Exercise that brain power

By contributor Dallas Bezaire

You all remember gym class, right? Where you learn about sports and activities, nutrition, and general health. It is an important part of your education, even if you go on to mostly ignore it. Even if you end up unhealthy, you at least know roughly how to get healthy or lose weight. PE implementation is associated with better health and life outcomes, including better cognitive measures, better performance in school, and better socialization skills. It seems as if teaching kids how to be physically healthy is an absolutely invaluable part of giving kids a step up in life.

This begs the question, why don’t we teach kids how to be mentally healthy? Some of you reading right now might be thinking, “Well, mental health is still such a mystery, we could confuse kids by trying to teach them about it.” It is true that mental disorders and the brain, itself, are still keeping scientists and clinicians busy trying to figure it out but that doesn’t mean we don’t have any idea how to promote and maintain mental health.

For one, we know that maintaining basic health is important to maintain mental health. Your brain is an organ, just like any other, so a good diet with fruits and veggies, aerobic exercise, and getting regular sleep is invaluable to keeping in high spirits and good focus. We also know that stress is something we need to manage if we want to keep mentally healthy. Stress isn’t bad, per se—it’s an important part of learning, planning, and motivation. Sustained or extreme levels of stress, however, is incredibly damaging in the long term. It becomes deleterious for cells all over your body, including your heart, arteries, skin, immune system, and brain. High or sustained stress also leaves you vulnerable to acutely stressful life events, such as the death of a loved one, or traumatic events leading to long term negative outcomes such as PTSD, health problems, mental disorder, or troubles with addiction.

Stress is the most common—but far from the only—mental health problem that impacts people and prevents good mental health. Another common area is negative thought patterns. One example is all or nothing thinking, where everything goes perfectly or nothing does. If you have ever called a project a failure because a couple things didn’t go as planned, then you have engaged in this sort of thinking. All-or-nothing thinking and several other negative thought patterns, can consistently turn good days into bad days, and stop you from experiencing or trying in life. There are also many other ways in which mental cognitions can stop you or disempower you in life.

So what can you do about this? For starters, there are coping mechanisms. While some can be negative, others are positive, they help you deal with stress and other emotions by encouraging positive behaviors, like socialization, exercise, or encouraging catharsis—the healthy expression and processing of emotion. There are a number of good coping mechanisms that you can turn to, many of which have multifactorial benefits from increasing your social connections, to improving skills and confidence, and promoting good health and cognition. Coping mechanisms make up the most basic level of dealing with life’s challenges and struggles, and maintaining good mental health.

Past coping mechanisms, you start to get into the less well known and much more proactive tools for maintaining mental health. The first and foremost of these is mindfulness. In essence, mindfulness is being present in the moment. If this seems obvious to you, then great, but if it doesn’t, consider this; when does tomorrow come? In truth, it never does. Tomorrow doesn’t exist as far as our experience of life is concerned, and the same for yesterday. Even “an hour from now” is an abstract concept that, while it does have real relevance in your life, you never actually experience. You only experience this moment, right now. And then this one. And so on for your entire life. Just one continuous moment, broken up into seconds and minutes. Mindfulness recognizes this and asks you to be here, right now, in the moment. Mindfulness also asks that you accept this moment as it is by taking stock of your current reality, becoming aware of what you are feeling, experiencing, thinking, and so on, and then acknowledging it and letting it be.

Sounds interesting, but what is the purpose? Well, the simple act of accepting your experience as it is can be helpful, as it can give you power to act on the moment. Beyond that, mindfulness cultivates awareness, not only of yourself and your surroundings, but also how they interact. You can notice how your mood changes as the sun hides behind the clouds, how being low on sleep makes you more impulsive, or how your behaviors change your mood and thoughts. Mindfulness lets you become aware of and evaluate how your environment, emotions, thoughts, and behaviors interact and are impacted by each other. 

Perhaps you notice yourself using one of those negative thought patterns mentioned above. Maybe you get a certain sort of feeling that triggers the thoughts and cravings for a smoke. Or you notice that you are irritable and tense for no particular reason, and that it is making you short and rude with your coworkers. Noticing these sorts of interactions and ways of being are the first step in taking action about them.

When it comes to taking action, there are a number of tools and techniques available. The most simple and well-known is meditation. Now, meditation isn’t some inherently spiritual activity. In the simplest terms, meditation is exploration or creation of an emotion, thought pattern, way of being, perspective, or behaviour. It is done through deep breathing and focus, and can be done sitting down, running, walking, cleaning, or during any other simple activity. You can also create mindfulness with meditation. Mindful meditation is often the easiest way to practice mindfulness when first learning, before you take it into your everyday life. I like to meditate while I run; focusing on the extension and flexion of my muscles, the rhythm of my breathing, and the pattern of my gait as my limbs move, and then, during this, I focus on creating endurance and power with each step. Meditation can be used to explore something that needs exploring, to gain new insight or understanding, and it can be used to create emotions, ways of being, or thought patterns. Meditation also seems to improve cognition and emotional control, not only in monks who practice daily, but in elementary school children who are given mediation time rather than detention.

Meditation is just one of many skills available for taking action on bad mental health habits and maintaining mental health. Another skill that has made waves in the psychology domain is cognitive behavioral therapy, which has been shown to be effective in treating depression, especially when combined with anti-depressants. It focuses on taking notice of and correcting negative thought patterns. These negative thought patterns include the ones mentioned above, as well as the meanings and conclusions we draw from our daily experience in life. The meanings and conclusions we draw from our life experiences can empower and motivate or they can disempower and stop us in life. For example, being rejected by someone you like can lead you to make all sorts of disempowering conclusions from negative self-labels to judgments on love, relationships, and people that can colour your world view and prevent you from taking opportunities in life. Or, in that same scenario, you can choose meanings that inspire you to keep trying; “they weren’t the one for me” or “I can learn from this and improve myself for next time.” Alternatively, you can choose a neutral meaning; sometimes things just don’t work out, or there’s a time for everything and this wasn’t it. By taking control over the meanings you make about the world and the thought patterns you use to understand and evaluate reality, you can improve your mental health and live a more fulfilling and empowering life.

Of course, these tools are just the big ones. Biofeedback involves taking control of the automatic way your brain interprets your physical state, such as reinterpreting that pre-test stress as excitement rather than fear or worry, improving your performance and experience. Behavioural activation recognizes that behaviours often create emotional states and asks you to which behaviours lead to positive emotions, and which lead to negative emotions, and then to adjust your behavior accordingly. Even general philosophy and learning improves your ability to process and understand your emotions and your experience of the world. Together, it is the holistic use of both basic physical care and the various tools of mental health maintenance that allows someone to maintain an excellent mental health. A positive mental health can be protective against mental disorder and the stressors and difficulties that life throws at you, as well as beneficial for both relationships and career or life goals.

The best news is that, while we don’t teach kids these skills in school, there are an abundance of resources and educational tools online. However, it can be really useful to have someone teach it to you, so if you would rather learn it that way, you can come to the free Mental Health Maintenance Workshop being held on April 14 at 1 pm in rm. 111 of bldg. 356. There are a number of ways to keep mentally healthy and fit just like physical health. It can be a challenge to learn and get in the habit of practicing these skills, but once you do, you’ll be much more prepared for the challenges ahead and more fit and adaptable in life in general. And when it comes to living a happy fulfilling life, why leave it to chance and circumstance?