5 top strategies to stop your brain from crashing

I run a small business and it’s no picnic (unless you are talking about one of those picnics where you do loads of preparation, drive forever, get viciously attacked by insects and then have Yogi Bear pilfer your picnic basket). I mean, it really does have its challenges. As well as looking after customers, finances and a thousand other little details, I need to look after my mind, which is a very complex and temperamental bit of machinery.

Sometimes my mind is overactive. Sometimes it is slow to get going. Mostly, it oscillates between self-confidence and self-doubt, exuberance and exhaustion, having it all together and having it spread all over the place like a tornado-ravaged yard sale.

A prominent yet largely useless feature of my mind is its inner critic. Somewhere amidst all those squishy, grey, lumpy bits is a voice which whispers all sorts of harsh, unhelpful things.

“You don’t know what you’re doing.”

“You’re an imposter.”

“You’re going to get found out.”

I really wish this voice would do something useful, like help me out with my accounts, but unlike me it only has one role and that’s criticism.

“You suck at accounting. You should have listened during those university lectures, rather than doodling, staring out the window and daydreaming about genetically engineering miniature elephants which would one day take over from cats and dogs as the favoured domestic pets.”

Running a small business is a crazy challenge. In fact, it is a series of crazy challenges. Some I’m good at. Some I muddle through okay. Some I will readily admit to completely sucking at. By far my least favourite challenge is fixing the printer. From the initial error message, it generally takes me about three hours of swearing and two trips to the office supplies store before I manage to actually print a page. Hours later I will still be whinging about why printer ink is more expensive, ounce for ounce, than the finest 21-year-old single malt scotch.

Luckily, I have great support. My wife is a psychologist who specialises in workplace mental health. When I am overwhelmed, feeling like an imposter or having homicidal thoughts towards the executives of Epson, she is able to offer me very wise advice and practical strategies to help me get through.

Unfortunately, not every small business owner has a caring, knowledgeable in-house psychologist to assist them in times of high stress. And mental health is an area where it’s important to receive expert advice — after all, the human brain is infinitely more complex than the taxation system or my stupid printer.

To help fill this gap, I have worked together with my far more qualified wife to create an e-learning program (rawmindcoach.com) which equips workers with a range of practical resilience-building strategies. I’d now like to share some of these with you. Following are a five of the most effective ways to keep your brain working far better than your stupid printer.

1. Engage in self-compassion

Just like me, most people have a fierce inner critic. Attentively we tune in to a voice which says things like “You’re not good enough. You don’t know what you’re doing. You’re an imposter. You’re too fat. You’re too dumb. You spend way too much time fantasising about selling millions of miniature elephants.” The more we keep listening to these taunts, the more the feelings of inadequacy grow.

The best way to change this inner conversation is by offering yourself kindness and compassion. Because we are so used to being tough on ourselves, for many of us it is a real challenge to say “I am human. I am not made to be perfect. No matter what is left undone, I am enough.”

But self-compassion is not just about words — it also requires action. It involves regularly doing things which nurture and restore you. Perhaps, you will leave your laptop closed for the weekend, take a long hot bath, listen to your favourite music, chat with a friend, take a walk in nature or cook your favourite meal. All of these simple, self-compassionate acts can boost your wellbeing and help you become more resilient.

2. Practise mindfulness

When I was first introduced to mindfulness I was asked to sit cross-legged on the floor and close my eyes whilst some horrific new age panpipe/wind chime/whale music played. As I sat there with a painful pins and needles sensation spreading slowly through my buttocks, I thought a lot about how excruciating panpipes were, how uncomfortable my bum was and how much I was hating this whole experience.

Like me, many people get turned off mindfulness because they have a bad first experience. Thankfully I learned that there are all sorts of ways to practise mindfulness. No, I don’t have to fold my legs like a pretzel. No, I don’t have to listen to “soothing” panpipes. Yes, I can practise mindfulness anywhere, anytime, for however long I want.

Image courtesy of Unsplash

At its core mindfulness is an acute attention skill. It simply involves bringing your focus to the present moment. It also allows you to interact differently with thoughts, offering less judgement, along with more flexibility and compassion.

Regularly practising mindfulness has shown to have a very wide array of positive psychological benefits. Personally, I find it helps to connect with what really matters, especially when I find myself stressing about things which really don’t. The benefits flow across all areas of life — being mindful also helps me to savour food more, to play better golf and to be a much more enjoyable person for others to be around.

3. Understand your values

When I’m completely caught up in running things, everything else can fall by the wayside. Before I know it there are cobwebs on my mountain bike, no food in the fridge and a succession of voicemails from friends and family enquiring as to whether I have been abducted. For anyone who operates a small business, it’s very easy to slide into this trap.

By letting business dominate, you can easily neglect other important values. Maybe it’s your health which suffers, or your marriage, or your relationships with friends. Perhaps you stop playing that instrument, having people over to your house or doing other things you really enjoy. To bring balance it is important to understand your values and take actions in line with them.

Taking small actions can make a very large difference to your wellbeing. If health is important you may choose to go swimming a few mornings each week. Want to play more music? Commit to practising a few new songs. Want to have more fun with friends? Schedule a regular catch-up for a coffee, a movie… or a picnic.

4. Have the courage to be vulnerable

Ask people the top five emotions they want in their life and the answers are fairly typical. They want happiness, love, safety, joy and contentment. Occasionally someone will say they want sexual ecstasy, but no one ever says they want to feel vulnerable.

Why not? Vulnerability is the stuff heroes are made of. It’s the stuff which helps you learn, grow, move forward and do great things. Did you know Gandhi hated public speaking? He could easily have chosen to stay silent and feel safe. Instead, he chose to be vulnerable. In the end his words changed a nation.

If you just want to feel comfortable, stop reading this right now, sit down on a couch, open some Doritos, switch on some reality TV and stay there for the next forty years. However, if you want to achieve anything of real importance, have the courage to be vulnerable.

While your comfort zone may feel ever so safe, that slightly scary place beyond it is the only space where you can really live, grow and make meaningful change.

5. Give your brain a service

Your simple little printer demands ink and power and to be switched on and off again before it will even contemplate doing anything. But whenever you wake up, you will find your brain is already functioning.

Unfortunately, this very special brain feature has made most of us quite complacent. We tend to take these magnificent machines in our craniums for granted and are pretty lax at maintaining them. Often we don’t give them enough sleep, enough exercise or enough healthy food.

Sleep, exercise and nutrition can all have a massive effect on your mind. When you look after yourself, the brain does a great job of looking after itself, carrying out its own repairs and making sure everything is performing at its peak.

Do the wrong things however and your brain’s functioning can be significantly diminished. Not only will you become terrible at performing many important cognitive tasks, you may also be at greater risk of experiencing a range of mental health conditions.

Want your brain to function better? Then step away from the laptop! There’s all sorts of kind things you could be doing for your mind. Go for a run. Eat a salad. Take a nap. But please, whatever you do, just don’t try and print this article…

Originally published at medium.com