Pastors and leaders need healthy brains to lead well. A healthy brain helps us become more resilient, be more present for those we lead, think more clearly, and, well, lead better. Neuroscientists can peer into our brains and are learning what makes them tick and how we can take better care of them. Here are 3 simple brain boosts anybody can practice.
3 Simple Brain Boosts for a Healthy Brain.
- Fertilize your brain with your brain’s Miracle-Gro. The brain’s Miracle-Gro chemical, BDNF, short for brain derived neurotrophic factor, literally fertilizes your brain. It promotes growth of brain cells and strengthens their connections. One of the best ways to boost this chemical is by exercising. So, get on your bike or put on your running shoes and walk, jog, or bike three to four times a week. Your brain will love it. More here and here about exercise and the brain.
- Improve your memory by getting some extra sleep. We live in a sleep deprived world. The latest figures say indicate that 35% of the population gets 7 hours of sleep or less. And we actually need more like eight. In fact, Dr. Daniel Gartenberg, one of the world’s most renowned sleep expert says that 8.5 hours is now the new 8 hours. A good night’s sleep helps the brain discard unneeded information and solidify those memories we need to store, a process called consolidation. So, start going to bed 30 minutes earlier. Your brain will love that too. Take this quiz to find out if you are sleep deprived.
- Calm your emotions with mindful breaks throughout the day. Ancient monks practiced something called statio. It was a mini-pause between one task and the next. It served as a transition to leave what they were doing and mentally and spiritually prepare for the next task. Today it’s called mindfulness, a practice that helps us be fully present in the moment and calm our anxious emotions. My next book comes out in March and it deals with mindfulness from a Christian perspective. More about that in the months ahead. You can learn more about mindfulness here. Again, your brain will love it.
So, pick one of these and try it out next week.
In a previous post I discussed how ministry stress can sometimes make pastors feel like zombies: listless, unmotivated, and mentally distracted. Many of you took the Zombie Zone Quiz to find out if you were in that zombie zone. If ministry stress is draining you, this post offers some practical guidance.
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If you currently feel like a zombie pastor, what can you do to renew your passion, energy, and zest for ministry? Consider these 10 simple steps that can help you regain your joy and step into God’s healthy zone.
- Admit that something is out of kilter in your life. Simply naming the problem is your first step to solving it.
- Share with a safe friend that you feel like a zombie and ask him or her for prayer and support.
- Take an honest look at your average week. Does it include a full day of rest when you disconnect from all things ministry?
- Start getting 30 more minutes of sleep each night.
- Schedule time each day when you email or do social networking. Don’t get sucked into them every hour.
- Ask the Lord to renew your strength.
- But those who wait upon GOD get fresh strength. They spread their wings and soar like eagles, They run and don’t get tired, they walk and don’t lag behind. (Is. 40.31)
- Do something fun that you enjoy doing. Make a date with yourself each week and do it. Don’t feel guilty that you are taking time for yourself.
- If it’s serious, find a coach or counselor who can help you dig out. Even if it’s not serious, periodically see a coach or counselor to help give you perspective.
- Ask your closest friends and family to tell you when they sense you are mentally preoccupied. When they tell you, write down what was on your mind. Learn how to catch yourself when you become preoccupied with those thoughts so you can change them and become more present with others.
- Practice silence and solitude. See the related posts below for insight on this important spiritual practice.
How do you keep yourself emotionally and spiritually healthy so that you don’t become a zombie pastor?
From time to time every leader and pastor faces burnout. The well runs dry. He or she becomes weary in well doing. He runs out of gas. She simply has nothing left to give. When we totter on the precipice of burnout, what can we do? As I’ve faced those times during my ministry, I’ve learned a few ways that have helped me dig out.
- Recognize the symptoms
- Everybody’s burnout looks a bit different. Sometimes burnout comes from doing too much outwardly with over busy schedules. Sometimes burnout comes from an inner world in turmoil: worry, incessant anxiety, and fear. I suggest starting with self understanding. What does your burnout look like? Which of these factors might indicate you are burning out?
- The joy you once had seems to have disappeared. You seldom have fun anymore.
- You consistently sleep poorly.
- You feel non-localized, free floating anger in your heart.
- You catastrophize in your thinking, assuming the worse in people and life.
- You easily snap, lose your cool with friends, families, or people in the church.
- After you recognize the symptoms, I’ve found that rest really helps. Whether it means taking time off, taking more breaks during your work day, getting more sleep, or trimming your schedule, the body and soul needs rest. Neuroscientists have coined a term for excessive wear and tear on our body due to prolonged stress and burnout, allostatic load. When we don’t give our body and brains time to rejuvenate, we prolong our burnout and its negative effects.
- Third, revisit your core values and mission. I encourage every leader to develop his or her own mission statement, their mission God has called them to achieve with His power. Most weeks when I do my strategic planning, I revisit my mission statement and personal values. If you’d like to see mine, you can click here. In this post I talk about the importance of developing your own personal values.
- The final step is to re-orient your time and effort to best live out your personal mission, without burning out. I suggest taking a half day alone to reset your goals and adjust how you use your time. Here’s a post on how to plan a retreat.
If you’ve faced burnout, what has helped you?
