Contrary to popular belief, we can’t actually achieve more by simply pushing harder. Our brains aren’t meant to be in a constant “go-mode” because we cannot perform at our best in a constant state of stress. Unfortunately, that’s where many of us live on a day-to-day basis, especially during this global pandemic.
We welcomed health and performance expert Dr. Greg Wells to join us as part of our Virtual Speaker Series to discuss how to optimize our health and performance, even in times of stress. His main message — we need to slow down to speed up.
A scientist, physiologist, and veteran endurance athlete, Greg has dedicated his career to making the science of human limits understandable and actionable. He has worked with some of the highest performing individuals — including Olympic and world champions — and draws from this experience to help people learn how to perform at their best, even under the most extreme circumstances.
During his virtual presentation, Greg walked us through the five stages of brain activity — recovery, learning and strategic thinking, focused execution, creativity, and peak performance — and shared why all five stages are critical for achieving our potential, both individually and as a team, and how we can intentionally activate them.
The Five Brain States
The five different brain waves that help our mind perform at its best are called Delta, Alpha, Beta, Theta, and Gamma. Each are tied to a specific brain state that, when engaged, bring us specific benefits that ultimately lead to our optimal performance. Greg broke down each stage, why its important, and how we can engage it.
1) Delta: Rest and Recovery
This is the slow period of brain activity that usually occurs while we’re sleeping. It’s the most important time for our brain to rest, recover, and re-energize.
While we’re sleeping, our brain actually cleanses itself. The 100 billion neurons located in our brain shrink and that space gets filled with cerebral spinal fluid that washes our brain. Sleep is key to maintaining good brain health, but many of us have a problem of staring at our smartphones right before we try to sleep. This actually activates our brain, and this activation prevents us from falling into a Delta state.
In order to have good sleep, Greg said, our heart rate and temperature needs to lower, our mind needs to be calm, and we need to be in total darkness. This stimulates the release of melatonin, helping us fall into that deep sleep.
Defend your last hour of the day, Greg said. Put down the smartphone, stop reading the news, don’t check your work email, and don’t engage in a tough conversation. Use that hour instead to engage in calming activities that encourage rest and recovery.
Greg recommended that we read fiction before bed, meditate, or try progressive relaxation techniques where we tense body parts and then focus on relaxing them. Having a nice hot bath and ending it with a cool shower is also a great strategy to get your temperature down and body prepped for sleep.
2) Alpha: Reflect and Learn
When we are laser-focused on something — thank you COVID-19 — we tend to miss the bigger picture. The Alpha brain state allows us to take in the full picture, deconstruct it, and engage in strategic thinking so that we can properly learn and gauge a situation.
In this state, our body is calm. These are the moments that we’re in a brainstorming session and we lean back, body relaxed, and take a moment to think. Our mind is reflective, and we tend to review situations from the “what”, “how”, and “why” perspectives, opening our mind and increasing our brain function.
The most opportune space for this brain state is being in nature, Greg said. It’s a natural reflective space for us. Fun fact — Greg said that we tend to think better in nature because the straight angles and lines of our homes actually make us tense, while the fluid lines of nature relaxes us!
3) Beta: Refocus and Execute
This is when our brain comes to life! Blood flow has increased and our body feels energized. Our mind is completely engaged.
To illustrate this state, Greg said to picture Jose Batista’s infamous bat flip of 2015 after he hit a home run to win an important game for the Toronto Blue Jays. When asked about that moment, Jose said that the stadium, which was filled with 50,000 fans, was so loud that it became quiet, and he was able to laser focus on the pitcher’s shoulder — it was all he could see. When the pitcher’s hand appeared by his shoulder, Jose could see how he was holding the ball and knew what was coming. The rest is history. This is an example of a brain in the Beta state.
The best space to encourage this is one with music. This is why Olympians often use music when training because it can activate specific areas of your brain and help you perform even better.
While a useful state, it is also a tricky one. We often get stuck in it, which can lead to burnout. This is why we need to balance it with rest and recovery so that it can remain a positive state vs. a negative one.
4) Theta: Relax and Create
We’re daydreaming in this state! Our brain activity slows down and we become more agile, innovative, and creative in our thinking.
To get into this state, our body is often in a rhythmic movement, like walking, biking, or running. This puts our mind in to a meditative state. We can also use mindfulness practices to enter this state and keep us in the present. Greg said that just 15 minutes a day of meditation or mindfulness dramatically changes how our brain works for the better.
The best space to enter this brain state in is one of solitude, whether by yourself, with your partner, or with your team. Greg says to leave the technology at home. You have to actually give yourself the space and time to enter this state and get those creative ideas flowing.
5) Gamma: Peak Performance
This is when we’re on top of the world and feel like we can get anything done. Our entire brain works together, our body is in the zone, and our mind is at peak performance — we are in a state of flow. This space is one of love, compassion, and gratitude. We feel good and are able to exude that in everything we do.
While this peak performance is desirable, it’s unreachable if we cannot allow our brain time to recover, reflect, refocus, and relax as well. All of these brain states feed into each other to give us this moment of peak performance, and allows us to view things differently, to see opportunity within challenge, etc., even in times of immense stress and anxiety.
When we are able to provide our brain with the time it needs to slow down, then we’ll also be able to speed up when needed. In today’s context, it will allow us to widen our focus, see the bigger picture, and reimagine our future and what we want it to be for ourselves and for the greater community.
While it may seem difficult to start incorporating this new way of thinking and new habits into our already busy schedule, Greg suggested that we start the process with a “beautiful day” exercise. Ask yourself, what does the perfect day look like, and build those favourite parts into your daily schedule.
It can be difficult, Greg said, but it’s similar to being on a plane and being told that you have to put your oxygen mask on first before you can help others. It’s only through self-care activities that we can pivot from burnout to growth, and actually be productive when we need to be.
Rest deliberately, think about how you think, do less to achieve more, and embrace the extraordinary, he said. Download Greg’s executive summary of his presentation to learn more.
Dr. Greg Wells is a health and high performance expert who, as a scientist and physiologist, draws parallels between elite athletes and top executives to help business leaders perform at the highest level. Wells is also the author of four bestselling books: Superbodies, The Ripple Effect, The Focus Effect, and his most recent, Rest, Refocus, Recharge: A Guide for Optimizing Your Life.
Speakers’ Spotlight has been offering virtual presentations since 2009. We work with several speakers who are experienced in delivering virtual presentations on a variety of topics pertinent to today’s changing environment. Contact us for more information.