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my favorite part of the brain: prefrontal cortex pt. 2 – simple ways to strengthen it

Welcome to part 2 of the prefrontal cortex GM series of posts!

Last week in part 1, I went over what the executive functions are specifically (decision-making, focus skills, “big thinking” abilities, planning, and emotional management – to name a few).

This week, I’ve looked into some basic tips on how to strengthen your prefrontal cortex (and consequently improve your executive functions) and I’m sharing with you some of my favorites that I found…

  1. Filter the information you entertain. Information overload negatively affects your brain’s frontal lobe capacity to think clearly and make strong decisions. This is the best argument I’ve heard for “not sweating the small stuff.” Who wants to be focused on the trivial when it detracts from the relevant?

  2. Think from your “wise mind”. This is a technique I learned a while back that I absolutely love. If you have difficulty regulating your impulses or emotions, pause for a beat and ask yourself what the wiser version of yourself would do. By using your critical thinking skills, you switch right out of your emotion mind and into a more rational state.

  3. Create a positive future story. Optimism promotes rising levels of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure centers.

  4. Focus on learning new and engaging activities to fire off neurons and develop a stronger PFC.

  5. Get good sleep. I feel like this tip might be on every health/body/mind tip list that’s ever existed, and that’s probably for a reason. When it comes to prefrontal cortex performance, studies (by Kate McGonigal, PhD, author of The Willpower Instinct) show that when sleep-deprived people start getting better sleep, their brain scans no longer show signs of PFC impairment.

  6. Meditate. Meditation improves not only your willpower but also your focus, attention, stress management, and self-awareness.

  7. Manage your willpower. {I love this technique – I think this one might be the most helpful and it also is the one I’d like to work on the most.} If you understand that your willpower is in limited supply and can ebb and flow considering various conditions (time of day, amount of sleep, stressful environments, etc), you can properly prepare yourself for those times when you’re mentally exhausted and have low self-control. You can’t necessarily control when your willpower is in low supply, so don’t beat yourself up about it. Instead, control your environment and ensure that you’re setting yourself up for willpower success.

  8. Consume vitamin-rich foods and exercise. Nutrient-packed foods and exercise that is fun for you will boost your mood, improve the efficiency of cognitive function, and help persist against emotional resistance.

Hope these helped.

Looking forward to your thoughts,

JM

 

LINKS:

https://www.fastcompany.com/3032513/6-scientifically-proven-ways-to-boost-your-self-control

http://advancedhabits.com/how-to-increase-willpower-exercising-your-brain/

my favorite part of the brain – prefrontal cortex pt. 1: executive functions

The prefrontal cortex is my favorite part of the brain for two reasons. One – it’s the most fun part to say and two – in my opinion, it’s responsible for most of the cool stuff.

Covering the front part of the frontal lobe, the prefrontal cortex is responsible for a long list of imperative human functioning abilities psychologically known as your “executive functions”.

Executive functions include the ability to:

  • differentiate between conflicting thoughts

  • determine good and bad / better and best / same and different

  • anticipate future consequences of current activities

  • work toward a defined goal

  • predict potential outcomes

  • have realistic expectations based on actions

  • socially control yourself (suppress urges that could lead to socially unacceptable outcomes)

  • express your personality

  • make decisions

  • regulate attention + distraction

  • control impulses

  • regulate emotions

If you boil all of these functions down to their common denominator, you’ll recognize that the basic activity of the prefrontal cortex is the orchestration of thoughts/actions in accordance with internal goals. To me, I read that sentence and I see: MY PREFRONTAL CORTEX IS RESPONSIBLE FOR MATCHING THE ME I WANT TO BE UP WITH THE ME THAT I AM. And that is something I absolutely want.

Ok guys, that’s it for this post. I just wanted to share the basics of the prefrontal cortex so we can all geek out over it. Next week for part 2 of the prefrontal cortex series, I’m gonna be sharing a post with some ideas on how to strengthen your prefrontal cortex.

Looking forward to your thoughts,

JM

LINKS:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X5-Hdl0Z3VA – prefrontal cortex in 60 seconds

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prefrontal_cortex – prefrontal cortex wikipedia page

7 tricks I use to sleep better.

When I was little, I hated going to sleep. It felt like such a waste of time to me. I complained to my mom that the idea of a third of my life being devoted to sleep seemed sacrilege (and I’m sure I used those EXACT words).

Then I hit a time in my life in my later adolescent years where I WISHED I could sleep. Sleep evaded me like it was my worst enemy. Racing thoughts, packed agendas, and general nagging worries kept me awake for hours at night, woke me up in the middle of the night, and sometimes got me out of bed hours before I needed to be. Needless to say, it was not a fun few years.

