Needing a Brain Break

When your mind tries to sabotage you, try a brain break to re-engage your thinking brain and interrupt the cycle of negative thoughts triggered by fear, stress, trauma, and your inner critic.


I had a minor existential crisis this week. I was at the back to school staff meeting on Monday with school reopening Wednesday when the conversation turned to the question of how to divide duties between my co-Administrator and I. The team recommended that the two Admins avoid being on campus at the same time. It would be disastrous for both of us to be quarantined or sick with COVID-19 simultaneously. I hadn’t been expecting this idea (though perhaps I should have), and it sent my brain into panic mode. I had been looking forward to seeing the kids on their first day of school so much -- could I be forced to stay home?


That initial swirl of fear completely eroded my ability to think straight. My brain embellished that first thought into a host of conspiracy theories and delusional fairy tales: They still don’t understand my value and contribution after all this time (resentment). They like her better than they like me (jealousy). This must be a not-so-subtle way of pushing me out of the team (rejection). I’m superfluous now -- a “previously important person” (insecurity). This was my last year as staff... I’ll never get a chance to be part of the first day magic ever again (sadness).


Of course, none of these conspiracy theories and fairy tales were true, my brain was in full blown freak out mode. In truth, the team wasn't rejecting or excluding me, they were protecting me and the school. Their recommendation was proof that I am essential and valued which is why they were protecting my health and safety so diligently, but all that got twisted and distorted in my mind. Rather than using my very own tools for managing fear and reducing stress, I opened the door to every negative emotion in the book and let that negativity have its way with me.


A bit too late, I remembered that I have a strategy in my toolbox for moments just like these: brain breaks! These quick 20 second to 2 minute breaks have been our school’s go-to strategy to help students manage stress and re-engage their “thinking brain” for another round of learning. Research from several fields supports the effectiveness of brain breaks in the classroom.


But brain breaks aren’t just for kids. Navy SEALS use specific breathing techniques to manage stress, fear and trauma in combat. Mindfulness practices are taught to leadership teams and CEOs around the world to improve outcomes for their businesses. Therapists and psychologists teach them to their clients to help quiet a persistent inner critic. Deep pressure stimulation has been shown to be effective for reducing stress for all sorts of people, especially those on the autism spectrum disorder and those with sensory processing disorders.


Brain breaks are known by many different names (mindfulness, trauma informed practices, self-regulation strategies, meditation, PQ reps, and more) but have common features. They bring you into the present moment and away from the past and future where intrusive negative thoughts tend to dwell. They interrupt your body’s fight or flight stress response. And, in doing so, they open the door to greater awareness of what’s going on in our mind and body, a necessary step towards activating our thinking brain, whether for learning or for looking at things from a wiser, less emotional, non-judgemental perspective.


Once I remembered that I could use brain breaks to interrupt the negative feedback loop in my mind, I made a point to catch myself anytime my brain started to dwell on the collection of negative emotions and thoughts that surfaced in that staff meeting. As soon as I noticed my brain heading down that rabbit hole, I would immediately interrupt myself with a brain break.


The rest of the week was so much better. It wasn't perfect by any stretch of the imagination. Many times I got stuck in a thought hole for far too long before I caught myself. A negativity bias is natural and normal and no reason to beat yourself up. Once again, I'd make myself take a brain break, reactivate my thinking brain, and move forward instead of back. In the end, I was able to be there on campus the first day of school to take photos, smooth out bus seat assignments, and help in lots of other little ways. I’ll mostly be working from home this year, but now that I’m clear-headed, I can now see the huge gifts and advantages to working remotely that were hidden before.

With that, allow me to teach you my top five favorite brain breaks for people of all ages. You don’t have to be a monk or trained in meditation to practice these techniques. Best of all, they require less than 2 minutes of your time and can be done in the middle of your day without anyone around you even noticing that you are taking a break.


Box breathing

This is a strategy recommended by Mark Divine, former Navy SEAL and author of The Way of SEAL: Think Like an Elite Warrior to Lead and Succeed, to regulate one’s breathing and bring you into an alert, grounded state. Breathe in slowly through your nostrils for the count of 4. Hold for the count of 4. Breathe out for 4. Hold for 4. And repeat. With students, I have them draw a square in the air with me as I count. Draw a line upwards saying “In, 2, 3, 4.” Then a line across saying “Hold, 2, 3, 4.” Then a line down saying “Out, 2, 3, 4.” And finally closing the square saying “Hold, 2, 3, 4.” Mark Devine recommends 5 minutes of box breathing but really, even two or three cycles helps immensely. This animated video, appropriate for kids, will guide you through it!


