Personal Energy

by Stuart Harris

First steps to mastering mental energy

Key tip

Success is a mind game and mastering your mental energy is a winning strategy.

The vast majority of us today use up far less physical energy than our parents and grandparents did to earn a crust. Earning enough to put food on the table, a roof over their head and keep a home clean used to take a lot of muscle power and elbow grease. But with our computers, cars and labour-saving devices, we can mostly afford much more than the basics, yet for a fraction of the physical effort.

We have to work less hard physically, so how is it that so many people complain of feeling drained of energy so much of the time? What has changed?

It’s all in the mind. Even sitting and thinking burns up a lot of fuel – something like 25 per cent of your body’s glucose gets used up by your brain, even when you’re just chilling out. That’s because the neurons in the brain don’t sleep; even when you do, they’re in a constant state of metabolic activity.

Yet how often do you just sit and think? How often do you give your brain a REAL break – one with no TV, no mobile phone, no reading materials, no stimulation? For most people, life now involves a lot more mental activity a lot more of the time. And the rising tide of information and images deluging us every day puts a real strain on the brain.

You may have become hardened to it, to the extent that you don’t even notice the strain. But you probably noticed the difference the last time you returned from a carefree break and plunged back into the hurly-burly of everyday life.

Brain waves

In normal everyday activity your brain is firing away rapid, but low power, electrical discharges at anything between 15 and 40 pulses a second (known as cycles per second or Hertz). This range of pulses is called Beta brainwaves. It can feel like hard work.

Even if you just close your eyes and pay attention to your body, the pulses will slow down immediately to between 9 and 14 pulses per second – known as Alpha brainwaves. The brainwaves are slower, but have more power or amplitude. This is the rhythm your brain goes into when you’re drifting off to sleep or waking up. It’s also the pattern when you’re day-dreaming with your eyes fixed in the middle distance. It feels like taking a break.

So what’s drifting off got to do with mental energy and enhancing performance?

Mental energy is fundamental to success in whatever you do. And the clamour of the world outside, plus your own self-talk on the inside, drain your mental energy if you let them. So if you want to stop the drain and build up your mental energy, the first steps are very simple:

1. Control the flow

When there’s a lot of information coming at you and demanding your attention, check whether it makes your brain feel boosted or drained.

If your brain feels drained, then you know it’s time to limit the demands on your attention for a while. Switch off at least one of the noise sources – radio, TV, music, computer, mobile phone and so on. Be prepared to say ‘not right now, please’ to at least one of the people demanding your attention.

And if that sounds too much like hard work, then your mental energy levels definitely need boosting!

2. Treat yourself to more alpha

If your brain feels drained a lot, if you find your mind racing, then it’s time to start treating yourself to some more alpha waves. And it is a treat. Most people find that drifting off is a delicious, pleasurable experience. So why not do it more often? It feels great and, unlike a lot of indulgences, it’s good for you!

I’m not suggesting you start taking power naps in the office, or pulling over for a 10-minute kip in the car, even though both have proven benefits for productivity and safety. But how about making sure you get your fare share of alpha in bed? That means getting enough sleep and allowing yourself to savour the experience of drifting off.

If you always fall asleep instantly and heavily, or if it takes you a long time to get to sleep, then you definitely owe yourself some more alpha.

Some easy ways to achieve the alpha state

The alpha state can be achieved in a number of ways and most of us spend at least some part of most days in this state. A typical time may be just before you go to sleep, or as you wake.

At this time the mind is clear and receptive to information, rapidly making connections and realisations, and joining up thoughts. Many an ‘Aha!’ or ‘Eureka!’ moment has come at such times. This was no doubt the state that Archimedes was in when launched himself out of the bath and down the street in his birthday suit shouting ‘Eureka!’ The state is also great for releasing stress.

Classical music

Researchers have found that certain types of music ease the brainwaves into the relaxed alpha state. One form of this music is the largo movements of certain baroque composers.

Meditation

Meditation is a great way to get to an alpha state. There are many different meditation methods and a multitude of available resources and books. Try various methods until you find one that suits you.

