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Have you ever been stuck in a rut, struggling to think clearly or creatively about a challenge you were facing? Did you spend countless hours going around and around in your head, only to be none the wiser?

Being stuck in a mental dead end can be both frustrating and exhausting and it’s usually a sign that your brain is tired, stressed and overworked. Inspired thinking, on the other hand, is the ability to use your brain optimally and experience both clarity and creativity in how you think and live your life.

So how do you create a lifestyle that fosters inspired thinking and protects you from mental burnout? By understanding how your brain works as well as how you can manage your stress levels, increase your rest and relaxation and create space for reflection, you can begin to optimise your brain’s thinking capacity.

Gaining a new perspective

I recently spent a weekend on Stradbroke Island in Queensland with a group of friends. It was a beautiful weekend in a stunning location — a perfect place for reflection.

Leading up to the trip, I had been exhausted on a daily basis, so I really needed some time to clear my mind. Each day, I’d been sitting at my computer, struggling to make any real progress. My mind had felt foggy and my ability to concentrate had maxed out at around five minutes. I simply had no new, creative or inspiring ideas, all of which are crucial as the owner of a communications business.

I’d battled through chronic fatigue syndrome years before, so I started to wonder if my tiredness was related to my past illness. Concerned, I consciously chose to disconnect from email and social media for the weekend to see if switching off would help me get back on track.

By understanding how your brain works as well as how you can manage your stress levels, increase your rest and relaxation and create space for reflection, you can begin to optimise your brain’s thinking capacity.

On the island, I was surrounded by so much beauty and was finally able to be present in the moment. I started to feel my energy levels shift and I wasn’t nearly as tired as I’d been just days before. This surprised me, as I didn’t expect my exhaustion to lift so quickly.

Being away and having a mental break allowed me to see my life from a new perspective and I began to think more clearly. I could see a way through the challenges I was facing and began to have new ideas for my business.

My exhaustion and struggle to think clearly and creatively hadn’t been illness related — rather, it was due to the amount of stress I had been under. Looking back over the previous months, I could see I’d been working too hard. I was under a lot of pressure, had got stuck in perfectionism, was focusing on the worst-case scenarios and wasn’t taking time out to exercise and rest my body and mind.

It’s so easy to get consumed by all the “doing” in life that you forget to just be. Being constantly on the go is the quickest way to burn out physically and mentally and to end up exhausted, unhappy and stuck in a mental rut. My experience away reminded me how much stress impacts the brain’s ability to think clearly and solve problems. Stress also has the flow-on effect of lowering mood and energy levels.

A stressed brain isn’t a smart brain

When you’re stressed, you will struggle to see solutions to your problems. When under stress, the “thinking” part of your brain (your pre-frontal cortex) is bypassed as the fast-acting “emotional” part of your brain (your amygdala) takes over. This all happens as part of your body’s fight-or-flight response. As your stress and emotion levels go up, your ability to think clearly and creatively goes down.

Imagine your boss has asked you to meet a tight deadline. If you perceive this as a massive challenge it will activate your body’s fight-or-flight response. Stress kicks in as you start to fear you might not be able to meet the due date. The fear of missing the deadline escalates as you have the thought that not meeting the deadline may mean your boss might question your abilities. You may continue to increase your stress levels by wondering if that could also mean you might lose your job.

As you focus on your fears and worst-case scenarios, your panic rises. As your stress and panic rise you become less able to think clearly, find solutions and do your best work. You become stuck in a cycle of stress and fear that feed off each other.

Intervening early, when you notice you are stressed, allows you to deactivate your body’s fight-or-flight response. You can begin to think clearly and move away from your fearful mindset and into a solution mindset by re-engaging your pre-frontal cortex.

3 fast ways to beat stress & think clearly

1. Start by noticing your breathing. You breathe more quickly and shallowly when stressed, so take 10 deep breaths, aiming to lengthen each inhalation and exhalation. By slowing your breathing down, you will signal to your brain that everything is OK. Your amygdala will then stop sending out danger alerts and will stop flooding your body with cortisol and adrenalin.

2. Once you have calmed your body and mind down, challenge the fearful thoughts that are making you feel stressed. Ask yourself, “Are my thoughts worst-case scenarios? How true are they and how likely are they to happen? What if everything went really well? What would the best-case scenario look like?”

3. Next, shift into a solution mindset and ask yourself, “How can I deal with this?” You might also ask yourself, “Who do I know who can help me?” If you’re overwhelmed, break down the situation or task into small, manageable segments. Smaller steps make it much easier for your brain to get focused and stay focused.

The cortisol connection

By better managing your stress response, you can stop the stress hormone cortisol from rising in your body. High levels of cortisol severely impact your ability to concentration, your memory and your sleep. According to a Mayo Clinic article on the health risks of chronic stress, high levels of cortisol can also lead to anxiety, depression, heart disease, weight gain, digestive problems and headaches.

Get your brain sparking by getting your heart pumping – and great ideas will follow.

