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05/13/2014 10:15 am ET Updated Mar 12, 2015

5 Ways To Power Down A Busy Mind

You know you should sleep more (which could happen), walk more (which should happen), and turn off your phone (that's not happening). Here are a few surprising ways to quiet your brain at different times of day -- without going off the grid.

By Terri Trespicio

  • 1. Do Some Heavy (Mental) Lifting
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    1. Do Some Heavy (Mental) Lifting A counterintuitive way to calm a frazzled, wandering mind is to take on a more demanding task. In a 2007 study published in the Association for Psychological Science journal, Professor Nilli Lavie of University College London measured the response time of 61 subjects performing tasks on a computer while being distracted by flashing letters. Turns out the more demanding the task, the less distracted the subjects were. How to do it: When you feel yourself darting out in a thousand different directions, rather than play Whac-A-Mole with your email, immerse yourself in one of your most challenging projects, one that will require your full attention. Try it when: Your energy is high (as in, not at bedtime), but you're feeling stressed because you have your hands in a bunch of different half-done tasks.
  • 2. Don't Spend More Than Six Hours Alone
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    While there's growing evidence that working from home can reduce stress and increase productivity, there's reason to believe that spending too much time alone is a recipe for anxiety. Psychiatrist Edward Hallowell, M.D., leading authority on ADHD and author of CrazyBusy, says that face time with another person can have a grounding and calming effect, and you should do it every four to six hours. A study done at the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Medicine (and reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences) suggests that a change in brain hormones due to social isolation was responsible for aggression and anxiety in mice. "Research is beginning to show what has been a largely unrecognized importance of human connection," says Hallowell. How to do it: Commit to regular daily doses of human moments, says Hallowell. Whether that's coffee with a friend or a hair appointment—interact with a real person in the flesh, not on your phone. Try it when: You don't remember when you last spoke a word out loud to another person.
  • 3. Balance on One Leg
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    A powerful way to calm the mind is to redirect attention to the body. Somatosensory activities, which are simply exercises designed to help you sense your own body, can help sharpen cognitive and physical performance. Hallowell uses them in his Learning Breakthrough program to help with balance, attention and focus issues in children and adults, and you can use them to quiet the mental chatter. How to do it: Try standing on one leg with your eyes closed (better yet, try it on a wobble board). Change your clothes or put on your shoes without sitting down or holding onto anything. Challenging your proprioception (awareness of where your body is in space) has a way of zapping nagging thoughts. Try it when: Your brain is about to explode.
  • 4. Put Up Stop Signs
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    You weren't born knowing that a red light means hit the brakes. But you've done a pretty solid job of assimilating that information, as you have other habits, like tying your shoes or driving. And you can do the same for a racing mind—if you turn it into a habit. "Your brain learns by repeated attention to intention," says stress and performance expert Cynthia Ackrill, M.D. "Pairing actions with a calming technique like breathwork can increase those synaptic connections, helping you reduce stress more easily and effectively." How to do it: Get yourself a packet of tiny dot-shaped stickers, and put them in select places where you'll come across them regularly: On the back of your phone, on the fridge, the bathroom mirror, the steering wheel. Every time you see one, take three deep, grounding breaths. A study published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine found yogic breathing to be a beneficial adjunct treatment for those suffering from anxiety and stress disorders—even those with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Don’t have stickers handy? Train yourself to pair breathing with actions you do every day; for instance, every time you walk through a doorway or open the fridge. Try it when: Your thoughts are racing so fast you can't keep up.
  • 5. Take a Micro-Rest
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    When your brain is scattered, you can slow it down in seconds—if you make those seconds count. Jim Loehr, founder of the Human Performance Institute and author of The Only Way to Win, spent years studying world-class athletes and coaching them to optimal performance. What he discovered using EKG telemetry was that top tennis players (as well as other athletes) strategically used the downtime between points to recover in as little as 16 seconds (poor competitors did not leverage this recovery time). Based on this groundbreaking research, Loehr developed The 16 Second Cure training program for coaches and athletes. How to do it: Set a timer for one minute and breathe from the diaphragm (also known as abdominal breathing, in which you allow the belly to expand on the inhale). Make your exhales twice as long as your inhales; this can stimulate your mental recovery. Try it when: You're between meetings or you have a big presentation where you've got to be at the top of your game and want to quiet your mental chatter.

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