An increasing number of scientific studies are demonstrating the importance of mental fitness – both for our well-being and to improve performance.
The ability of our brains to recover from daily stress and strain, grow new neural pathways and continue developing is called “neuroplasticity”.
Neuroplasticity is essentially the ability of the brain to reorganise its network of neurons in a positive way. Neuroscience researchers have found that the functioning of our brain can be improved through healthy lifestyle choices.
Why is neuroplasticity important for well-being?
When the different parts of the brain are better integrated they work together more harmoniously – our brain is healthier. Higher levels of brain integration have been associated with improved cognitive reasoning, emotional stability and decreased anxiety.
Brain integration is essential in our fast-paced world because our environment and what we need to do to manage the environment is constantly shifting. We need a flexible, integrated brain to successfully work out how we need to respond and what we need to do, or how we can achieve our goals.
The part of our brain that manages this work is called the prefrontal cortex.
It is sometimes described as the brain’s executive centre or “CEO”. This part of our brain plays an essential role in higher judgment, discrimination and decision-making.
When we are too tired or under intense stress, our brain tends to bypass its higher, more evolved rational executive circuits, defaulting to more primitive stimulus/response pathways.
Then we are likely to respond to challenges without thinking, making impulsive, sometimes short-sighted decisions. Plus the strong emotions that result can colour our thinking so we may be more impulsive or less controlled in our responses.
Tools and strategies
Tools and strategies for making sure our pre frontal cortex is working well are an important part of mental fitness. How can we do this?
Manage your stress response
Firstly, it is important to manage our stress response. When we perceive a threat/danger/problem our brain turns our body’s flight/fight system on. This adrenalin rush gets us into high alert but means the amygdala part of our brain is activated. This part of our brain is good at focused attention; detail and short-term focus but when it’s on high alert the functioning of the pre frontal cortex is impaired. So if you want to be doing big picture thinking, or strategic planning, or prioritising you want to be in a calm state so the pre frontal cortex can work well. Good strategies for calming down our adrenalin/amygdala response include diaphragm or “belly” breathing, muscle relaxation or mindfulness practice.
Engage in activities that give you positive emotions
Experiencing positive emotions like joy, hope, satisfaction, achievement and gratitude signal to our bodies and brains that flight or flight is not required, and help us move into a calm state both physically and mentally. Research by Barbara Fredrickson has also demonstrated that teams are likely to perform better when team members are experiencing a higher ratio of positive emotion. You can experience more by doing something you enjoy, taking part in a challenge with your team, being kind to someone or having fun.
Exercise as often as you can
Exercise helps our brains work at optimum capacity by helping nerve cells to multiply, strengthening their interconnections and protecting them from damage. Exercise also helps boost blood flow to our brain, and encourages neurogenesis (new brain cell growth) to help our brains work faster and more efficiently.
Quality sleep helps to “reset” our brains so we can look at challenges and problems from different perspectives and generate more creative solutions. The functions of learning and memory are also improved while we sleep, probably because the connections between the neural pathways that help us perform these tasks are strengthened as we sleep. For some tips on sleeping better remind yourself of these strategies: sleepfoundation.org/sleep-tools-tips/healthy-sleep-tips.
Gaynor Parkin has worked for two decades as a clinical psychologist in New Zealand and the United Kingdom. She is the founding director of Umbrella, which provides workplace resilience training for a broad range of public and private sector organisations. Gaynor also lectures for the Psychology Department at Victoria University. Gaynor is the co-author of the book I’ve had it up to here: from stress to strength, published by Consumer NZ in 2008 and reprinted in 2011. Gaynor tests out the robustness of resilience tools when juggling her psychology work with the joys and challenges of parenting twin boys.