Yoga

Certain relaxing yoga styles can be an affective way to get into the relaxed alpha state (see also Relaxation through breathing, below).

Floatation in a float tank

One of the most rapid and effective methods of getting in to an alpha state is through the use of a floatation tank.

Floating has been done for centuries in the waters of places such as the Dead Sea, but the modern floating phenomenon was discovered by a Dr Lilly, who was experimenting with sensory deprivation. Rather than sending him insane (as was the thinking at the time), he discovered that floating in a dark environment led him into a deeply relaxed, meditative state.

There are many commercial float centres worldwide where you can float for 40 to 60 minutes and drift into a deeply relaxed state. The float tank is like a very large bath, with a cover. Water comes up to about 50 centimetres and it has about 600 kilograms of Epsom salts dissolved in it. The salts make the water very dense, so that whole body floats unaided, and without the need to flap or kick.

Stress just melts away, and in float tanks with speakers, these can be used to pipe music or learning material into you while you float in a relaxed, meditative state. The physical relaxation is also wonderfully de-stressing for the body.

Relaxation through breathing

Rhythmic breathing in a relaxed posture and a peaceful environment is important for getting to the alpha state. Rhythmic breathing techniques are taught by many eastern relaxation disciplines, such as yoga, aikido and tai chi.

Rhythmic breathing

This involves breathing to a measured count. For instance, you might inhale for a count of four, hold your breath for a count of four and exhale for a count of four (in other words, count it as IN-2-3-4, HOLD-2-3-4, OUT-2-3-4).

While doing rhythmic breathing, become aware of each breath you take. Try to fill your lungs completely when inhaling, and then completely exhale by squeezing your muscles to eliminate all the air. Also pay attention to the period of time when you are holding your breath. Hold your breath by holding your chest and diaphragm still rather than blocking your throat/windpipe. Become aware of the tension felt in the muscles as well as the release of this tension when you are exhaling.

Ratio breathing

This consists of using a specific ratio for breathing, such as a 2:1 pattern. When using this ratio, you might breathe in for a count of four and exhale for a count of eight (in other words, IN-2-3-4, OUT-2-3-4-5-6-7-8). At first you may have to concentrate heavily on the breathing pattern; however, as you become better at controlling your breathing, these breaths should become automatic.

Rapid-alpha using light and sound machines

In the 1930s, scientists found that strobes tend to cause brainwaves to follow the frequency pattern of the light. They also found that brainwaves follow the pulse of rhythmic sound. (For centuries man has beaten drums around the fire to achieve a deeply meditative, hypnotic and trance-like state, so there’s nothing new there!)

Technology has enabled us to harness the two at accurate pulse-rates to effortlessly achieve brainwave synchronisation. There are a number of light and sound machines, also known as brainwave synchronisers, which help users get to an alpha state. Most have a thing that looks like a pair of large sunglasses into which lights are flashed at different frequencies. Differently coloured light bulbs allow the machine to vary the colours, while patterns can be varied by altering the inputs between the left and right eyes.

You lie on a bed with the ‘glasses’ on and close your eyes, and switch on for instant meditation. At the same time you can put on a headset through which rhythmic sounds are sent. The combination puts you into a deeply relaxed state, providing of course you have chosen such a setting.

You can also just use sound alone and this is also very effective. Researchers have found that if you put regularly pulsing sound at the one frequency in one ear, and sound at another frequency in the other ear, your brain will pulse at a frequency equal to the difference between the two frequencies.

So if you put sound of 100 cycles per second (hertz) in the left ear and 110 hertz in the right ear, your brainwaves will pulse at 10 hertz... ALPHA!

Often the pulse sounds are camouflaged with some kind of so-called white noise, such as the sound of gently falling rain, which is all you actually hear through your headphones.

Biofeedback

Biofeedback is a system of training one’s body to respond to various mental commands. There are now a number of machines that can help you with this at home. They typically consist of some sensors that measure things such as heart rate and galvanic skin response. These are output to a computer screen. You can then consciously modify your state and watch your body respond at a physical level.