your mouth with a whooshing sound as you count to 8.
  7. Repeat the 4-7-8 breathing 4 times. You’ll find that this takes only a minute.
  8. Practice this every day, not just when you feel stressed.

Stress does not have to control you. You can control it with this simple breathing technique. Your body and brain will be glad you did.

What has helped you deal with stress?

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8-Point Checklist for Pastoral Body Care

body careStatistics tell us that pastors don’t take great care of their bodies. However, if we are to remain effective for the long-haul, we must pay careful attention to taking good care of our bodies.

Answer these 8 questions and determine how well you are caring for your body.

  1. Am I keeping my body weight at a reasonable level? Calculate your body mass index here?
  2. Do I regularly exercise (3-5 times a week for at least 30 minutes)?
  3. Would others say I manage my stress well?
  4. Do I do some fun things outside of ministry?
  5. Do I take a full day off each week?
  6. Do I avoid guilt feelings when I take my day off?
  7. Do I take a real vacation each year?
  8. Am I able to disconnect from the phone, email, and computer for several hours at a time?

How did you do?

If you answered ‘no’ to any of these questions, what should be your next step to take better care of yourself?

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How Sleep Benefits a Leader’s Brain

Sleep. Ahhhhh. Wonderful, restful, sleep. Something we all crave and often don’t get enough of. For centuries scientists have pondered what sleep does for us, except to cure sleepiness and make us feel better. But in recent years neuroscientists have discovered significant benefits that sleep brings, especially to our brains. We leaders need our brains to function at their peak and sleep can help them do that. I highlight below how sleep benefits a leader’s brain with these three metaphors: a garbage truck, a wet painting, and a librarian.

Dog sleeping with alarm clock and sleeping mask

When we sleep (almost a third of our lives) our brains don’t actually shut off. In fact, they remain quite active. The neurons fire almost as often as in our waking hours.

First, when we sleep the fluid that circulates in our brain and our spinal cord acts like a garbage truck, hauling away toxins that have collected between our brain cells. When we sleep, our brain performs this housekeeping task. During the day, damaging molecules associated with normal neuronal degeneration collect in the spaces between the cells, called synapses. And when we sleep, the spaces open up a bit, thus allowing the fluid to ‘take the trash out.’

Second, our memories get strengthened. The process is called consolidation when our brain sends memories lying in our shorter term memory banks into the rest of the brain to solidify them into long term memories. It’s like a painting that that an artist paints. She will paint the picture, but for it to become permanent, she must allow time for the paint to harden. Likewise, sleep helps the brain ‘harden’ our memories.

Third, sleep acts like a librarian who re-shelves books from a disheveled library return cart found in every library. She makes order out of chaos when she puts them back on the shelves in their proper order. Sleep acts in the same way. It takes the chaotic, disconnected thoughts we’ve experienced during the day and makes order out of them, even helping form associations with various unrelated thoughts which enhances creativity.

So, sleep offers many benefits. Get some extra zzz’s tonight. Your brain will be glad you did.

And as King David wrote…

At day’s end I’m ready for sound sleep…. (Ps 4.8, The Message)

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The Sleepy Leader’s Brain

God created sleep not only to cure sleepiness, but to serve our bodies and brains in many beneficial ways. Unfortunately, many leaders, especially pastors, try to lead without getting  adequate sleep and live with a sleepy leader’s brain. When we don’t get enough sleep, our brains don’t work as well. Thus, we don’t lead at our best.

depositphotos.com

So what happens when we don’t get enough sleep, besides feeling sleepy? Here’s what the experts tell us happens to our brains when we don’t get adequate sleep.

3 Morning Habits Guaranteed to Boost Brain Power

I have a passion for the brain and how applying newly discovered brain science can impact leadership and spiritual growth. I even wrote a book about it. Now into my sixth decade of life, I want to maximize my brain power as I (and everybody else) faces inevitable cognitive decline. In this post I share the bad news about what aging does to our brain (starting in the 20’s) and then share 3 morning habits you can build into your routine to boost your brain power and stay mentally sharp.

human brain with arms and legs on a running machine, 3d illustration

The bad news about aging and the brain

Unfortunately, just as we can’t avoid death and taxes, we can’t avoid how aging affects our brains. Here’s what happens to our brains as we grow older.

  • Our brains literally shrink. We lose about 5% of our brain matter per decade beginning in our 40’s. In fact, our frontal lobes, where executive functions like short-term memory, abstract thinking, and emotional control lie, reach their peak in our early 20’s.
  • Our brains slow down. Brain cells (neurons) work primarily through a chemical-to-electrical process. When the neuron ‘fires’ it sends an electrical impulse down a fiber called an axon. Like a wire with insulation, material called myelin also wraps around an axon providing insulation. As we age myelin thins which slows firing which in turn slows mental speed.
  • Our brains don’t remember as well. Over time memory fades due to loss of neurons, especially in the hippocampus, an area crucial to memory. And our ability to temporarily hold information in our minds, called working memory, degrades as well.
  • Command of our vocabulary shrinks. A typical 30-year-old has command of an average of 30,000 words whereas an 80-year-old has command of only about 10,000.
  • Peripheral vision diminishes, hearing degrades, yada, yada. Enough of the bad news.

Even with this bad news, science is now showing us ways that we can slow cognitive decline well into our later years. Everybody is not doomed to dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.

3 Morning Habits that can Boost your Brain Power

  1. Brain training
    • I just added this to my morning routine. Several companies provide software for your smart phone or computer to help train your brain. Several peer-reviewed studies now show that these brain games don’t simply help you get better at playing the games. Rather, scientists are discovering a clear crossover effect beneficial to cognitive health. I use brainHQ from Posit Science. I’m now doing about 20 minutes of brain training 5-6 days a week. For brain training to work, it must tax your brain and you must keep doing it. Doing a game here and there probably won’t make much difference.
  2. Exercise
    • For years research has shown that exercise benefits our body. But recent research has discovered that it benefits our brains as well. When we exercise it causes our brains to release a protein called brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) which has been called the Miracle-Gro for the brain. It encourages new neuronal growth and protects brain cells from stress. To maximize BDNF, the experts recommend that you exercise at 60-75% of your maximum heart rate for 30 minutes 3-5 times each week.
  3. Mindfulness
    • Mindfulness is a spiritual discipline akin to biblical meditation that I practice as part of my daily devotional time. It’s setting aside a time to be still before God to be in His presence in the present moment. It’s not emptying our mind, but filling our mind with thoughts of Him and His Word. It helps us disengage from automatic thoughts, feelings, memories and reactions and simply be in God’s presence. Last year over 400 studies were published that showed multiple body and brain benefits to mindfulness including increased brain volume in the memory and in the self regulatory areas and decreased volume in the brain’s fight and flight centers. I also use an app that reminds me to take short one minute mindfulness breaks throughout the day.

So, even though aging naturally diminishes brain function, a disciplined approach to brain healthy habits can keep your brain sharp for God, for others, and for you.

How do you keep your brain in shape?

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