You can train your brain to perform at its best. NeuroLeadership specialist Kristen Hansen explains how.
Do you thrive on challenge or fold under pressure? Knowing how you work best is vital to performing at your peak. Negative emotions such as frustration, fear, anxiety, anger or impatience create a threat state, causing us to become less focused, have fewer insights, become more risk averse and feel less connected. Positive emotions create a reward state – clearer thinking and more effective production.
The prefrontal cortex (PFC) needs the right mix of neurochemicals to achieve peak performance. You have the perfect neurochemical mix for you, and that comes from having just the right amount of challenge and skill. Some people need more stretching and challenging, others need to feel stable and comfortable to be at their best.
When we experience too much input (arousal), there can be a sudden drop-off in performance. We become prone to black-and-white thinking, and go into a threat state. The brain then begins to process things differently, opting for the most automatic, easy response. When this happens regularly, it can cause physical changes in the brain. Your attention and behaviour are then driven by threat-avoidance. This can become a vicious cycle where your brain perceives more threats – real or not – which causes more stress.
On the other hand, when people are not experiencing enough arousal stress, they are under-stimulated, tired, or bored. Just before the top of the curve is the comfort zone. Some people are happy operating here, while others will want the constant stimulation to be at peak performance.
You are able to control the mix of your own neurochemicals. To manage threat states, you need to build resilience. This means recharging your PFC when it’s running out of fuel by taking a break, eating nourishing food, or having a stimulating talk with someone. Whatever you need to do to move into the reward state.
The 30-second circuit breaker
One strategy to move out of a threat state is the 30-second circuit breaker. It is called ‘Breathe – Label – Reappraise, something simple for the brain to remember when stressed.
Inhale and exhale slowly. This pumps oxygen to the PFC, helping inhibit and regulate our fight-flight-freeze response and slow down heart rate.
After you breathe, label the emotion. This uses the PFC. When angry, frustrated or annoyed, label it with something like “I’m feeling overwhelmed now.” Your PFC will then switch on, engaging rational thoughts. This allows externalisation and a step back from our emotions, giving us control.
Once you have gained some insight, ask yourself some questions like: “What can I learn from this?” or “Can I see the positive in this?”
You can then reappraise your situation while switching negative thoughts into positive, thus moving into a reward state.
The trifecta of peak performance
While the circuit breaker is a great “bounce back” strategy, you need a toolkit to build resilience and to ensure you are supporting your ability to bounce back. Mindfulness practice, brain-breaks, the right diet, sleep and exercise are all elements that contribute to building resilience.
It’s no secret that diet, sleep and exercise all impact on how you perform. Did you know:
- A 10-minute nap will deliver three hours of reinvigorated PFC capability.
- In yoga, when we are in a physically awkward position and we try to hold it and breathe, we are training our brain to get out of a threat state, to be calm under pressure.
- Carbohydrates like bread and pasta can make us tired because they trigger a surge of the brain chemical, serotonin. If you get sleepy after a big lunch of carbohydrates, don’t engage in activities that require alertness.
Having a strategy to bounce back from negative emotions as well as providing ourselves with a holistic approach to well-being gives us the best chance of regulating emotions, managing stress and being more resilient. Regularly ask yourself what you can do to improve these various aspects.
Kristen Hansen is an author, professional facilitator and speaker, and the founder of EnHansen Performance.