Photo credit: Total Pro Sports.comI’m not much of a golf watcher. In fact, when my husband is watching golf I find that it somehow lulls me sleep in the middle of the afternoon. So, I was a little surprised recently when I was so captivated by the game that I had a “eureka!” moment while watching.
But first - let’s back up a moment. Before my “eureka golf moment” I had been coaching someone about slowing down their brain. This individual, who I’ll call Dave, was talking to me about his brain being on overdrive during work. We talked about taking breaks and finding some rest, yet when he takes a break his brain stays in high gear, his shoulders remain tense and he feels like he can’t take a full breath. Anyone relate? Been there (with the occasion relapse).
So what’s going on when Dave takes a break and his brain continues to run like a frightened horse? He’s in “fight-or-flight” mode. Anxiety around a deadline or meeting turns on his sympathetic nervous system and his body pumps out cortisol and adrenaline – hence the tight shoulders and short breath – as a reflex to protect him from danger.
“Fight-or-flight” is a good friend to us humans if there is predator lurking, but it doesn’t help us when we’re trying to be creative or problem solve. Have you ever been so stressed that you felt like you absolutely could not think? You couldn’t. Your brain literally wasn’t working at full capacity because it was trying to keep you alive by having you focus on nothing but the predator in the room, which was most likely non-existent.
On the flip side, have you ever had a genius idea come to you while in the shower? Or found the answer to a tricky problem while driving your car? I have.
When we’re relaxed our bodies go into the parasympathetic nervous system, otherwise known as “rest-and-digest.” Our brains no longer need a narrow focus to run from the predator, so we actually access more brain space for creativity and problem solving when we’re chilling out.
So, you might be thinking (like my client Dave was), “rest-and-digest” sounds great but how do I get there if my brain stays in high gear even when I take a break?
Let’s go back to golf. I was watching the British Open and Phil Mickelson was one shot away from winning (and if you’re not a golf watcher like me, the British Open is a really big deal). As he walked to the final hole you could see the emotion come over his face. Then the commentators whispered, “Watch Phil Mickelson slow down his walk as he moves to the next hole. He knows that he needs to slow down his breathing and his heartbeat before he gets to his final shot. He’s practiced slowing down his breathing and heartbeat and knows exactly how to relax.”
And then Phil took a few deep breaths. The emotion on his face began to evaporate, a focus returned and his body appeared calm and relaxed. As he approached the ball I imagine that he also removed any thoughts about the game or winning. It was just him and that ball. Stillness fell over the course and then…“EUREKA!” – yes the ball went into the hole – but I also realized that Phil was doing what my client, Dave, was struggling to do.
Phil regularly practiced getting himself out of fight-or-flight and into rest-and-digest in order to be at the top of his game.
His method for relaxing his body was slowing his walk and breathing and then his heartbeat followed. Phil spends hours practicing his swing to be one of the world’s greatest golfers, but he also knows that he needs to practice relaxing his body to let his genius come through.
For most of us, slowing down a fast and furious fight-or-flight brain doesn’t happen immediately, but practicing a little bit everyday can create massive change.
Here are a few ideas to play with to practice relaxing your brain everyday:
1) Examine this very moment. Is there a tiger in the room with you right now? I’m guessing not. So, can you find any wellbeing?
2) Check in to your breathing. How long do you inhale? How long do you exhale?
3) Try walking slowly to your office or the store. Pay attention to your body and consciously walk more slowly.
4) Take a nap or simply lie down and rest for a few minutes.
5) Get lost in something creative or playful. Remember doing something as a kid where all time disappeared? Try it again.
6) If nothing else works... watch golf.
Practice allowed Phil Mickelson to know that he could relax his body in the critical moment. Practice will help you slow down too. Imagine what genius could come through you when you do.