Mindfulness Mode

Mindfulness, Memory, and Moodiness

April 25, 2021

Mindfulness, Memory, and Moodiness is the topic of today’s show. Have you noticed that people you interact with lately are more moody than you remember? Does it seem like there are more people you’re exposed to who are experiencing depression, discouragement, a lot of feelings of negativity? How about you? Do you seem to be 
having more down days – you know, days when you just feel like your inner bully is winning?

Well, I talk about that inner bully quite a bit and the reason is because those negative self-voices play a big role in a lot of peoples’ lives. Mine included.

This is the perfect day to talk about moodiness, your inner bully, and how that self-talk is related to mindfulness.

Well, it is. Mindfulness is all about how we think. Yes, thinking in the present is mindfulness, but there’s so much more to it than that..

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Many of our thoughts are connected to our memory. Every time we decide to do something, we depend on our memory to know how to do it. We depend on our memory to know whether we’ve just brushed our teeth, or whether we were about to start.

You might not have thought about it before, but our memory has a lot to do with how we see ourselves, how we define ourselves as a person.

A lot of the ideas I’m sharing with you today are from Lisa Genova who is a neuroscientist and has written a book called, “Remember: The Science of Memory and the Art of Forgetting”.

A lot of the time, we tie our well-being to memory. We think our brain is healthy and thriving if our memory is sharp and the opposite is true. If we feel like we’re forgetting things, we start to wonder about our brain health and even our mental health.

Yesterday morning I got dressed, came downstairs and was about to get in my car to drive to my studio and I realized I didn’t have my wallet. “Where on earth could it be”, I wondered. The crazy think was, I knew I’d had it a few minutes before that because I remembered dropping it on the floor. Some credit cards and id fell out on the carpet and my memory was crystal clear … I knew I bent over and picked them up and put them back in my wallet.

But now my wallet was missing and I’d already searched the kitchen, all my pockets, I’d gone back upstairs twice, and still no wallet.

There are times when I would have thought to myself, “I must be brain–dead, or am I losing my memory? This time I just kept looking. I went back upstairs with my son and we both looked. Suddenly I spotted it sitting on a brown footstool where I absolutely never leave my wallet. I realized I must have set it there without thinking as I grabbed some books to carry downstairs.

That’s when I started to wonder if the pandemic is affecting my brain. According to Lisa Genova, the answer is definitely yes.

There are two main reasons why the pandemic is messing with our memory. The first reason has to do with the way our brains are wired and the second reason is related to stress and how our brains deal with stress.

1/ How Our Brains Are Designed

The first reason has to do with how our brains are designed to remember things. When we remember what is meaningful, our brains go to “what is new? What is emotional? We don't remember the same old habitual routines. So this is why you might remember your first date, but not your 10th.

I don't remember the details of brushing my teeth this morning or taking a shower. It's the routine things we don't remember. And so here we are in a pandemic, and many of us are confined to our homes, we’re going out way less. We’re not able to go to concerts and plays and movies and dinners and parties like we did pre-pandemic. Those are the sorts of things that make memories and that, for many of us, give us a ZEST for life.

We get excited as we look forward to these more exciting events, we enjoy them as they happen, and of course, that’s mindfulness. Enjoying the moment and just taking it in, feeling the emotions and being there. And then we enjoy the after buzz, the feeling of elation of having recently enjoyed something different, something we were looking forward to.

And so now that many of our lives are more mundane, our brains are forgetting. A lot of us don't know what day it is anymore, because every day is the same. So that's the first part of this.

2/ Stress And The Brain

So the second reason, like I mentioned, has to do with stress. The way we’ve evolved as a species is that we are designed to deal with short, quick examples of stress. Like suddenly you’re being chased by a lion, we instantly move into a fight or flight response.

We’re designed to deal with that like any other emergency, a quick reaction. Our brains and bodies to react INSTANTLY to this kind of emergency, this kind of threat. So your brain and body go into sudden, immediate, action. Adrenaline and cortisol kick in. The body’s response mobilizes glucose, and your muscles immediately have extra power, more strength.

Your brain actually stops thinking because it’s not a time to weigh the pros and cons of what's going on before you run away or face the predator. You just instantly act. And then once the threat is over, assuming you've survived, the cortisol, which got turned on by this event, then acts on receptors in your brain to shut the whole sequence off.

So what happens when we experience chronic stress? Well Lisa Genova explains what happens. And this is what we've been dealing with this past year. For many, the threat of Corona Virus, the need to be constantly wearing masks, keeping socially distant, hearing regular news reports about new threats of COVID19 and of people dying. For a lot of people, all that adds up to stress.

In fact, without realizing it, a lot of us are experiencing chronic stress. So it's not suddenly a predator chasing us, it’s a constant threat of danger. It's in our thoughts and we become so used to it, that we don’t even realize it. The top three major psychological stressors are:

1/ Uncertainty

2/ Lack of Control

3/ Social Isolation

I know, for me, I’ve been experiencing all three of these. The effect is cumulative. We can handle it for a while, but now it’s been over a year and according to Lisa, the feedback loop can “break the receptors of your brain that normally cortisol acts on to shut off.”

We get a hit of cortisol and normally the stress is gone and we go back to being a relaxed human again. Instead of that, your body just keeps dumping adrenaline and cortisol, adrenaline and cortisol.

A little bit of stress can help you rise to the challenge of whatever you’re doing – like if you have a meeting with a big client, or you have an exam. In those cases you need to be a little bit stressed so that you’re on your game, you’re ready for action. You’re focused. And if you’re driving and a deer or a moose suddenly runs across the road in front of you, you get a hit of cortisol.