If there was any positive to those restless few years, it was that I saw firsthand the disruptions poor sleep had on my life. My focus was rattled, my emotions were difficult to wrangle, and I felt exhausted most of the time. These negative effects motivated me to want to improve my sleeping habits.

It took some experimenting and commitment, but improve them I did! <hallelujah, celebratory jig, etc>. Here are some of the tips that worked best for me:

  1. Drink a cup of chamomile tea. Drinking this tea specifically is associated with an increase of glycine, a chemical that relaxes nerves and muscles and acts like a mild sedative. I’m all for a natural way to feel more relaxed!

  2. Meditate. I use my headspace meditation app most nights because I prefer guided meditations, but sometimes I’ll change it up and just cue up an hour of soothing sounds from any youtube meditation video.

  3. Exercise earlier in the day. If you exercise at night-time, you’ll ramp up your brain more and it might make it harder to sleep.

  4. No screen time a half hour before bed. Honestly, this one is hit and miss for me, but I find that when I’m able to actually keep my phone off for that half hour before falling asleep, I feel more rested in the morning when I wake up.

  5. Limit yourself to one cup of coffee a day. This one is so challenging for me but I absolutely find that when I limit my caffeine intake to one cup of coffee a day I sleep significantly better than when I have 2 (or 3… or 4…) cups.

  6. Invest in a good mattress. I used a tempur-pedic cloud supreme for a while, but I’ve recently switched to Casper, which is a bit firmer and I like it better. When I first went to purchase my cloud supreme a few years back, I was DISTURBED by how expensive the price point was, but with time I’ve decided that sleep is a worthwhile investment. If you can spare the change for better sleep, do it.

  7. Do a brain dump before going to sleep. I do this if I’m feeling anxious or have more than usual on my plate. I set a timer for 20 minutes and I jot down everything I need to get done as well as everything that’s weighing on my mind – big, little, and in between. Laying it all out on paper is so cathartic and helpful for me and it almost always results in an easier, better sleep.

Alright, team, those are my favorite tips. What do you do to fall asleep better? Any tips that weren’t on this list? Do you have difficulties with sleep in general or are you naturally just a good sleeper?

Looking forward to your thoughts,

JM

What I’ve learned about good posture.

Our parents told it to us growing up, yet it’s one of those things that as a kid seems like such a chore… “stand up straight.”

My mom used to tell me to imagine a string stuck in my head that was being pulled directly upward. It always felt weird and cocky to me, like “oh look at me standing up so straight because I think I’m so amazing.” I always wanted to be short anyway, so I was fine with a slightly concave slump. Consequently, the posture debate between me and my mother continued for years to come, usually with her telling me I’d be happy I had good posture later on and with me groaning and rolling my eyes and slumping even more like a true rebel.

Cut to 15 years later, here I am wanting to focus on my posture. I got a massage on my birthday and you know what I told the lady? “My goal with massages is to IMPROVE MY POSTURE.” WTF, am I 45?

Oh well, if it means something to you it means something to you and that’s all that matters. And for right now, having good posture means something to me.

 I’ve been doing a bit of research on posture and as it turns out, good posture not only promotes bodily benefits but psychological and emotional ones as well, including lower stress, increased confidence, and more balanced thinking. As physical therapist/psychotherapist Rob Holcroft puts it, “Empowering posture will empower your thoughts and feelings.”

My current program I’m using to work on posture is adjusting when I feel myself slouching, using my laptop in places where it’s more at eye level, stretching, and getting neck/back massages when I can. I’ve gotta say, just by focusing on my posture and knowing I want to improve it, I’ve been able to notice how often I have poor posture and adjust it accordingly.

Do you have good posture or bad posture? If it’s bad, do you have a desire to improve it? What do you think your posture says about you?

Looking forward to your thoughts,

JM

LINKS:

https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=bKuDDNi5Dlw

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OyK0oE5rwFY

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/edith-ismene-nicolaougriffin/sit-up-straight-the-menta_b_7338440.html

what are you worried about?

Hey team,

What have you been worried about lately? What’s been taking up more of your brainspace than it deserves?

You know the worries I’m referring to – the ones that don’t seem to serve a purpose when you worry about them. The ones that detract from your quality of life and deplete your energy when you think about them, the ones that never seem to have any resolve and yet you can’t seem to stop worrying about them regardless?

To clarify, I am NOT talking about the things of life that really should/need to be faced. I’m talking about the tiny, nagging, irrelevant worries that don’t really matter and, in the grand scheme of things, are relatively small potatoes.