When you’re happy and well rested, your cortisol levels are naturally low at night so you can fall asleep easily. When you are stressed, however, your cortisol levels rise, making it harder to get to sleep. This starts a downward spiral as a loss of sleep one night increases your cortisol levels the next day, which makes it even harder to fall asleep when night-time comes around again. If you have consumed a lot of caffeine during the day to stay alert, your cortisol levels will be even higher, keeping the vicious cycle going.

Not getting enough sleep changes how you think and makes it harder to think clearly and creatively. If you want to optimise your brain’s thinking ability, don’t underestimate the importance of rest and good-quality sleep. Sleep is not a waste of time or unproductive but crucial if you want to be your best physically and mentally.

Sleep on it

When you sleep, your body is restoring itself and your brain is consolidating memories and making new connections. Have you ever fallen asleep and woken with an answer to a problem you struggled to solve while awake? This is why people recommend you “sleep on it” when struggling to find a solution to a difficult situation.

Lose a night or two of good sleep, or become sleep deprived for long lengths of time, and you will notice how much your thinking ability diminishes. An education series called Healthy Sleep, conducted by the Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School, found that “without adequate sleep and rest, overworked neurons can no longer function to coordinate information properly … We lose our ability to make sound decisions because we can no longer accurately assess the situation, plan accordingly and choose the correct behaviour. Judgement becomes impaired.”

If you are feeling stuck in your thought processes and can’t find an obvious solution, get some rest and good sleep and let your brain find solutions for you while you’re resting.

Get new ideas pumping

In the same way that sleeping helps you think more clearly, exercise is also an effective way to boost your focus and problem-solving ability. When you exercise, the extra blood flowing around your body and into your brain helps you think with greater clarity and creativity.

Have you ever gone for a walk and had a really great idea or insight? According to Dr Karen Postal, a neuropsychologist and clinical instructor at Harvard Medical School, studies show that “immediately following exercise, problem solving, memory and attention improve”.

In his article The Neuroscience of Imagination, US athlete and author Christopher Bergland says, “Sweat is like WD-40 for your mind — it lubricates the rusty hinges of your brain and makes your thinking more fluid. Exercise allows your conscious mind to access fresh ideas that are buried in the subconscious.”

Just like a river that, without movement and flow, gets stagnant and murky, so too does your brain. Get your brain sparking by getting your heart pumping — and great ideas will follow.

Create spaciousness

An overwhelmed and overworked mind is not an inspired mind. Your brain needs time to zone out and rest in order to keep firing optimally. Are you conscious of how much information you require your brain to process in a day? Do you fill every quiet moment and free time with distractions, stimulation or information?

The brain is a phenomenal organ but, like a computer, it can only take so much before it gets full and starts experiencing “glitches”. Constantly filling the blanks in your day means you exhaust your brain and become disconnected from your own internal dialogue, thoughts and insights.

By constantly filling the blanks in your day, you exhaust your brain and become disconnected from your own internal dialogue, thoughts and insights.

For your own wisdom to move into your conscious awareness, you need to create spaciousness in your life and your mind. Factor in small “brain breaks” during your day and week to reset your mind. You can try yoga, meditation, breathing exercises, going for a walk with no music, eating a meal mindfully, watching the ocean or any other activity that brings you into the present moment with minimal distractions. By taking time out and creating spaciousness in your mind you will begin to tap into some of your most creative ideas and will start to see your challenges from a whole new perspective.

Get curious

While “brain breaks” can give your mind a much-needed reprieve from all its hard work, taking yourself out of the norm also helps reignite your mind and kickstart your brain into thinking differently.

Do you always eat at the same restaurant, order the same meal, holiday in the same place, watch the same TV shows, drive to work the same way and read the same genre of books? Your mind can become “stale” and uninspired when you continually do the same things with minimal variation.

Watch a child engage with the world and see their eyes fill with wonder. Children use their bodies to understand and experience the world: they grab, hold, touch, taste, listen and explore. As adults, we’re often out of touch with the wonder that is inherent in the world around us and we get stuck in a rut and comfortable in our routines.

Inspired thinking requires you to become curious about life and the world and be willing to expand your horizons and try new things. New opportunities allow your mind to make new connections, discover new ideas and think differently.

When was the last time you did something different or went somewhere new? Each month, challenge yourself to try something you’ve never done before: take up a new class, visit a town you’ve always wanted to go to or engage in a creative project. Go out of your way to do things differently on a weekly basis: go to a new cafe, cook a new recipe or see a movie you wouldn’t normally watch.

Inspired thinking leads to inspired living. Creating habits in your life that allow you to manage your stress, create room to observe your own unique thoughts, while also remaining open and curious to the world, are the cornerstones of a truly happy, healthy and fulfilling life.

5 tips for inspired thinking

  1. Manage your stress through mindfulness and deep breathing.
  2. Prioritise rest and sleep.
  3. Exercise and get your heart pumping.
  4. Switch off from technology and take a “brain break”.
  5. Reignite your brain and try something new and different.

This article first appeared in WellBeing Magazine.

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