I have struggled with concentration most of my life. My 1st-grade teacher begged my parents to test me for ADHD and because of her, Ritalin became part of my diet at age 6. That’s unfair of me; she was an older lady (probably close to retirement) who had to deal with a bunch of squirrelly 1st-grade kids.
Unfortunately, my story is not unique.
Scenario: Squirrelly kid annoys the teacher. Teacher requests parents to get kid checked. Kid gets a daily dose of amphetamines. Fortunately for the kid, amphetamines are awesome and make him feel invincible. Hoorah!
6% of American children are being treated for ADHD with medication. The number of diagnoses has increased 42% over the last 8 years. It’s not just ADHD; the use of antidepressants has tripled over that last decade. Clearly, something is up. I am not interested in arguing the effects of prescription medication or convincing you that pharmaceutical companies are the real ones to blame vs. Ms. Garahold (my 1st-grade teacher). Nor am I interested in pointing my finger at the internet or the companies competing for our attention. In fact, I think the global benefits of interconnectivity outweigh the potential downside of an increased number of squirrelly children (at least in my eyes). Instead, we will discuss practical ways we can improve our concentration and wellbeing without the use of substances.
“Is ADHD a Ritalin deficiency? Is depression a Prozac deficiency? I think not.” – Mark Hyman, MD.
Thankfully there are personal ways the individual can improve his/her focus and overall mental and physical wellbeing other than eating Ritalin. Namely:
- Physical input to the body <> Diet and Exercise
- Physiological input <> Meditation & other
- What the f**k is the FLOW State? <> the result of both?
Diet & Exercise (Physical Inputs)
I list physical inputs first because of practicality. We are made of what we consume. Our insides simply need the right raw materials to run optimally. Along with my seemingly infinite quest to figure out this concentration thing, I came across a book called “The UltraMind Solution” by Mark Hyman, MD. Mark is a doctor who was struck with depression, anxiety, and a lack of concentration in the middle of a successful career in medicine who made it his mission to solve what he calls the “Broken Brain”.
In his quest, he dives deep into the technical relationship between the mind and body, where he discovers natural solutions for his broken brain. He has since built a wildly successful medical practice around his findings and treats patients by carefully examining their biochemistries for a wide range of deficiencies. He is often able to treat with natural supplements and lifestyle changes rather than drugs.
Our bodies can react subtly to lack of nutrition and exercise and often be dismissed as ADHD, anxiety, or depression. These symptoms, as you well know, are often treated with Ritalin, Xanax, and Prozac. These may be signs of chronic mental illnesses but, more often than not, they can be remedied through a change of diet and exercise.
“When you don’t exercise, you have lower levels of IGF-1,7 an indicator of growth hormone (the repair and youth hormone) and lower levels of BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor), which is like super fertilizer for your brain. These chemicals are the brain’s way to make new brain cells (neurogenesis) and improve connections between neurons.” – Mark Hyman, MD
Yep, how cool is that! Exercise can actually promote the creation of new brain cells. Exercise is the best because it’s a two for one. Biologically speaking, it promotes neurogenesis, and it’s kind of hard not to be focused when deep in the pain cave of grueling exercise.
If you struggle with concentration or simply think your brain could be functioning better than it currently is, try doing a diet and exercise audit. How much sugar are you eating? Are you getting enough zinc or iron? Are you getting enough Omega 3 fats? When you exercise, how much are you sweating? Want to take this a little more seriously? Head over to Viome and figure out exactly what your body needs.
Meditation (Psychological Input)
What is the psychological input? Unlike physical inputs discussed above, these tend to be less clear and, thus, more difficult act on. It’s hard for me to define and seems to come in many forms for different people. This can be journaling, meditation, church, and even exercise.
For me, it’s kind of like practicing focus. Quite literally, focusing on focus. In meditation, I practice by watching thoughts come and go without attaching to them. I practice by noticing the most subtle details about my breath – like how my nose hairs disappear as I breathe in and reappear as I breath out. When journaling, I dump my thoughts on a page to keep them in my line of sight.
Turns out there are some biological reasons to take your daily dose of psychological inputs. So, next time you begin to question your need for some sort of relaxation exercise, remind yourself of this:
“We know that the stress hormone cortisol injures the hippocampus, damages brain cells, and leads to memory loss and dementia. Conversely, we know that reducing cortisol levels with relaxation increases the size of the hippocampus through neurogenesis. So the next time you get stressed out, think about how you are killing your brain cells and take a deep breath instead.” – Mark Hyman, MD
What the F**k Is FLOW? (Physical Input + Psychological Input = Flow?)
Autotelic: having a purpose in and not apart from itself.
We finally made it… so what the f**k is the flow state and how do you get in it? How does it relate to attention? Is it a state of presence or a form that manifests as a result of presence? Are presence and flow the same thing?
Sorry for the word salad, but this is how I feel when I hear people talk about the abstract. Just a bunch of words that don’t mean anything and open-ended questions that seem to be left unanswered. Yet, the last stop on my concentration quest was this thing I kept hearing called the FLOW state. Okay… Pocahontas… I’ll listen to the f**king wind!
For me, it seems to start with presence.
It helps me to think about moments where I’ve felt an intense presence. Moments where ego, envy, anxiety, and restlessness disappear and the only thing in existence is the moment. This one was the most powerful I can remember – digging a hole with a 6-year old Nicaraguan girl. Here are a few others: Intense exercise, a phone call catching up with a friend, hysterical laughter for any reason, or working on a new project I am stoked on.
Can’t you be in these scenarios 100% of the time, right? So how do you enter the Flow state without digging holes? Beats me…
For this, I refer to Mark Metry, the host of the Humans 2.0 podcast. He has very practical tactics that he uses to enter this state of mind. Much of them he discloses in a “FLOW Series” he runs in the podcast. The series captures something more than this sort of mystical and spiritual connotation it has at times, and it really connected with me.
“Flow is an essential dance of my existence that has made all the difference in my life. Sometimes we need to shut off the inner critic editor, surrender to the moment, and become something else so that we can bring that element into our own lives and transform gradually over time.” – Mark Metry
To really get the juicy parts of Mark’s FLOW state process, I would recommend giving Humans 2.0 podcast a listen.
Point is, there are plenty of ways to improve concentration. So do a diet and exercise audit, make some type of mindful activity a habit, and be aware of the moments you experience raw presence – it could mean you are on to something!
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