Finger tip focus

This is a strategy recommended by Shirzad Chamine, a leadership coach and author of Positive Intelligence: Why only 20% of Teams and Individuals Achieve Their True Potential and How You Can Achieve Yours. Simply rub two fingertips together with such attention and focus that you can feel the tiny ridges on each finger for 10 seconds. Really notice the feeling of each fingertip against the other. If you want, take another 10 seconds to gently slide your two hands against one another, palm to fingertips, to feel all the sensations of your fingertips gliding across the palm of each hand. This “PQ rep” is led and described by Shirzad in this short talk.


5-4-3-2-1

This grounding exercise is effective for reducing anxiety and even preventing panic attacks. An excellent Mayo Clinic article explains the technique:

“Look around you and notice:

5 things you can see: Your hands, the sky, a plant on your colleague’s desk

4 things you can physically feel: Your feet on the ground, a ball, your friend’s hand

3 things you can hear: The wind blowing, children’s laughter, your breath

2 things you can smell: Fresh-cut grass, coffee, soap

1 thing you can taste: A mint, gum, the fresh air”

Bonus: the article includes a short, cute video on how to boost happiness in your brain.


Near and far

This is a tiny bite-sized morsel of the classic sound meditation. Take note of the sounds that are in your body or closest to you in this moment -- the sound of your breathing, the rustle of your clothing as you relax your shoulders, perhaps even your heartbeat. Then expand that awareness to take in sounds within the room -- other people talking, the hum of the refrigerator, the clack of a co-worker’s keyboard. Finally, notice the sounds furthest away from you -- the lawn mower down the street, birds chirping, an airplane flying past. Throughout, imagine yourself as a radio receiver, tuning in to different sounds as they float past you in the air, but not analyzing, judging, or engaging with them. Allow yourself the space to just be an impartial receiver for the moment, awash in all the sounds around you, tuning in to different radio stations near and far.


Dots and squeezes

This is a strategy inspired by research on deep pressure stimulation that is calming for many people. For those that like a trip to the spa, it’s similar to giving yourself a relaxing hand massage when you need to decompress and reset. Place one thumb on the opposite palm near the base of the thumb and squeeze, hard enough to change the color of the skin below, but not so hard that it hurts. Hold for 1 second. Then move your way gradually around the palm in a circle, squeezing for 1 second in each new spot. End with a deep, hard squeeze right in the middle of your palm. Switch hands. Finally use your entire hand to squeeze your opposite wrist. Then gradually work your way with firm 1-second squeezes up your arm until you reach your elbow. Switch arms. Here’s a great video by Sian DeLuca to walk you through the technique.


Read more

For educators, I highly recommend the book 101 Brain Breaks & Educational Activities by Joshua MacNeill which offers a wide array of brain breaks that you can try with your classes (and yourself).


If you are looking for a slightly longer brain break, I personally use the Budhify Meditation and Mindfulness App. It offers a great selection of 5-15 minute mini-meditations for any situation -- a work break, a walk in nature, going to bed, or to manage a stressful situation. (Note to self: next time I should try Budhify to reset after an emotional staff meeting.)


Going Further

Are you struggling with the start of a school year like no other? I'm offering FREE 1-hour spots on my calendar to do whatever I can to help. I would love to teach you and your kids some brain breaks. For teachers, I’m currently helping design curricular units for distance learners, in-person classes, and both at the same time. I’m helping parents navigate the agonizing choices about how to educate their kids this year. 1 hour of free support. No strings attached.


For you school leaders out there, first, I’m honored that you read this far given all you have on your plate. I’ve designed a new model for coaching school leaders. Zero e-mails. Only a 15-20 minute weekly check in (on the drive in to work perhaps?) Laser focus on solving whatever major challenge life has thrown at you that week. Access to the collective wisdom of a cadre of fellow school leaders that aren’t your local competitors or your boss. Intrigued? Give me a call and let’s design a program to meet your needs. (530) 638-2448


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