It’s easy to feel as though brain health is something beyond our control, so it helps to know there are things we can do to create a calmer, healthier brain.
University of Queensland neuroscientist Dr Selena Bartlett talks a lot about this. As she explains, the brain is like a computer and we can learn to operate it better. That’s notwithstanding that like the rest of our bodies, there’s a genetic element to our brains.
Dr Bartlett is referring mainly to the part we call the ‘reptilian brain’ which is hardwired to keep us alive.
The reptilian brain has no interest in passion, inspiration, love or creativity; it’s about S-U-R-V-I-V-A-L. End of story.
For this reason it’s focused on negative rather than positive information and is constantly on the lookout for threat.
When we appreciate this negative bias, it makes sense to be deliberate in the way we set up our days.
I’ve written before about having a morning routine. The beauty of this is that it puts us in a positive head space, and because it’s a routine, once it’s familiar we don’t have to think too hard about it.
The kinds of small actions that soothe our brain and activate it in a positive way include taking a few deep breaths, doing some exercise, meditating, smiling, spending time in nature, writing down what’s on our mind so we can let it go, or identifying things we’re grateful for. Having a purpose — a reason to get out of bed — is also invaluable.
We can just as easily kickstart the day with the negativity of the morning news bulletin or a sense of overwhelm at what’s on our to-do list, and rev that up with sugar and caffeine.
What we put in our bodies makes a difference, of course. When life is challenging, as it often is, it can be tempting to sit on the couch, eat badly and drink too much alcohol. While sugar and alcohol might feel comforting in the moment, in the long run they increase our anxiety levels.
It’s a case of different strokes for different folks, but knowing how to calm or lift ourselves is a skill worth developing. What’s more, as Dr Bartlett shows, it has a physiological basis.
Mental health plays a huge role in our lives and when we consciously do those small things that put us in a positive frame of mind — and continue to do them — it gives us a big say in cultivating the kind of brain we want.