Great. Now that we’re all in agreeance on the kind of worrying I’m talking about, on with my point…

I think worrying is a habit. I really do. There are a few things at any given period of my life that I seem to consistently worry about, and then at the next period where a new wave of random worries takes over, I’ll look back at the past batch of worries with perspective, embarrassment, and usually some humor.

So if any given batch of small-potatoes worries can be swept up by a new wave of worries, why even have them in the first place? Why not just expedite the process and cut out the middle-man, skip the worries altogether and have a happier, fuller, richer life?

Oh, is this where I’m supposed to have the answer? I was asking rhetorically…

Seriously! Lately, I’ve been trying to worry less by noticing when I worry, what I frequently worry about, and how quickly my worries can get out-of-hand. I’m trying to manage my worries with a bit of a sense of humor and a bit of compassion, depending on the situation and the type of worry.

How are you with your worries? What do you worry about most? Do you feel separated from your worries or do you feel enveloped by them? Do you have any ideas for how you can separate yourself from them more?

I care about this issue a lot and am looking forward to thoughts from you guys. I think we all deserve lives with a few less worries.

Thanks for reading!

setting systems

Hey team,

Last year, I read a book called The 5 Choices, The Path to Extraordinary Productivity. Despite the fact that while I was reading the book I worried it was detracting from my productivity, my productivity in the year since reading it has clearly increased and I’m excited to share with you the section of it that helped me the most.

In the decision management chapter, there is a sub-section “what are the most important roles in your life today?” This section gives several prompts that urge the reader to evaluate their lives with a holistic approach, homing in on the key areas where they feel they can serve best. The way the section gets readers to zero in on these areas is by asking readers to identify the key “roles” they fill in their lives, the roles that are most important to them. Once the key roles are identified, personal mission statements are set in place to act as quasi-mottos for each separate role, and then you are asked to lay out specific, appropriate goals for each category.

The thing I liked most about this brief sub-section was that it made priorities crystal clear before introducing goals. I’m a big believer that goals without distinct values backing them up are just another form of being caught in the hamster wheel. With distinct values in place, however, goals take on a new meaning and somehow switch from seeming daunting to seeming exciting.

I didn’t know it at the time but this method of working toward the things you want in life is actually called SYSTEM SETTING. Don’t think it’s just a fancy new way of saying “goals” (that’s what I thought initially!!) Trust me, they’re different in important ways…

Goals

  • Results-based
  • Micro-focused
  • Rigorous methods
  • Finish line mindset

Systems

  • Process-based
  • Macro-focused
  • Sustainable methods
  • Growth mindset

To me, goals and systems are the difference between anxiety, rat race, and feeling like you can’t keep up and clear-headedness, running your own race, and feeling confident in knowing that the steps you are taking are directed toward the things that matter to you.

Do you guys use goals or systems? When did you first hear about systems? What do you like / not like about them?

Looking forward to your thoughts,

JM

LINKS:

serving your creativity

Hey team,

If there’s one thing in life that I believe most likely leads to happiness, it’s creativity. Without creativity, what are we even? Just a bunch of humans bobbing around doing exactly as instructed? PASS.

With creativity, our individuality shines through and we feel all the good things – hope, joy, love, etc.

The bummer is that sometimes creativity can be challenging to access. For me at least, I can get stuck in my analytical, left-brained mindset, assessing and rationalizing everything around me… which is great, when it serves me. But when my creative mind is begging to come out and my logical mind is insisting on having control, my left-brain goes from being useful and reliable to causing me stress and actually being counter-productive.

It’s like my left brain doesn’t trust that my right brain will spend its time usefully. My left brain goes into panic doer mode while my creative mind cries in a corner begging if they can have a turn. Dramatic, sure, but hopefully you get the point…

Recently, I’ve been trying to actively make an effort to serve my creative mind. For me, this looks like setting aside un-scheduled time every day to just let my mind wander and do whatever it wants to. It’s shocking to me how much a half-hour walk with no agenda can work wonders for the creative side of me. I feel fresher and energized afterward and usually a lot less hard on myself.

Since I’m still in the experimental stage of finding what environment/time of day/circumstances best serve my creativity, I’m curious to hear what works for you guys. When do you feel most creative? What does creativity feel like for you? What areas of life are you most creative in?

Looking forward to your thoughts,

JM

LINKS:

Pay Attention

Hey team,

I can be such a scatterbrain. My mind will wander, my thoughts will race, I’ll forget where I set my keys when they’re right in my hand. I have these and also every single other classic example of a short attention span, including the fact that I have gotten distracted 47 times already during the course of writing this one single paragraph.

