Building mental fitness
There is more and more information from science demonstrating how important mental fitness is for both our wellbeing and how we perform. The ability of our brains to recover from strain, grow new neural pathways and keep on 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 this important for resilience? 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 reasoning, emotional stability and decreased anxiety.
Brain integration is very important in our fast-paced world because our environment and what we need to do to manage this 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 and 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.
How can we do this?
- 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 for focused attention, detailed and short-term, but when it’s on high alert, the prefrontal cortex is “offline”. If you want to be doing big-picture thinking, strategic planning or prioritising, you want to be in a calm state, so the prefrontal cortex can work well. Good strategies for calming down our adrenalin/amygdala response include abdominal 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 fight or flight is not required, and help us move into a calm state, both physically and mentally. Research by Barbara Fredrickson has 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.
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