Recently Megan Strant (@meganstrant) and I were walking the Elwood Canals (you can see what they’re like in the video below – thank you Megan for making me aware of this walk which I didn’t know about!). She mentioned to me about the importance of morning routines that help us set our day and give us a sense of productivity and achievement; and a sense of calm to start our day.
I had wondered why last year, during our Melbourne lockdowns, the one thing I felt that gave me a sense of calm and a sense of achievement every day through lockdown was having a set routine in this order – that involved the following:
- Getting up and getting dressed in gym gear
- Having a glass of water
- Morning cup of coffee while journalling morning pages
- Walking 10K steps BEFORE returning home
- Listening to a podcast on my walk (with a daily French audio lesson)
- Returning to shower, get dressed properly (NO track pants or casual gear)
- Put makeup on and comb hair
- Make bed
- Start work by 8:30 am (and stop work promptly at 4:30 pm)
Doing these things in that order helped me give me a sense of accomplishment and I had wondered why this was the case.
There had to be some neurological, physiological reason for it?
In addition to that, I’ve been interested recently on how my brain works of late because I spat the dummy recently about the difficulty of learning French. It’s as IF I FEEL MY BRAIN IS CHANGING.
I know, weird right?
I mean, I REALLY got angry about it because it felt like my brain was in constant struggle and I couldn’t remember anything. Nothing is worse than feeling like an ageing woman. Sheeesh….I do NOT need reminders that things are harder to learn with age.
Anyway, it made me think that by learning something new or something hard, maybe my brain is going through something I can’t explain.
If I was having a hard time with learning French (the ‘situation’); if I was going through a highly stressful and anxious time in my life ( the ‘environment’ of continual lockdowns with very strict conditions that meant curfews, more police in our neigbourhoods, negativity, supermarket queues, wearing face masks, unable to see family and friends and a constant state of heightened stress, fear and anxiety for most of the year – then WHAT WAS GOING ON IN MY BRAIN?
Was the reason my French language learning and my morning routine a way where I was overcoming this fear and focussing on something OUTSIDE myself in order that I didn’t “go inside myself” and in so doing, isolate socially even more so and make things in my head seem bigger, darker than they are?
If so, I was doing it ‘on automatic’ (meaning that I was doing it without thinking about it – it came ‘natural’ to me…but WHY!?).
Why would I choose to learn something new and something else in one of the most stressful periods of my life?
What I Found Out
Enter Professor Andrew Huberman arrived promptly into my YouTube feed thanks to the algorithm. I’m no fan of algorithms but this time, I’m thankful.
As is always the case with anyone who mentions the word “neuroscientist” to me, I’m a bit of a skeptic because unless they’re in the field of brain science, I tend not to pay them any attention. Lately there seems to be a lot of people (especially in my field of Learning & Development) talking neuroscience but they’re not actually within the medical field so I tend not to pay attention too much because it sends alarms bells for me if people who don’t have qualifications in this area tend to talk about the brain.
Anyway, this bloke doesn’t send alarm bells because he works at Stanford, he’s been studying the brain and he has a knack of explaining it all in layperson’s terms. Apparently Carol Dweck of mindset fame is his colleague.
So I started to watch his podcasts trying to find answers to understand how my brain works and why it does the things it does. He’s also easy on the eye so it made the videos easy to watch but that’s not important because really, I was more interested in his message and how it explained my behaviours.
Anyway, I spent the weekend collating some of his YouTube interviews all of which seem to go for over an hour and up to three hours (!) and decided I’ll tackle some of them bit by bit.
First podcast I listened to was this one. A nice easy introduction to the brain and neuromodulators and some of the things I learned were:
- We need dopamine to be released in our brains to keep us moving forward towards a goal (and it makes us feel good)
- We need serotonin which makes us feel calm with our lot in life
- We have cycles (90 mins) in our days where our body is going between alert and ‘sleepy’ states and it’s up to us to be mindful of those times so that we can use them for the best or peak learning periods (mine I know are between 7am-10am when I’m my most productive and creative)
- The brain/mind allows us to change our focus from panoramic through to focus and each require a different ‘energy’ level (not his word but mine).
- If you want to learn something new, keep it to 90 mins but the initial upfront time will be difficult, agitating, uncomfortable because the brain is working
- The brain rewires itself during sleep and rested times.
- We need periods where our brain can relax that is incorporate times when you’re deliberately not studying.
In this second video, he talks about the link of what you see determines what you do. That is the link between stimulus and reaction and how we can manage our state especially at times of high stress.
Through a way of breathing based on how much CO2 you tolerate, you can create ‘boxed breathing’ which is an equal measure of inhaling and exhaling (because having more of one or the other ultimately changes your arousal state and the whole idea is for you to keep steady).
He gave an example of if your CO2 tolerance is at 30-60 seconds, then do the following:
Inhale for 5 seconds; hold for 5 seconds; exhale for 5 seconds and then hold for 5 seconds and repeat.
He gave this example as elite military operations who are under high stress situations and how they manage to stay alert and calm. (Which explains why when I was in the military all the guys in special operations I knew such as the Clearance Divers were quiet and calm and seemed to be on ‘an even keel’ all the time).
In this third video, he further explains how stress creates a “chemical dump” into our brains that creates a rapid heart beat and dilation of pupils.
The stress reaction could even get started by seeing a message on your phone (to me it’s social media) which then gets us to this heightened state where our focus tends to narrow in on that and at times, even it feels as if time has radically slowed down for us. That is, we then tend to have our lens only on that failing to see the wider environment (he calls it ‘seeing in portrait’ from ‘landscape’).
He says that in such cases, our body already has the means and ways to change the stress response (not through meditation, or baths, or eating carbs because they’re too slow) but through regulating our breathing through “physiological sighing” and more here.
In this fourth video, he says that in order for us to incorporate some dopamine into our day and keep going forward is to have some small actionable goals. (A ha! There’s my morning routine!!!)
Also the more stressed you are, the more you need to look less to yourself and more to the needs of others because your points of focus are away from you and this releases the stress because you suppress Takychinine which is the chemical that promotes low level aggression and heightened state of fear (which is true when we isolate ourselves from others making what’s in our head bigger than what it really is). “Takychinine is nature’s punishment for being socially isolated”. (A ha! There’s WHY I started to do things that got my focus away from being myself and in my own head!)
Anyway, just watching and listening to his podcasts made me realise that there WAS A REASON why I was behaving as such – the anger, the fear, the reason why I was retreating into myself and my own head and how naturally, without me realising what I was doing, I had to force myself to take a different approach.
As someone who really never thought about the importance of morning routines or thinking that my environment even though was ever changing, stressful and anxious at times and why I felt even WORSE when I became more isolated from others – I realised that my body and brain was “correcting itself” and it did so by creating new routines that made me focus externally and not internally. Also learning French at this time was a means and a way to think ‘outside myself’ and onto something else.
It was a real eye opener and I feel now I have a set of simple and easy methods to get back my body and brain back in balance when I’m feeling “off kilter”.