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2020: My Top 5 Brain Takeaways Implemented & Reinforced This Year

Written by: Rachel Paling, Executive Contributor

Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.

This has definitely been a year of upheaval and continuous challenges for most of the worldwide population. Personally, I believe this year has been a “Black Swan year.” In 2001 Nassim Taleb introduced this concept in finance and then in 2007 extended these “undirected and unpredicted” events beyond the financial markets. For example, World War 1, the internet, PCs, and 9/11, to name a few. The criteria for these are: a surprising event (to the observer) with a major effect, which by hindsight could have been expected. Although Taleb stated this year that he does not believe the pandemic is a Black Swan, I personally do think that the impact and devastating consequences of it certainly are.


So, what are the top 5 key brain lessons we have really learned to fully implement and reinforce through this unprecedented year of pandemic, lockdowns, restrictions, masking, social distancing, job upheavals, and loss of income etc.?


1. WE CAN HARNESS OUR EMOTIONS BY NAMING THEM

An in-depth knowledge of the Kubler-Ross curve can assist us all to comprehend and manage our emotions in times of great change, upheaval, or even death. The author introduced this model in her book in 1969 called Death and Dying and explains the five stages of grief as denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. During those early months of lockdown talking to many of my coaches, friends, and family, it was extremely useful to fully realize at each point of the curve to name and thus process the emotions at every stage. By naming emotions, activity decreases in the brain’s emotional centers; particularly, the amygdala. Then the frontal lobe can kick in with reasoning and logical solutions. In more simple terms, the fire from the emotion is dampened, and our executive functions take over. This has been proven through fMRI brain scan research conducted by Matthew Lieberman at UCLA, who has called this “affect labeling.” Dan Siegel, psychiatrist and Mindfulness expert, calls it “Name it to tame it.”


For me, it really helped to recognize my own journey through the Kubler-Ross curve pre and during lockdown, and I was able to bring this to others and witness how it also greatly assisted them.


2. THE BRAIN NEEDS PHYSICAL EXERCISE AND MENTAL STIMULATION

Research proves engaging in physical exercise increases the volume of the hippocampus. Neurogenesis and neuroplasticity in action, as new neurons are born, plus there is an increase in connections among existing neurons. An added bonus is that exercise provokes the increased production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein that promotes neuron growth and also survival.


Now let’s talk about chemistry. The cocktail of “happy chemicals” released when we exercise really regulates mood and feelings of well-being. Endorphins, dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin can keep depression and stress hormones, like adrenaline, at bay. During lockdown, fear and depression were rampant, and many of us realized that movement and physical exercise were key for the brain. One of the best things to exercise is to combine brain and body, as cognitive functioning during physical activity greatly enhances the birth of even more new neurons. Dancing or exercising while learning really can be the best brain and body boosts.


3. SOCIAL CONNECTIONS ARE ESSENTIAL FOR THE BRAIN

The devastating effects of lockdown and social distancing have made us all much more aware and painfully conscious of our inherent human need to be social. As we echo Matthew Lieberman’s research that “we are wired to be social,” this year, we discovered how it feels to be deprived of our social connections. How deeply I feel for the elderly who have been left alone, the families who have not been able to meet, the grandchildren who have missed out on their grandparents, and so many other “normal” social get-togethers which this year have been prohibited and continue to be. We have all had to relearn how to stay connected with whatever means we have been able to: online platforms have been saturated, phone calls and video calls have been and are, in many cases still, our only lifelines to each other. Many neighbors have “met” for the first time, and blocks of residents have collaborated and looked out for each other. We have definitely demonstrated our enormous capacity to connect no matter what, and we need to keep reinforcing this strong need, which Liebermann states is “even more fundamental, more basic, than our need for food or shelter.”


4. RESILIENCE CAN BE DEVELOPED

We have proven this year that resilience can be developed and honed. Richard Davidson in The Emotional Life of Your Brain says that “resilience is marked by greater activation in the left prefrontal cortex of the brain, which can be thirty times more than in the brain of someone who is not resilient.” Resilient people are more able to “turn off” negative emotions to then plan and act effectively without the heat of the emotion. We know now that we can increase resilience. It is not something that we are born with, it is a skill we can learn, and through neuroplasticity, changing thoughts and behaviors, we can change the brain.


5. MEDITATION, MINDFULNESS, SPIRITUAL CARE

Last but not least, we have realized the importance of calming the brain when times are chaotic, unpredictable, and potentially frightening. The benefits of meditation are scientifically proven, but the most outstanding is how regular practice leads to the shrinking of the amygdala. , therefore, a calmer disposition. When we first went into lockdown, I heard someone say, “we get to go on a spiritual retreat in our own homes,” and what a phenomenal way of seeing lockdown - an opportunity to retreat within. In my own experience, I know that the more chaos around me, the more I meditate. I had already been meditating daily for about 6 years, but during these months of lockdown, there have been days where I have increased to two or three times a day or 2 to 3 hours at a time. Deep meditation also boosts melatonin, serotonin, GABA, the calming chemical, DHEA, the longevity molecule, endorphins, growth hormone, and reduces cortisol.


Finally, I would like to acknowledge us all as a collective. This year came as a shock, and each one of us has had to navigate through these 2020 waters. The scars and trauma from this year will be the aftermath to manage, and our greatest aid will be our mind and brain. Understanding ourselves more, metacognition and meta mood will not only assist in weathering the current storm but will also assist us in navigating through the storms to come.


“To know thyself is the beginning of wisdom.” – attributed to Socrates.


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Rachel Paling, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine

Rachel Marie Paling is an International Game Changer in Education, in particular, the education of languages. She has created the method and approach Neurolanguage Coaching, which incorporates professional coaching and principles of neuroscience into the learning process. She coaches and trains teachers worldwide, transforming them into certified and ICF accredited Neurolanguage coaches and has created the Neurolanguage Coach network with over 700 NL Coaches in just over 70 countries worldwide and is now bringing the approach to schools and institutions over the world through her licensed trainers and in nine languages. Rachel started teaching language at the age of 17 and has a BA Honours in Law and Spanish, MA in Human Rights. She is a qualified UK lawyer, MA in Applied Neuroscience, and a PCC ICF Life Coach. She is the author of the books Neurolanguage Coaching and Brain-friendly Grammar and has written numerous blog articles about learning, coaching, and neuroscience. She has spoken at many international conferences, and her company was awarded the Bronze Award at the Reimagine Education Awards 2019 in the Science in Education category. She is dedicated to the shift in education and is currently establishing an educational foundation to bring coaching, neuroscience, and heart science into educational processes.

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