We live in a noisy and distracting world. Social media notifications, advertising, news updates, and coworkers buzzing around us all day is causing our brains to shift into overdrive. There has been a lot of talk about how this constant input of noise has been negatively impacting us physically and mentally.
A recent study conducted by the University of California, San Francisco was one of the largest medical studies to date on how social media affects our brains. The study followed over 300 people with an average age of 35 and reported that those who spent more time on social media sites like Facebook, Snapchat and Twitter exhibited “marked differences in brain structure”.
“Participants in the study were shown hundreds of images designed to induce positive, negative, or neutral emotions.” The images included famous vacation photos and other harmless pictures. At the end of each day participants were asked to recall their visual experience from the day before. Their brains were scanned using MRI machine.
The results were surprising. Those who spent more time on social media sites “had greater gray matter volume in the amygdala, a region of the brain associated with emotional processing and risk for anxiety disorders.” The amygdala is a small part of the brain and plays an important role in processing fear, anger, pleasure, emotions and memory. The more time spent on Facebook the more active this area became causing the risk of developing anxiety or depression to increase by 25%.
But it’s not just social media that’s the culprit. Constant exposure to advertisements might have your amygdala working overtime too. A study conducted at Northwestern University was found that when participants were shown pictures of food their brains immediately reacted differently than when shown pictures of non-food items.
A “well-known brain circuit” was activated when participants were shown pictures of food. “This circuit, called the reward system, is the network that drives us to eat and that is responsible for our experiences with pleasure and craving.” Those same participants were then shown ads with various images of food and were asked to imagine eating them. The reward system again was activated in their brains. They began craving whatever it was they saw in the ad and even enjoyed visualizing eating it.
If you’re like me, I’m sure you spend each day surrounded by stimulating ads from billboards to television commercials to online ads that follow us around the internet. All of this information seems harmless unless you’ve been feeling a little anxious or depressed lately. The good news is, there are simple ways to regain a sense of control over your mind and body.
When you recognize that the noise we’re surrounded by every single day can cause stress and anxiety, it’s important to remove yourself from such environments. The key is being aware that our environment is affecting us. When our environment becomes too stressful or distracting we need to step away so we can find a healthier environment.
Don’t be afraid to look at your life as a puzzle with missing pieces. The solution is in short seat of how to become more mindful. Here are some easy tips:
1) Become mindful of sounds during day and night. Being mindful means paying attention on purpose and not reacting automatically.
A sound a day keeps the doctor away. Because we are surrounded by so much noise, we tend to ignore it. When you wake up in the morning and when you go to bed at night, sit silently for 5 minutes listening to sounds around you. It will help remind your brain how to relax and become more focused on the present moment instead of worrying about the future or dwelling in regrets of the past.
2) Cut down on social media use. A recent study by Emma Spence from University of Missouri discovered that those who exercised regularly were less inclined to return to their Twitter feeds and Facebook after putting an end on their habit.
Spence found that “the participants who had broken an exercise habit were more likely to return to their Twitter feeds and Facebook accounts.” The key here is ‘exercise habit’. Spence was referring to those who weren’t habitual exercisers but once a month or so engaged in some form of physical activity.
3) Practice letting go. Your mind will always resist staying in the present moment. The only way around it is to learn how to recognize when your mind has wandered off and as soon as possible bring your attention back to the present moment.
Learning how to become aware of habits you’re thinking or physical behaviour you’re doing without intention will help teach your brain self-awareness.
4) Exercise every day. Studying in the lab where they put people into a brain scanner while they participated in various exercises, it became apparent something profound occurred. Brain scans showed that exercise “significantly boosted the blood flow into the brain regions responsible for learning and memory.”
5) Practice gratitude. Listening to our inner voice which tells us “I’m worthless” “This will never work out” or “Today’s my turn to feel bad”, can create a negative atmosphere that’s difficult to shake off.
Gratitude is the ability to recognize your blessings and say thank you for them. When we can congratulate ourselves for all the small things we do, it encourages us to stay focused on the important matters at hand.
How do you stay focused?
It’s easier said than done but the key is to stay aware. You need to become mindful of not only your physical self but also your spiritual and emotional needs. The best way to accomplish this is honoring your dreams and becoming part of the solution, so you can see yourself as limitless. Take action on those dreams and make a plan so you can be certain it happens. Then take one step at a time towards that goal until it’s accomplished. Give your mind and body the fuel they require to stay focused and aware so you can realize your full potential.