What happens to your brain when you’re on the way to burnout?
Your brain is spending too much time in what’s called high amplitude beta. It’s a state of chronic stress and anxiety. Your cortisol is in overdrive.
This state feeds on itself, because in high amplitude beta, you’re cut off from the other resources of your mind and consciousness. Your brain might still be producing theta and delta frequencies, but you can’t access the information.
This is a state of stress: you feel like you have little control over or break from pressure. You’re disconnected from things like creative problem-solving when you need them most. Essentially, you’re in survival mode.
It’s like a car running in overdrive. It can only go so long like that before you fry the engine.
We’re very adaptive as humans. That has benefits, obviously. But not so much when it comes to stress. When you go through a prolonged period of stress, your mind and body adjust to help you keep going. Even though you’re not functioning as well anymore – not thinking as clearly, body in distress – this depleted state can become your new normal. It’s easy to not notice that you’re running at half mast.
Beta is a normal state. It’s the dominant state of the alert, waking mind. Both schools and workplaces encourage operating in beta. It’s good for getting things done and is associated with rushes of adrenaline.
But too much beta – and particularly high beta – can lead to muscle tension, high blood pressure, anxiety, stress, insomnia, and addiction. It takes a lot of energy to operate from here. In short, spending too much time in beta means you’re not functioning at optimum levels.
You can change your operating state by consciously changing your brain states. You can start by introducing more alpha.
Alpha is a state between high and low brain frequencies. Your thinking is different here than in high amplitude beta. This state is associated with being in flow or in the zone. Your learning and memory improve. In alpha, you’re less anxious and less prone to low moods. You’re also more creative and intuitive. Most people feel at ease and calm in this state.
In alpha, you’re able to move efficiently to accomplish any task at hand. You know how basketball players keep their knees bent so they can quickly pivot and move on the court? Alpha is like that. It’s a relaxed alertness, able to move into the more focused state of beta or the more creative state of theta as needed.
Alpha appears to bridge the conscious and the subconscious. It links the unconscious brainwaves of theta and delta to the active thinking brainwaves of beta and gamma.
So how do you maximize beta and alpha (and the other brain states) in your life? Let’s start with an example.
When our ancestors wandered the land to hunt and gather, their lives depended upon them being able to identify dangers as well as food and water sources. It was crucial to recognize dangers quickly and from a distance, so they could avoid them.
They used a relaxed gaze that allowed them to see the full landscape. The wide gaze took in patterns and movements rather than specific objects. When they wanted to look at something more closed, they switched their gaze to focus on the object.
You can try it yourself. Look up from your reading this. Likely you’re seeing one or two objects in front of you. Now relax and widen your gaze until you’re taking in the whole room or scene in front of you.
It’s a good metaphor for how to maximize theta and beta. Alpha corresponds to the wide gaze and beta to the focused stare. Today, for bunches of reasons, we’re spending too much time in beta and not enough in alpha, which is causing difficulties in our thinking, emotional states, and bodies. It’s not that beta is bad; it’s just that too much beta is like drinking too much coffee. It might be time to drink more water.
Imagine using this in a meeting. Instead of remaining in beta, you relax into theta state, taking in the whole room. You’ve just increased your awareness and access to information manyfold. Instead of focusing on specifics, you’re able to see patterns and energy. You’re better able to access creative problem-solving and intuition.
It’s also like operating in energy-saving mode allowing you to save energy for other tasks in your day. When you need to complete a task or focus on something specific, you can move into beta and then return to the more relaxed state of alpha when done.
Learning to operate from alpha rather than beta gives you more relaxation and recovery. It enables you to have bigger thinking important for leaders. You can see the forest for the trees. And you can still check out the trees when you need to.
It takes time to rewire the way we operate, but it’s well worth our efforts. Our brains become more efficient and use less energy. We gain access to knowledge and creativity. We see the big picture. We have healthier brains and bodies.
You’ve already taken the first step – awareness – by reading this article. You understand what’s going on in your brain when you’re riding the stress train, so you’re empowered to change tracks – rather than traveling to burnout.
You’ve also learned about the gaze. We spend a lot of our time in a day focused on close-up objects like our devices. That limited focus tends to correspond to beta, so reminding ourselves to widen our perspective can introduce more alpha into our day. As a bonus, it also gives our eye muscles a bit of a workout. Like our brains, the muscles in our eyes are suffering from too much time on our devices.
Breaking Old Habits
If you’ve been on the road to burnout, even minor changes can make a substantial difference. Here are a couple of simple techniques to get more alpha into your day.
1. Closing Your Eyes
Closing your eyes, especially if you engage in visualization boosts alpha waves (don’t get caught up on the word visualization – you may not ‘see’ things clearly, but you may sense or feel, hear, smell, etc. As long as you’re engaging your inner senses, you’re doing just fine). You can take moments in your day to close your eyes and experience a goal you have. That helps you focus your resources on the goal and ‘reset’ you.
2. Hacking the Mind-Body Connection
You’ve probably heard about breathing before for releasing stress. There’s good reason. The breath is a speedy means of hacking the mind-body connection.
These two techniques are ones you can do while still in action with others or on tasks.
When we become anxious, our breathing changes. It becomes shallow. It moves up into our chests.
That creates a feedback loop. Shallow breathing tells your body it’s under stress. It activates the sympathetic nervous system to respond to danger. It changes our posture. Shoulders slump forward. We can get neck pain and headaches. It lowers our immune systems.
It makes stress a habit in our mind and bodies.
Deep breathing can change your state rapidly. It’s a good habit to check your breathing throughout the day. Deep, or diaphragmatic, breathing uses the diaphragm to pull air into the lungs and belly. Your belly moves in and out while your chest and shoulders stay relaxed and still.
Twice the Exhale
Exhaling twice as long as you inhale activates the relaxation response, releasing stress. For example, you can inhale for 3 counts and exhale for 6. This relaxes the mind and body. Muscular tension releases. Digestion improves.
Higher Quality Living
Research has demonstrated the benefits of meditation. Now it’s time to get these benefits off the mat and into our daily lives.
Getting to know our brain states and consciousness empowers us to get out of overwhelm. It can help us understand stress and burnout and both recover and enhance our thinking to avoid stress and take advantage of our natural abilities.
We’re in an age when we have access to cutting-edge information. The more we understand our brains, the mind-body connection, and whole brain thinking, the more we’re able to maximize them and choose a higher quality of living and working.
Catherine Sherlock, Founder of Higher Mindfulness, plays on the edge of human potential elevating lives and leadership. Through insights and paradigm shifts, upending the norms of our times and expanding and transforming minds, she helps people change inner struggle to peace, move from overwhelm to empowerment and connect with their capacities and potential. Opening the door to profound transformations in the way we look at and live in the world.