Physical brain vs mind
When it comes to dementia prevention books and articles, there’s a lot of emphasis placed on managing physical brain health. Recommendations include how to eat right, exercise, sleep, manage blood pressure, prevent brain injury, and so on. And while this advice is excellent when grounded in solid evidence, the problem is that in my opinion it only addresses half the equation.
Our physical brains and bodies are like our hardware, and our minds are our software
The other half has to do with managing the mind. But wait, you may say - aren’t the physical brain and mind the same thing? The answer is yes, they are the same AND they are also different.
I see our brains as being the physical organ sitting inside our skulls, governing the body’s survival and day-to-day function. Whereas our minds are our individual experience of our brains, from the inside. We rely on the mind’s cognitive function to get us through life and work, automating complex routine functions like eating and driving so that we can be free to perform higher level functions requiring problem solving or creativity.
It’s not a perfect analogy, but I like to think of our physical brains and bodies as being our hardware, and our minds as being our software. In dementia and other neurodegenerative diseases, hardware problems begin at the cellular level, impacting the function of the neural circuits which in turn cause problems with cognitive and mind function as well as body functions.
Turns out that stress can also be toxic to both hardware and software, disrupting health and brain function at many levels. For example, stress can contribute to unhealthy behaviors such as overeating, overdrinking, drugs, and so on. Stress often interferes with sleep, and since good sleep architecture is the most important way that our brains and bodies engage in recovery and repair - this can potentially disrupt everything from musculoskeletal systems, to hormones and immune function.
So it makes sense that “stress management” is included in virtually every article or book on the topic of brain health. But the guidance that we are given on stress management is often scant. Typical recommendations may include exercise, meditation, socializing, and hobbies. And while these may work for many people, there is a huge range of personal preferences when it comes to how to manage stress. Some may enjoy specific activities like gardening or taking a bubble bath, while others want to just sit in the sun and do nothing.
In my experience, most of us have an idea that stress management is important, but we don’t often prioritize nor even give ourselves permission to engage in self care.
We tell ourselves that we don’t have the time, that we must take care of others’ needs first. And that self care is selfish or indulgent.
Even if we know that stress management is important, we don’t often give ourselves permission to engage in self care
To be honest, overwork is something I am still struggling with. I used to only allow myself to take a vacation once in a while, maybe when my family “needed” one. Or I may have booked a massage or pedicure as a special treat when it was a birthday. I could justify “me time” spent in doing exercise or personal development work. It’s only through self-coaching that I’ve come to see that I wasn’t even needing justify to anyone but my own harsh inner critic/gremlin Milly.
Stressing myself out
We tend to think of stress as being caused by external events, like the traffic. And when we think that way, we are basically giving away our power to something we can’t change - because these external circumstances are out of our control. In other words, we can’t wish away traffic with all the good will in the world. But what we can do is to change our response - for example, we could call ahead to let others know we are running late, or take advantage of time in the car to listen to a podcast or chat with a friend.
It helps me to think of stress as being a basket of negative emotions. And so much of my stress has come from being an Asian woman with familial, cultural, societal expectations for how I “should” have control over things. Like for example, “A good doctor should be able to persuade their patient to stop smoking.” (Subtext: If not, you must not be a good doctor.) Or “A good doctor daughter should be able to prevent her parents from having health problems, or at least fix them when they happen.” (Subtext: If not, you must a bad daughter or bad doctor, or both.)
It’s taken a lot of self coaching for me to recognize that some things are my responsibility, but most are not. I’ve come to see that I grew up with a tendency to take the blame for whatever bad stuff was happening around me. It was definitely my fault If my children were misbehaving, if my husband was angry or if we were anxious about finances.
We can learn to free our minds from the toxic chemical mix of cortisol, norepinephrine, and other stress hormones
I believed that it was up to me to fix things, but because I didn’t actually have the power to do so, I felt like I was failing all the time. And because I didn’t know it was impossible, I just kept trying harder, often causing more conflict and stress for myself and everyone around me. I was actually generating more stress toxicity for myself by allowing my inner critic to judge me against unrealistic, unattainable, perfectionist standards (i.e. perfectly behaved children, Martha Stewart level home and cooking skills, Nobel prize level research, and so on).
Making peace with Milly
As with all personal development work, the first step was awareness. I learned to become aware of my inner critic’s harsh, drill sergeant language. Her tone was invariably mean, contemptuous and demeaning. I learned to call her Milly, to distinguish her voice from my own wise voice.
I saw how Milly had internalized all the scoldings from my childhood to protect and help me survive some difficult times. And while I can still appreciate her help from time to time, I don’t need to live in fear or to keep hustling for worthiness. As an adult I get to choose what is in integrity for me and my life, to follow the manuals written by generations of patriarchy on how women must behave. And that has freed my mind from the stream of negative chatter and toxic chemical mix of cortisol, norepinephrine, and other stress hormones. Not always, but enough for me to see how much healthier it can be for both my mind and brain.
We all have harsh inner critics in our heads, generating a chronic environment of stress toxicity that can lead to burnout and interfere with brain function over time. In his book Positive Intelligence, Stanford professor Shirzad Chamine describes these critics as saboteurs because that’s how we get in our own way. His research-based PQ system defines nine distinct saboteurs: Hyper-achiever, Hyper-rational, Hyper-vigilant, Stickler, Avoider, Controller, Pleaser, Victim, and Restless.
The PQ Saboteur quiz is like a Myers-Briggs personality test, helping you to identify your top saboteurs by spending just a few minutes online. Many of my clients have found the PQ self-coaching program and app to be tremendously helpful in working on their saboteurs, whether they are working on brain health coaching, relationships, money, or whatever.
by Shirzad Chamine
A practical approach to identifying and targeting those inner critical voices that often get in the way of us performing at our best. Master coach Shirzad Chamine teaches how to tap into our maximal potential by navigating the PQ operating system.