Ugh! That’s not what I want. I want a nice, long, perfect attention span that allows me to perform my tasks wonderfully and exceed every goal I set for myself…

…Too bad literally nothing works out the way I want and also I am going to die one day.

Jokes! (I’m testing the temperature of the humor of my readers.)

Anyway, lately I’ve been really wanting to work on my attention span/focus/concentration. I feel it’s an area that I can afford great improvements in and I’m curious to see how those improvements might affect my life.

After reading a few articles (links below), here are some basic tips I found on improving attention span.

1. Reduce distractions.

This means limiting use of technology while studying/working on a project (sometimes I’m not great with this one, but it’s most helpful when I absolutely cut myself off. For me, that means writing at a cafe but not turning on wi-fi, or putting my phone on airplane mode so I can’t hear the pings or be tempted to check social media.) It also means avoiding menial tasks, phone chats with gabby friends, or whatever else you may be doing to avoid doing what you really need to be doing (only you know your weaknesses! Home in!)

2. Jot it down!

YES to this one. It helps me out so much. Carry a little notepad and pen/pencil with you (keep it small so it fits easily into most compartments/bags/large pockets) exclusively for your random thoughts. As they come up, you can jot them down and get them out of your system so they don’t continue to cycle in you loop of thoughts.

3. Mindfulness meditation.

You can either get on board now with meditation or be way behind the times. It really is a movement and I think it’s one for a reason. If the word “meditation” makes you think of standing cliffside with a contrived serene look on your face while you spoon hemp seed into your mouth, avoid the term and use a replacement one like “thoughtfulness” or “contemplation”. Terms aside, taking a few moments to be present and check-in with how you’re feeling and the speed your mind is operating at can work wonders for your focus. You can essentially see “what you’re working with” and then work from there.

4. Have a cup of joe!

There’s so much information out there about caffeine and its positives/negatives for you. I happen to be an anxious person who LOVES coffee, so figuring out the right relationship with it is something I’ve been working on for a while. The fact that caffeine helps with focus is a great argument in favor of coffee and one that I will always keep in my back pocket. Perhaps if you’re anxious, keep the coffee to a small like I’ll be trying to do. (Trying.)

5. A good environment

If it’s within your control, make sure that your environment serves your focus. That means if a little chatter and ambience works for you, awesome – go to a cafe and get the thing done. If you need total silence, set yourself up for success by spending time alone in a quiet place. If music you like helps you, keep that playing in the background. The tricky aspect of having a good environment is that you need to know for sure what works best for your mental aptitude. If you don’t already know the answer, take a project of relatively low-urgency and try working on parts of it in different environments. Take note of when your mind and concentration feels best, when you do your best work, and when you feel happiest.

Let me know if you guys try any of the tips and which are your favorites. What would you say your current attention span is like? Are you able to focus pretty well or do you struggle? Are there certain subjects you’re able to focus on better than others?

JM

LINKS:

serotonin post update vlog

http://www.youtube.com/jennettemccurdyofficial/

serotonin and how it helps you feel happier

Hey team,

I’ve been interested in the hormones/neurotransmitters responsible for happiness for quite some time. Whether I’ve been interested in them because I’m a completely miserable person and want to be happy OR because I’m a completely happy person and want to know why is a question that I will leave up for debate. 😉

For the sake of this post, let’s just focus on serotonin. We don’t want TOO much happiness all at once now, do we? (I have such an urge to post another wink-face. I am hot on the winks today.)

So serotonin is a neurotransmitter (brain chemicals that communicate information throughout our brain and bodies) that contributes to feelings of well-being and happiness. It’s also largely responsible for the regulation of your appetite (90% of serotonin is located in the gastrointestinal tract). It’s fair to say serotonin is pretty important.

You can get serotonin through your diet (amino acids in healthy proteins), sunlight, or massage. Exercise – particularly aerobic – is also thought to increase both serotonin production and release. You can also reduce sugar intake and try including fermented foods in your diet – I knew I liked kombucha for a reason other than to feel hip!

I’ve tried all of the above (curbing my sweet-tooth is the most challenging) but what I have yet to try is supplementation.

I have a friend who regularly takes 5-htp and SAM-e and says they work wonders. Another friends takes magnesium and seems to like it (but doesn’t that one, like, loosen your stools and cause you to fall asleep?). I’m also interested in trying zinc but that’s just cuz I like the name.

I’m curious to know if you guys have taken serotonin supplements and, if so, how they have worked out for you? Are there any that you would recommend? What about the other natural methods for boosting serotonin levels – have you tried those? If so, which work best for you?

Here’s to happiness,

JM

Links: