In a busy city and especially during challenging times , the mind can end up as an afterthought (no pun intended). Neuroscientist and leadership expert Dr Tara Swart has seen first-hand how applied neuroscience can affect performance and overall wellbeing. We delved into the tricky task of staying mindful in London, and putting brain power first.
Why is maintaining a balanced mind important, and what are the main challenges around achieving this somewhere like London?
We are bombarded by millions of bits of information constantly so being able to regulate our emotions, make the best decisions, maintain our mental resilience and build healthy relationships is critically important and needs to be paid attention to. Too much of the stress hormone cortisol affects our mind, making us anxious and irritable, as well as affecting our physical health, weight and immunity.
How can spending time in a busy city affect your mind and productivity?
In global cities, such as London, the pace of life can be much faster due to factors like longer working hours, higher prices and hectic commutes. While that might make it harder to find the time to practice mindfulness to keep a balanced mind, it also makes it all the more important.
Stress is contagious – men or women who are suppressing high levels of the hormone cortisol can negatively affect the stress levels of people around them. So being in a city where the inhabitants are stressed can impact on your thinking, feelings, health and productivity.
Where are your favourite London spots for regaining mental clarity?
I enjoy vistas and being in nature so Waterloo bridge and Hampstead Heath are grounding places for me when I need perspective or reflective time.
What do you recommend visitors do to stay on top of their mindfulness on a city-break?
Practising mindfulness even for as little as 12 minutes a day will help you to reduce your stress levels and regulate your emotions. There are lots of mindfulness apps and recordings available online so you can access them anywhere. Even listening to relaxing music can help. Bring simplicity into your travel days by practising choice reduction to preserve your brain’s cognitive resource e.g. by staying at the same hotel in each city you visit, having a planned morning routine, especially for breakfast and exercise, and reducing your wardrobe choices.
Are there any activities/practices to avoid?
Where possible, avoid rushing from place to place and take time to notice your surroundings and how you are feeling. This is a way of informally practising mindfulness and will induce feelings of calm and enhance creative thinking.
Avoid being overly-distracted by social media, smart phones and computers. Focus on high quality face-to-face time with people for the benefits of social bonding and/or do some cultural activities to strengthen the connections between the left and right halves of the brain.
What food and drink do you recommend, and where do you find it when you’re in London?
Brain-friendly foods include salmon and oily fish for their Omega 3 essential fatty acids, vitamin B12 and protein, and coconut oil and eggs which also support cognitive function. Taking a magnesium supplement helps to reduce cortisol levels as well as eating magnesium rich foods such as nuts and leafy greens. Probiotics aid your gut bacteria which can also suffer from jet lag! We also recommend still water of a high pH, regular meals, healthy snacks and adequate digestion time before sleep.
Where are your favourite fitness/exercise spots in London?
Drop-in yoga and pilates centres are great when you are travelling, as is getting a personal instructor to your hotel. A wide range of sessions and equipment are available at the Corinthia Hotel gym which is open 24 hours a day.
How do you spot the negative effects of city-living, therefore avoid them?
Being sedentary or inactive is a big negative in cities. Making sure you do formal exercise or are getting approximately 10,000 steps a day is important. This can be done while sight-seeing or shopping.
It is also tempting to take too much on and not rest enough. Try to make sure you get 7-9 hours of good quality sleep.
One thing I wish everyone knew about brains:
Your brain uses up 20-30% of your energy intake, so eating for your brain – as well as your body – is really important.
If you adopt one habit for your mind, let it be:
Turn off your phone, laptop, kindle and any other screens an hour before bed. The blue light stops your pineal gland from releasing melatonin which kicks off the falling asleep process.
We need neuroscience in our daily lives because:
Most of us are paid to use our brain, but many people do not know enough about how the brain works. Understanding how to get the best out of our brain through neuroscience will help us to reach our potential and maintain peak performance day-to-day, as well as lead happier and healthier lives.
My eureka moment was:
If you follow your passion you will be successful. Spreading simple, practical messages about how to live your life based on neuroscience gives meaning and purpose to my life.
The biggest myth about mindfulness is:
It can only be practised during meditation. Mindfulness is actually a way of life through mindful eating, mindful walking and paying attention.