Self

When Life Feels Overwhelming — Boost Your Brain's Bandwidth With These 2 Psychological Tricks

Photo: Rido / Shutterstock
A Black woman with hair in a ponytail smiles in a sunny room

We have all had "those" days.

The days when we felt overwhelmed. When we forgot why we went to the grocery store in the first place. When we totally missed that work meeting that was definitely on our calendar. When we felt oppressed by our ever-growing to-do list!

Just the other day, I made it all the way to the car line at my children's school before I realized that we left every single one of their lunchboxes at home — a painful reminder of how overwhelmed I feel by life right now.

No matter what role we play in daily life, most of us have moments when our mental bandwidth, our conscious ability to do something, is so outside our capacity that the sharp edges of our lives begin to fray.

RELATED: How To Go Back To The Basics When You Feel Overwhelmed With Stress

How can you increase your emotional bandwidth when you're feeling overwhelmed?

If you catch it soon enough, this fraying is really your cue that your emotional bandwidth is being over-taxed, which means that you can no longer access your brain’s resources.

This might take the form of unexplained fatigue, unusual forgetfulness, or increased agitation with things that don't normally bother you.

Maybe you find yourself binge-watching a new series while also berating yourself because you "should" be folding the laundry — but you just don’t have the energy to get off the couch.

Remember, limited bandwidth is not a character flaw.

It's not even a lack of motivation!

When humans are under stress, perceive a threat, or are trying to alleviate distress, the brain automatically switches to survival mode.

Survival skills, which are intended to help you, typically look like aggression, self-centeredness and impulsivity.

Most people think they understand what motivates behavior, at least theoretically. But then they struggle to use good judgment, which can give rise to negative consequences.

The brain is responsible for thinking, sensing and behaving.

The brain is where you learn and adapt to the world around you. Your brain can even reorganize itself — the fancy science term is "neuroplasticity."

Stick with me a minute. The brain is made up of 86 billion nerve cells in a complex net of continuous activity that separates information into things that are noticed (conscious) and things that are not noticed. 

The brain’s bandwidth determines your cognitive capacity and your executive functioning.

In other words, bandwidth is your brain’s ability to pay attention, problem solve, plan, follow through with plans, and navigate distractions or temptations.

Unfortunately, researchers have long known that the brain has a fixed amount of attentional (basically, what's conscious) resources. In fact, research shows that the average human brain processes about 11 million bits per second.

Cool, cool ... except only 100 bits per second of that are experienced consciously. Seriously.

And? Any daily tasks that exceed your attentional capacity reduce your ability to perform these and other tasks.

Also, your overall health (both physical and mental), your past experiences of discrimination or exclusion, and your worries further drain your bandwidth. 

Low bandwidth leads to impulsivity, which can look like not waiting for your turn, snatching something from someone else’s hand, leaving a visit with a friend rather abruptly, and even buying excessive amounts of toilet paper.

RELATED: 6 Steps To Get Organized When You’re Overwhelmed By Tasks

When your natural bandwidth is balanced, you often refer to this as your resilience zone.

When you get off balance, you get stuck in the high zone (think agitated, edgy, irritable, maybe even panicky) or the low zone (think isolated, tired, numb).

Once out of your natural bandwidth zone, you're no longer able to access your skills, knowledge, or even previous experiences.

Let’s be frank. Sure, resiliency is about the ability to bounce back, but it's also how we become stronger once we're through the situation that impacted us in the first place.

And coping strategies are great — for specific situations.

You're not born knowing skills. Humans learn through what is modeled, taught, rehearsed and reinforced.

If you've already done everything you can to reduce the exposure to situations that drain your bandwidth, then it's time to work on two important skills.

How to hone your "refresh" and your "routine" skills.

1. Refresh

Refresh is definitely more appealing.

When all else fails, researchers say to focus on the basics: eat (healthy foods), move (at least 20 minutes a day), sleep (sleep deprivation is a primary cause of depression and anxiety), and breathe (which, by the way, also means drinking water as that is one of the biggest ways our brains get oxygen).

Beyond eating, moving, sleeping and breathing, you know yourself best.

Maybe refreshing looks like mindfulness. Or chatting with a friend. Or creative expression. Or a walk outside.

As with most preferences, refreshing bandwidth looks different for different people and different situations.

Be aware that there are a lot of tricky "refreshers" out there that actually don’t refresh your brain. Technology is the big one, along with (unhealthy) food and alcohol.

These actually create more of a "pause" than a refresh, which is not inherently bad but does keep you on that hamster wheel.

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2. Routine

Routine is a little trickier.

Thankfully, the brain does tons of things automatically — you don’t usually "think" about moving your feet when you're talking, chewing food, or taking a breath. 

A routine helps move some of those conscious tasks to the unconscious which, in turn, frees up some of your bandwidth.

For example, driving your route to work has become so familiar that sometimes, you can’t even remember driving to work.

A routine is a set of habits that are frequently repeated. Habits are easier to stick with when they fit with who you are — your abilities, preferences and your situation.

James Clear, author of "Atomic Habits," suggests that tiny changes lead to meaningful results. Whether the routine is to add a good habit or remove a bad habit, the process is basically the same.

Make the good habit more attractive, easier, obvious and satisfying. Make the bad habit less attractive, harder, invisible and unsatisfying.

Let’s revisit that lunch box fiasco. I set out to create habits that are attractive, easier, obvious and satisfying for our family.

First, I went out and bought a variety of foods that could be packed into the lunchboxes and set them out on the table after dinner was cleaned up and before snack.

Then, I gave each child their own little reusable boxes to fill with their preferences for their own lunch. Then, we put the lunch boxes in the refrigerator near the milk, which we know we will see at breakfast.

And let me tell you how lovely — and satisfying — it is to watch all four of them trot out to the car with their own lunchboxes on school days.

Author and teacher of alternative medicine, Dr. Rachel Remen, wrote, "The expectation that we can be immersed in suffering and loss daily and not be touched by it is as unrealistic as expecting to be able to walk through water without getting wet."

This was never truer than it is in our world today. However, once we know the influence of brain bandwidth, we have this fantastic power that allows us to better understand ourselves, and others.

This transforms not only our thinking about our shared human experience but also helps us to identify more effective strategies for meaningful living.

RELATED: 5 Steps To Motivate Yourself When You’re Feeling Overwhelmed

Maurie Lung is a counselor and therapist. She has integrated her knowledge and experience of recreation, education, psychology, research, and evaluation to experientially provide mental health services for youth, families, and adults. For more information, visit her website.

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