Leader’s need healthy brains. Whether you are a pastor, a leader in a non-profit, or work in a business, without a healthy brain, you won’t lead at your best. My friend Brian Cygan is one of the most knowledgeable guys around when it comes to the impact of exercise on brain health. He is the Co-founder and CEO of The Exercise Coach, a tech-enabled personal training franchise with scores of locations nationwide. With a bachelor’s degree in Fitness Leadership from Northern Illinois University he leverages his 16 years in the fitness industry to apply brain-based insights to life and business leadership. He’s my guest blogger this week. You’ll enjoy his fitness based brain insights.
According to John Ratey MD, “Exercise is the single most powerful tool you have to optimize your brain function.”
Ratey knows a thing or two about the brain. He is a Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and the author of Spark, The New Science of Exercise and the Brain. It’s generally accepted that exercise is good for your body, but recent findings reveal that its every bit as crucial for the health of your brain.
The question is, “What kind of exercise?” While the study of exercise and the brain is relatively nascent some interesting findings are starting to emerge. Maybe the most interesting is that a number of brain-beneficial exercise effects are intensity-dependent. In other words, these findings suggest that to build your best brain you have to make your muscles burn. When you push your muscles, with resistance training and interval training, your body produces health and repair promoting protein combinations that aren’t nearly as responsive to leisurely activity. Here are just a few:
- Human Growth Hormone (HGH): This rejuvenating (and fat-burning) hormone is elevated after muscle-burning effort and in addition to its muscle building properties it is believed to increase brain volume, balance neurotransmitters and amplify the effects of other “growth-factors.”
- Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF): Known as miracle grow for the brain this substance is promotes the growth and strength of neuronal connections and well as protects neurons (brain cells) against the natural process of cell death. Research also indicates that BDNF levels in humans are significantly elevated in response to exercise and the magnitude of increase is exercise intensity dependent.
- Atrial natriuretic peptie (ANP): This recently discovered hormone is produced by muscle tissue in the heart and is known to have an anxiolytic (Anti-anxiety) effect. The harder your work the higher your ANP goes. ANP not only keeps your heart rate in check but also calms the stress response regions of your brain. When you stop exercising your ANP stays elevated for some time leaving you feeling more relaxed. Over time this helps to make your more resilient to stressful situations.
- Vascular endothelial growth factor (VegF): During high-effort exercise our body’s ability to oxygenate cells throughout our body is temporarily disrupted. This triggers VegF production. VegF is a hormone that builds new capillaries in the body and brain. VegF is also believed to enhance the uptake of other hormones and factors during exercise by changing the permeability of the blood brain barrier.
When you push your body you push your brain. If you want to protect your memory, blood-flow to your brain, and sharpness as you age, you have to “go for the burn.” Fortunately, at higher-effort levels time requirements are dramatically reduced. In fact, in just 5-20 minutes you can perform muscular work that makes a difference. Start by adding “effort intervals” to your regimen. An effort interval is simply a timed burst of exertion. Your intervals should be no more than 10-15 seconds and you should start with just one or two of these spaced by 45 seconds or more. Believe it or not, according to research, these 30 seconds might be worth as much as 30-minutes of taking it easy. That’s a lot of brain-bang for your buck.
Cortisol, the stress hormone, is often associated with negative effects that prolonged stress puts on our bodies. Those effects include weight gain, anxiety, heart disease, depressed immune system, digestive problems, sleep impairment, and even effects on memory. But could churches be negatively affected by cortisol as well? That is, if the leaders and culture of that church are constantly stressed, and flooded with cortisol themselves, could it affect the church negatively? I think it can and does in many churches. Consider these 9 tell-tale signs of a church flooded with cortisol.
- Your leadership team seems to always be uptight, tired, and sick a lot.
- Little trust between staff, elders, and the people in general exists.
- The leaders incessantly push bigger and better programs and ministries. They often switch from one great idea to the next.
- Your staff experiences lots of turn-over.
- An atmosphere of suspicion and “the wary eye” seems to pervade the church and your teams.
- Staff meetings are conflict filled or staff simply don’t say much in meetings for fear they will get reprimanded.
- A heavy spirit seems to linger over the office and even the church itself.
- Tension and conflict fill elder and/or deacon meetings.
- You seem to focus most on problems rather than victories or stories of how God is working.
How many of these did you check? Granted, spiritual forces are at work here as well. It’s not just a biological thing. But if more than two of these are true of your church, you might need to take a good look at your church’s stress level. Your church may be flooded with cortisol.
How might a church dial down a cortisol culture? Consider these potential antidotes.
- Create a ‘do not do’ list for your church. Pare down what you do so that leaders and volunteers don’t feel run ragged. Do a few things well.
- Teach your leaders how to build trust. Here’s a recent blog on building trust. When we build trust, we help activate the trust neurotransmitter oxytocin in our brains that creates a feeling of safety and belonging. Here’s a video of a recent talk I gave on building trust.
- Build fun experiences into your staff calendar. Don’t make every encounter revolve around pressing ministry issues.
- If you are the main leader, dial down your own intensity. Take breaks during the day. Deal with your own stress. Take your day off. Disconnect from technology 24 hours each week.
- Begin your staff and elder/deacon meetings with praises and victories.
- Share stories in your services that point to God’s blessings and changed lives.
- Over-communicate with your church. When people sense they know what’s happening, they will tend less to assume the worst. When we assume the worst we become anxious and cortisol ratchets up.
- Smile a lot. Our brain has what are called mirror neurons (brain cells) that prompts us to mimic the intentional, goal directed actions of others. Model give body language to others that you want them to imitate. And, make it positive.
Do you think churches can be affected by cortisol in leaders? Why or why not?