Dr Leila Masson's Blog

How to stay calm and focused (in these crazy times!)

How to stay calm and focused (in these crazy times!)

Now that everyone is working and studying from home, I’m receiving a lot of enquiries on how to help kids and teenagers (and their parents) stay focused. Much of what I have learnt on this topic (beyond the research) I have learnt from my 18 year old son Manu, who, during his HSC year, put many popular ‘study hacks’ to the test!

The basics of a healthy diet, restful and enough sleep, as well as exercise, are a must. You cannot supplement yourself out of a poor diet; cannot take enough “uppers” to overcome lack of sleep, and you simply cannot get enough blood pumping through your brain without moving your body.

So let’s cover some of the research on this:

My number one recommendation for anyone who wants to improve focus, concentration, and memory, is always an ADDITIVE FREE DIET. What does this mean? Avoid unhealthy artificial flavours, preservatives, and colourings in food. They do not add anything positive to your diet – apart from possibly making the food look more attractive and last longer. The research on these additives is clear – they can make children hyperactive, uncoordinated, irritable, and distracted. When I was training to be a paediatrician I was warned by my superiors not to believe any parents who claimed that their children climbed the walls after drinking orange soft drinks and eating flavoured lollies and chips at parties. Then a seminal paper was published in the Lancet in 2007 which proved that the preservatives and colourings in these foods do in fact affect children’s behaviour and attention negatively. A meta-analysis of 15 trials found that many widely distributed food chemicals are neuro-behavioural toxins and are best avoided. For practical tips on an additive-free diet and lifestyle check out Tracey and Joanne’s website, course, and book and you can even listen to the podcast I did with them, discussing the effects of additives on children’s health.

What should your child’s diet look like?

They need to eat at least 5 servings of vegetables a day (a serving is whatever fits into their scooped hand), 2 servings of fruit, at least one serving of nuts and seeds, and one of legumes (lentils, beans, chickpeas); and only whole grains, no white flours. Cut out the sugar. Now your children will have the nutrients their brains need to learn and be calm and focused.

How much sleep is enough?

Enough sleep and quality sleep are essential for focus and attention. As much as you or your child need to wake up rested and happy. Here are some general guidelines:

Exercise gets the blood pumping around the body and the brain. It also makes your brain release the neurotransmitter dopamine which is essential for focus, attention, and motivation, or having an interest in learning. Research has shown that children who struggle with self-motivation, focus, and attention have lower levels of dopamine in the prefrontal cortex. Take regular active breaks (more about that later): a short walk or run around the block, jump on a trampoline or skip rope or do some star jumps or throw a ball to improve “executive function”, the ability to get organised, motivated, focused, and regulate one’s emotions. Exercise also reduces anxiety and stress, and of course helps fight obesity – which seems more important than ever now that we know that obesity is one of the major risk factors for getting seriously ill with covid-19. Gyms are closed, school sports are not happening, no swimming classes either – but you need just a little bit of imagination (or a quick google search) to make up your own exercise regime. You can find all kinds of kid-friendly classes online - from karate to zumba, even better take them outside and catch some sunshine while you exercise.

Mindfulness exercises are a great way to reduce stress and anxiety and get your brain into a calm mode, to help with studying. There are countless apps available – my favourite ones are Smiling Mind and Calm. Get the whole family to do a 10-minute mindfulness exercise daily and you will see that everyone will be more settled.

So now that we have covered the basics, what else can you do to help yourself, your child, or your teenager studying for high school exams, to focus?

Here are my top tips:

1. The Pomodoro technique: take regular breaks to use your brain optimally. Set a timer (the technique is named after a kitchen timer that looks like a tomato – pomodoro in Italian) and study for 25 minutes, then take a 5-10 minute (active) break – stretch, jump, walk or do breathing exercises; after 3-4 sessions of 25 minutes take a half hour break.

2. Listen to the right music to get your brain waves into study mode: some people find that listening to classical, especially baroque music helps them concentrate; music with lyrics may be distracting – so not ideal when trying to study; others look for more subtle ways to hack their brains and listen to music that has been electronically enhanced to sync the brain into a state of deep concentration. I love brain.fm, an app that gives you just that: music that gets you into a state of deep concentration within a few minutes of listening. It goes through different rhythms to entrain the brain into a state of deep focus. Research about neurofeedback therapy indicates that gamma waves, the fastest brain waves, represent the most focused state – great for peak concentration and cognitive function; alpha waves get your brain into a calm and relaxed mode which is best for learning new things; beta waves are good for sustained focus and problem solving. Just try out what works for you.

3. Spaced repetition: the Japanese Anki is a smart flashcard system you can download for free. It helps you remember new facts by making you recall them at spaced intervals, to maximise retention and recall.

4. Supplements for concentration, also known as nootropics. If your teenager is studying for exams or needs to finish a project, these can be very helpful. Here are my faves:

a. pycnogenol, pine bark extract – it is an antioxidant with anti-inflammatory effects; it may increase BNDF - brain derived neurotrophic factor – needed to grow new connections between brain cells – I like the high dose Enzo Professional.

b. MIND Lab Pro – a combination of bacopa monneri, pycnogenol, citicoline, and a few other nootropics that help you focus and concentrate

c. Omega 3 fatty acids make up the oils in the brain cell membranes and help with communication between cells and brain processing – I like the algae oil from nuique.com.

I hope these tips help you create sustained periods of calm and focus in your home, for both you as working parents, and your children, eager to learn and have their attention held!

I look forward to your feedback on what you introduced into your family routines and what had the greatest effect, despite the worry and distractions during this corona epidemic.

Dr Leila Masson

Sydney based paediatrician specialised in nutritional and environmental medicine. Author of the handy 'Children's Health A to Z' guide for parents. Dr Masson lectures internationally on children's health.

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