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How to deal when your ‘mental bandwidth’ is totally maxed out

Co-founder of resilience platform Springfox, Peta Sigley shares her tips to stop overloading your brain.

Did you know that like the internet, your brain is constantly processing things at crazy speeds and that it does in fact have limits?

So yes, when you’re driving the kids to school, on the handsfree to your mum organising weekend plans but really thinking about what on earth you’re going to make for dinner – you’re doing too much.

The stress you feel is your brain’s way of telling you that it’s being overloaded. Think of it like the spinning wheel of death on your Mac.

Speaking on Body+Soul’s daily podcast Healthy-ish, co-founder of resilience platform Springfox, Peta Sigley (who is also completing a PhD in Psychology), says that the idea of ‘mental bandwidth’ is a concept people really like and latch on to – because it’s so relatable.

“The brain processes about 11 billion bits per second. So that’s a lot. Yet in the conscious state, it’s about one hundred bits per second. And we know that having a one on one conversation requires about sixty four bits of processing capacity,” she tells host Felicity Harley on the Healthy-ish episode Manage your mental bandwidth like a boss.

She adds that COVID-19 has ‘slammed’ into our bandwidth and is really having an impact on the amount we can take on.

“COVID has really ratcheted up the gear. In terms of bandwidth, we’re finding people are procrastinating. They’re worrying about making decisions…they’re not as accurate. They’re slower. There’s a whole heap of stuff going on and that’s literally just to skim the surface of the reality,” she says.

It makes sense, given the continuing uncertainty we face about our future – even in Australia where COVID rates are very low. Outbreaks and lockdowns are constantly changing the game.

“Am I going to work or am I not going to work? What does that mean for my job security? What does that mean for my financial security? Am I going to have to home school children again? Where am I wearing a mask where I’m not wearing a mask?…Add to that feeling isolated, feeling lonely, even in a really busy house, losing that sense of self…when we work with people, that’s what we’re hearing all the time.”

Sigley says that when we get repeatedly overloaded we can get into a pattern of rumination and agitation.

“We do start to become hyper vigilant, which will drive things like stress levels that will drive things like anxiety, self-doubt, and being highly self-critical. We know that it impacts us not just cognitively, but we also start to see the emotional impacts and the physical impacts,” she explains.

One of the biggest things we can do to break the cycle of being overloaded is learning to say ‘no’.

Sigley says that we struggle with ‘the disease to please’ (women in particular). We don’t want to be seen as uncaring or unlikable, so we make ourselves amenable to people whenever we can.

“It’s OK to say ‘No!’. Self-care is not selfish. Self-care is about ensuring I’m there not only for myself, but for all the people that I’m saying yes to on an ongoing basis,” she says.

The boundaries we set to give ourselves time for self-care are important; to preserve our bandwidth for the things and people that do really matter in our lives.

Sigley’s tips for creating boundaries

1. Find Balance

Make sure that you have time to exercise, to connect, but also to recover and clear your mind of the mental loads we’re so often carrying on a daily basis.

2. Self-reflection

“We want that positive adaptation, that positive growth, and that requires a level of self-reflection,” she says.

Ask yourself questions about what’s working, what isn’t, what’s important and what else you’d like to be able to do in your life.

3. Segment your day

“We have to put up some constraints and understand where we are spending time and what we can do. I really strongly say you need to be starting to segment your day and setting a time for yourself,” Sigley adds.

4. Progress not perfection

“As soon as we start getting to that perfectionist line of thinking, I should do this. I must do that, we set ourselves up for failure. We know we’re not going to get it right every time,” she says.

We need to know we’re going to make mistakes, get things wrong – and it’s these lessons that keep us going.

Basically, don’t use up your remaining, precious bandwidth with worrying about getting everything right.

Sounds like pretty sage advice to us.

Peta Sigley is the co-founder of online resilience platform, Springfox, and joins host Felicity Harley. She’s also studying a PhD in Psychology.

You can find out more about Peta and Springfox, here.