We are surrounded by information, and many of us know what we need to do to be healthier, so why don’t we do it? Why is there such a disconnect between information and implementation? Can we learn to make better decisions? In this week’s blog and podcast, I discuss why we often make poor choices with doctors David and Austin Perlmutter, and how we can overcome the curse of instant gratification and technology addiction, detox our brains and live happier lives.
In their new book, Brain Wash: Detox Your Mind for Clearer Thinking, Deeper Relationships, and Lasting Happiness, David and Austin examine the relationship between our instant gratification society and our ability to make good decisions, and how we can all learn to improve our ability to make healthy choices and find genuine joy and wellness in life. Their new book focuses on teaching people to be better decision-makers, rather than how to make good decisions, empowering them to make long-term choices that help them get to where they want to be in life.
Why are our choices so important? The brain is affected by the lifestyle decisions we make, which, in turn, impacts our overall mental and physical health. In the modern world, we are constantly being bombarded with messages of “more, more, more”; we are told we will be happy when we get this or achieve that, while, at the same time, are made to feel that we will never have enough or be good enough. Many of our technological experiences constantly foster the flames of our discontent, and the longer we allow this to continue the more we wire our brains for unhappiness. This hijacks our decision-making capabilities, affecting our overall quality of life and leaving many of us feeling trapped. Indeed, although many people know what they should do to be healthier, an estimated 50-80% don’t follow through, which is why we need to focus on how we make choices, not just on what we should do.
When we learn to make better choices, we can take back control and turn our life around. Rather than being led by our impulses and giving too much power to our amygdala, which can lead to what David and Austin call the disconnection syndrome, we can learn to engage our prefrontal cortex. This helps us make deeper connections with our environment and the people around us, enabling us to make choices that focus on long-term outcomes, as opposed to instant gratification, which can leads to inflammation in the brain and body that can disrupt our thinking and contribute to feelings of anxiety and depression. When we learn how to make the most of our prefrontal cortex, we can better understand and relate to other people, and we understand the consequences of our choices on a deeper level, as opposed to engaging in the rampant polarization, tribalism and narcissistic “me, myself and I” tendencies that characterize so much of our society today.
We can take full advantage of the process of neuroplasticity (the fact that the brain can change) to wire our brains for different outcomes and enhance our decision-making capabilities. The more we engage in habits that help us make healthier decisions, the more our ability to make good choices becomes a part of our everyday lives. We can stop the spiral of self-blame, recognizing that although we have lost the ability to make good decisions because of the way our society is set up, we can take back control.
Of course, this doesn’t happen overnight; true change take time and hard work. Yet, as David and Austin describe in their new book, there are ways we can momentarily increase our decision-making capability, and build on this day-by-day, one step at a time. This process not only shows us that we can change our thinking, choices and habits, but also gives us insight into what life is like with a clear brain and better choices as we make better decisions through simple interventions:
- Sleeping better. Getting just one night of good sleep can really help us make better choices by lowering our emotional reactivity and decreasing our need for junk food. This includes thinking about how technology is affecting our sleeping patterns, and the fact that we are often awake using different kinds of technology (such as browsing social media or binge-watching the latest Netflix show) when we could be sleeping. Many of us are also looking at digital screens more, which means we are constantly exposed to artificial blue light that blocks the production of the sleep hormone melatonin and throws off our circadian rhythm, as I discussed in a recent blog and podcast. Moreover, we also need to think about what we are watching/reading/listening to. A lot of the content we see can be very stressful, which can spike our cortisol levels (the flight or fight response) and keep us awake, so it may be a good idea to limit our use of technology in the evenings, reading a good novel or spending time with our loved ones instead.
- Going outside. Research has shown that just 10 seconds of exposure to nature can improve our decision-making capabilities and reduce impulsivity, while 20 minutes in an urban setting can decrease the stress hormone cortisol! The natural world has dramatic effects on our mental and physical health, and can make us more empathetic, engaging our prefrontal cortex and improving our mental clarity, even if this just means bringing nature into our home in the form of a potted plant or herb garden.
- Eating well. As I discuss in my book Think and Eat Yourself Smart, the western diet of processed and refined junk foods leads to inflammation in the brain and body, which can exacerbate the disconnection between the prefrontal cortex and amygdala, impacting our ability to think well and make good decisions. This is why we need to eat real food mindfully, focusing on a whole food diet that works for us and avoiding diet fads (for more information see my blogs and my book Think and Eat Yourself Smart).
- Practicing mindfulness. Things like yoga, meditation and mindfulness are a great way to engage the prefrontal cortex and improve our decision-making abilities. On the other hand, it is also important to recognize that you cannot just use yoga or meditation to mitigate the effects of a high-stress lifestyle. You need to be honest about your overall objectives—what do you really want in life? Yes, a high stress job can make you rich, but don’t expect that yoga now and then will make all your worries disappear.
- Avoiding tribalism. When you meet someone with a different opinion, listen to what they have to say and try see things from their perspective. Avoid getting into partisan fights on social media, and don’t go into a conversation just trying to prove someone wrong. Listen, think, and try put yourself in someone else’s shoes. Remember, the only people who have the all the answers are the people who have stopped asking questions! Tribalism is not healthy; it impairs our ability to connect with others, exacerbating the disconnection between our prefrontal cortex and amygdala, which, in turn, impacts our ability to empathize and make healthy, long-term choices.
- Digital detox. We need to reset the way we engage with technology, using technology to our advantage rather than being controlled by it. One useful way of doing this is what David and Austin call the test of TIME:
- T stands for time-restrictive. Set a limit on how much time you spend online.
- I means being intentional. Have a plan for how you are going to use technology to your advantage.
- M stands for mindfulness. Recognize that technology can affect you in different ways—be aware of how technology makes you feel in the moment: are you angry, stressed, annoyed?
- E means using technology in a way that enriches you. Whenever you engage with technology, pause and ask yourself if this is a good use of your time? How is it benefiting you?
We can also help our children make better choices by allowing them to explore the world around them, as opposed to ordering their schedules and giving them little freedom. When children are encouraged to use their imagination and creativity, they develop their mental resilience and decision-making abilities, which helps them make better choices as adults.
For more information on lifestyle choices and mental health, listen to my podcast with David and Austin Perlmutter (episode #143), check out their new book, website, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube. If you enjoy listening to my podcast please consider leaving a 5-star review and subscribing! And keep sharing episodes with friends and family, and on social media (don’t forget to tag me so I can see your posts!).
Podcast Time Highlights
5:19 What is mental hijacking?
8:50 The disconnection syndrome
11:40 Why is empathy so important?
14:05 How do we take back control of our mind?
20:40 How instant gratification damages the brain
33:55 Inflammation and depressive thinking: is there a link?
41:10 Narcissism and the plague of tribalism
54:25 How to work with family
59:00 How to raise successful, smart and healthy children
1:01:37 Current wellness trends: the good, the bad and the ugly
If you would like to learn more about lifestyles and mental health, join me at my Mental Health Solutions Summit in Dallas, TX December 3-5, 2020! This conference is for everyone: teachers, CEOs, students, parents, doctors, life coaches...everyone! For more information and to register click here. Early bird special pricing end 4/31!
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