Brain Breaks and Deep Breaths to Help Ease the Stress

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It’s back to work on a Monday morning. With stay at home orders still in place to slow the spread of the coronavirus, it means many North Texans will spend another week working from home and making sure kids at home are doing school work. 

Keeping it all together is easier some days than others.

“When I think about the amount of stress and pressure that we’re all under, that I experience myself, it all comes down to our brain and the behaviors and habits we are willing to try or change and put into motion,” says Jennifer Zientz, mother of three and head of clinical services at the Center for BrainHealth under the umbrella of the University of Texas at Dallas.

Multitasking is one of the habits a lot of us deploy. The more we do at the same time, the more productive we think we’ll be. Zientz calls multitasking a myth and a habit we should change.

“What happens when we’re multitasking is we are dousing our brains with cortisol. And coristol is a stress hormone,” that can be good in fight or flight situations but the way we’re living now, she says, is causing a “toxic overload.”

“It’s really bad for us, and it makes us agitated. it makes us have short tempers. It makes us not want to have the energy to make dinner for our family. We’re not good at having conversation at dinner time,” she explained. “So the less multitasking we can do, the better. And that probably seems counterintuitive to people, but that’s what the research has shown us.”

Instead of multitasking, Zientz encourages those balancing work and kids at home to focus on singular tasks.

“Having some pretty distinct lines, chunks of time, where we’re willing to say this is work time, this is helping your kids time and interacting with the kids time is really important,” she says. “And it helps you get your work done faster, better, more accurate but also with the sense of confidence that you’re not overly pressuring yourself.”

She also advocates for brain breaks, times when we intentionally disconnect from technology, work and active engagement. She suggests five five-minute brain breaks a day to reduce levels of cortisol.

“Just going outside for five minutes -front yard, back yard. Going for a really short walk, laugh with your kids or spouse or significant other, something that eases the tension, she explained. 

In addition to the brain breaks, another stress resilience tool is to practice deep breathing. A low and slow inhale of breath followed by a longer exhale. 

“Stress is a normal part of life but when everyone else is feeling it, too, like now. It’s magnified,” says Dee O’Neill, a licensed professional counselor who is also with the Center for Brain Health. “Our heart rate is increasing. We’re not breathing deeply. We’re not sleeping.”

So in addition to the brain breaks, another stress resilience tool is to practice deep breathing. A low and slow inhale of breath followed by a longer exhale. 

“That switches on the parasympathetic nervous system, the part of your brain that says calm down, chill out and to really lower that stress response,” O’Neill said.  

She recommends inhaling for four or five seconds, feeling the belly and lungs expand with air, then exhale out of the mouth for five or six seconds. 

“If we’re sleeping and taking nice deep breaths and, as much as possible, getting exercise and eating healthy foods, then we hope we that can build up our resilience to stress,” O’Neill explained. 

O’Neill and Zientz are among several subject matter experts at the Center for Brain Health that have put together short videos providing tips on reasoning and resilience to help brain health and performance. You can find them here

“What we’re trying to do is teach people to use your brain more strategically, so that it’s not just about surviving but thriving,” Zientz said. 

ONLINE: Videos for brain health and performance.

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