Back to school: How to trick your brain into being okay

In case you’re waking from a mirage, we’re in a global pandemic. Here are some tips to train your brain into navigating this new semester.

Welcome new and returning students to all of the hopeful back-to-school energy, the seasonal start-of-term jitters, and the wonderful opportunity to learn!

Reflecting on my life, I feel deeply grateful in this moment, for the millions of instances of good luck and hard work that have led me to pursuing my degree, where I’m learning skills and life lessons that will fulfill and nourish me. All is well and I am safe.

This sentiment may feel like a bit of bullshit considering everything that’s going on — a literal pandemic, remote learning, social distancing and isolation, in case you forgot  —  but it’s a useful bit of bullshit. Repeat an affirmation of gratitude to yourself, like the one you just read, and you will slowly trick your brain into being happier, according to neuropsychologist Dr. Rick Hansen. The technique is called “hardwiring happiness” and it operates by undermining the negative bias that our brains create, where the brain remembers negative experiences more readily than positive ones. You can counteract this negative bias by developing a “gratitude practice” like doing meditations grounded in all of the things going right in your life, or keeping a journal of the things you’re grateful for.

Coming back to school, things are going to be “different if not difficult,” according to Dr. Yaniv Elharrar, psychologist at the West Island Therapy & Wellness Centre. “Different if not difficult” sounds like 2020 summed up in a jingle.

If you want some more tips on how to “get your shit together, Carol,” read on.

According to Dr. Elharrar, if you want to combat anxiety, depression, distraction, isolation, and create a home advantage to learning remotely, make a plan. Give yourself a period of trial and error, and don’t get down on yourself for messing up. It’s about getting to know yourself  —  how you work best, where you work best, when you work best — and organizing your schedule to suit your needs.

Everyone’s different, so you need to do what works for you. However, generally speaking, while the portions may vary person-to-person, the ingredients in your routine should include consistent exercise, healthy eating, an early bedtime, and a social life.

I know it’s nothing less than cliché, but exercise! It will trick your body into all types of good feelings.

“Exercising in the morning actually kick starts your body so it helps you get earlier rest,” says Dr. Jade-Isis Lefebvre, psychologist and yoga instructor at Concordia University.

“Cardio exercise is good for long-term health,” adds Dr. Lefebvre. “After a cardio-based exercise, your focus actually increases.” To sum it up, students can focus better in their windowless apartment that smells like hot sushi if they just do a bit of cardio first.

Plus, if you want to improve focus and concentration long-term, yoga and breathing exercises will help practice the “mind skill that can transition to your daily life,” says Dr. Lefebvre.

So, in case you need a cue card summary of this information, yoga equals long-term focus. Cardio equals short-term focus. Love it. Next.

If you’re looking for a quick fix, there are some subtle cues you can give your body to focus, according to Dr. Lefebvre. “Just pressing your hands on your knees and extending your arms straight,” will ground you in the moment and keep you activated in class.

Now that focus is covered, how can students trick the stress away, too?

“Breath (sic) can help you deactivate the stress response in your body,” says Dr. Lefebvre. You can do it while you’re at your desk. “Inhale bringing your shoulders up towards your ears and then roll them back and down. That’s a really good way to open up your chest and get into your body and remind you that you’re here in the moment.”

Anxiety is a survival-based stress response. In order to reduce your stress, you need to communicate to your body that you’re not under attack, because your body is listening. This next tip will teach you how to speak the language of the body.

Techniques called soothing breath and soothing touch are great ways to disarm your stress response and speak to your body.

“Soothing touch is when you put your hands on a specific spot on your body. You can hold your hands on your cheeks, put your hands in a hug around you, put your hands on your heart,” says Dr. Lefebvre. “One of the ways that is less obvious is if you just cross your hands together and lay them on your lap.”

Soothing breath is when you bring a conscious attention to your breath and just slow it down and deepen it. My personal favourite mantra to support a soothing breath is “in deep, out slow.” These cues subconsciously tell your body you are not under attack. By consistently practicing this, you give your body the sense that it is safe on a biological level.

Now, as long as I’m living, I’m breathing all day every day. Might as well mix in some slow breaths, maybe even a deep one for kicks, sure. With all that said and done, if I don’t plan my schedule so that it’s both flexible and disciplined, I’m just not maximizing my potential to learn and achieve. The thing about a plan is that it needs goals, and goals need to be informed by your personal values. This is as good a time as any to take a look at the values presently dictating your goals.

Research shows that you are more likely to stick to your daily routine if it is realistic, fun, and something you look forward to. It will unlikely be any of these things if you don’t consider what your values are, and what motivates you. Start by identifying what is “really meaningful to you,” says Dr. Lefebvre. Ask yourself what matters most, then orient your goals in this direction.

But with all these tricks down pat, the thing we have to keep in mind is that we’re in this together. Hold on, we got this. Also go outside. Your place smells like hot sushi.


Graphic by Taylor Reddam


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