Illusions of Time

So, during fight and flight, the adrenal glands produce catecholamines. They’re created in the brainstem and the brain.

So in the morning we need a certain amount of alertness and what you might call stress to meet your day. But chronic stress is bad for your memory all the time. So this is why you might feel super foggy – you aren’t able to retrieve information that you know is there, information you’ve learned and you know is in your brain.

So continued STRESS will actually shrink your hippocampus. And you might know that your hippocampus is part of your brain. And your hippocampus is where new memories are formed. Continued stress will make it smaller.

Now here’s where mindfulness take a role. Things like exercise, meditation, yoga, deep breathing, being in nature – all those things we’re talking about on Mindfulness Mode – they all have been shown to increase the size of your hippocampus. They stimulate neurogenesis. All of the above mindfulness-related activities cause the birth of new neurons.

We can take control and do things to combat the fact that we can't get rid of the pandemic, but we can individually change our brain. We can change our brain's response and our resilience to what’s going on in the world. We can save our brains and our memories from being vulnerable to the stress that the pandemic creates.

I talked to my son Ben, about memory and he reminded me of an episode on Youtube by Vsauce – The episode is called Illusions of Time

Anyway, Vsauce talks about how we remember the times of our life that are eventful, things we enjoy, places where we’re having a good time. Then when we look back, it seems like those times passed slowly. He brings up a lot of interesting ideas about memory and a lot of this is linked to mindfulness, even though at first you might not realize it.

Now let’s talk about sleep. Not only are a lot of people experiencing stress, so many people are having sleep issues as well during this pandemic. It’s all related.

Here are two things that happen while you sleep.

1/ Your Brain is binding your thoughts into long-term memory.

So a lot of people think of sleep as just an unconscious state of doing nothing, but your brain is actually very busy while you sleep. And so here's, what's going on in your brain – all of the events that happened today, everything you learned and experienced today that you want to keep, that you paid attention to, that was meaningful and emotional, – all of those things are what your hippocampus is going to bind into a long term memory. Your hippocampus does that job while you sleep primarily. And so if you don't get a full night's sleep, you'll wake up the next day and your hippocampus won't have had enough time to finish its job. And so your memories either won't be fully formed or they might not be formed at all.

And so you won't really remember very clearly what happened yesterday. If you're exhausted today, because you didn't get a full night's sleep, you'll also be feeling low and lacking energy and you won't be able to pay attention. You’ll notice when someone's talking to you, you’re hearing the words, but you don't know what they’re actually saying. You’re having an attention issue. You’re feeling like you’re not able to focus on what's going on. You’re not going to remember it later because it’s not possible for your brain to form a memory of it.

2/ While you sleep, the glial cells are cleaning up.

Lisa Genova explains that the glial cells are like janitors. She says they're the sewage and gestation department. They are busy clearing away all the metabolic debris that accumulated during the business of being awake.

One of the things the glial cells clear away is a protein called amyloid beta. And if the Amyloid beta is not cleared away, here’s the problem. It's sticky and it will bind into itself and form plaque. And if you accumulate enough amyloid plaque, you will trigger Alzheimer's disease.

So a good night's sleep is helping you prevent getting Alzheimer's. She emphasized that this point is not to freak people out. This does not happen overnight. It takes 15 to 20 years of amyloid plaque accumulation to trigger Alzheimer's. So the science tells us that if we’re getting on average, seven to nine hours of sleep, we’re doing great. That's what we need.

My mother-in-law's brain was always sharp. She had an unbelievable memory and she didn’t miss anything it seemed. She did puzzles and word games, she exercised most days, she was always interested in new ideas and concepts.

Even though she was in her 80’s it was like she had the brain of a 30-something. She always would ask me lots of questions about a new on-line project I was doing, or a conference I was speaking at.

I know that some people do puzzles and word games to exercise their brain and hopefully avoid dementia or Alzheimer’s. Lisa Genova says this doesn’t help avoid Alzheimers. This isn’t the way the brain works. Doing those kinds of activities gives your brain practice at retrieving information, which is good.

Lisa explains that what really helps keep our brains vibrant and help us potentially avoid memory problems is when we are constantly learning new information. That’s completely different from retrieving information.

You can continue to learn anything in your whole life. You could learn to speak Spanish, learn to play a new musical instrument. Learning new skills and gaining new information is what really benefits our brain in a huge way.

When the Pandemic ends, you can go on a vacation, visit a new city, and meet new people. And all that will help keep your brain active and fresh and filled with new memories. But don’t be surprised if you still forget some of the simplest things, like the reason why you walked upstairs.

Back in 2017, I interviewed a memory expert. His system is called the Magnetic Memory Method. His name is Anthony Metivier, and his interview is available at www.MindfulnessMode.com/248. He talked about our memory and stress and he explained that “it all begins with recognizing and then overriding overwhelm”. He teaches how to learn new languages and memorize poetry and basically supercharge our memories. Check out his episode. He’s a fascinating man with great ideas about mindfulness and memory.

So just remember that your brain isn’t perfect and it’s not intended to be. It’s designed to forget lots of things and we need to mindfully remember the important things, like where I left my wallet, or glasses.

Let's be mindful, and not judge and shame ourselves over forgetting things that our brain is not wired to remember in the first place. Don’t panic and be so fearful if you forget things because forgetting is a normal part of being human.

Now that you know how mindfulness and memory are connected and how we can help avoid moodiness, depression, and stress by using exercise, meditation, yoga, deep breathing, and being in nature. All those things will boost the size of your hippocampus. Wow, that gives us control. 

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