As we know, there’s a mental health crisis in our culture. Dr Caroline Leaf argues that it’s a mind management crisis.
Dr Leaf is a South African neuroscientist who studies mental health, the link between the brain and the mind, and the formation of memory.
She believes that for the past 40 years science has concentrated so much on the brain that we’ve forgotten about the mind. Or rather, we’ve collapsed the two, as if the brain and mind are one.
They’re not. The brain is the lumpy grey and white thing in our heads. It’s physical. The mind is what operates it.
The mind makes us human and allows us to communicate with each other. It channels our experiences through the physiology of the brain and body.
Dr Leaf argues that the mind is 90 to 99 percent of who we are, so we need to prioritise it. We have a brain and a body, but we are our mind.
Moreover, our mind can change our brain. This is called neuroplasticity. Our experiences become wired into the brain as chemical changes.
And given the brain isn’t separate from the rest of our body, stressful experiences wired into the brain can trigger immune and other bodily stress responses.
Equally, positive experiences wired into our brains will support our immunity and healthy bodily function.
In a nutshell, what comes into our mind can and will affect our physical and mental health.
That’s a good reason to manage what and how much we absorb of distressing round-the-clock news, and to seek out uplifting stories to help provide some balance.
Dr Leaf also points to the constant stream of information from social media. She says this is a key factor in the anxiety and depression engulfing young people, though young people aren’t the only ones affected by it.
She notes too that our current way of dealing with mental health conditions is to treat them as though something’s wrong with the brain, rather than taking a big picture view — i.e. something’s impacting the whole person and their environment and how they’re managing their mind.
In addition to the never-ending information flow, everyday life can throw up challenging situations — relationship breakdowns, financial stress, and so on.
She’s created a five-step process for supporting our minds when something is making us unhappy. I’ll skip through the bones of it but follow up her work if you want to dig deeper.
Step 1 Gather: become aware of how you’re feeling emotionally and physically (i.e. your bodily sensations), how you’re behaving, and your perspective or attitude in the moment.
Step 2 Reflect: Why do you think you feel this way?
Step 3 Write: do a mind dump on a piece of paper (draw a diagram if it helps) with your answers from the first two steps to help clarify how you feel and why.
Step 4 Recheck: what you wrote, looking for thought patterns and triggers. Think about why you feel the way you do and how you could be happier. How could you think differently about the situation or take an action that would nurture your mental health?
Step 5 Active Reach: Following on from Step 4, what’s a thought or action you could take on today? We can’t change anyone else, but we can change our own response. For example, we might opt for an action that just boosts our mood, like making a favourite meal or watching a feel-good movie.
Dr Leaf uses this framework to help people with a vast array of issues. When they’re difficult and deep-seated, she says it can take nine weeks to rewire the brain, but simpler concerns can be dealt with far more quickly. What’s valuable to understand is that we humans can rewire our brains.
It works to get professional help for those difficult issues, but her five steps can at least help us make sense of what’s upsetting us and why.
Her work also suggests that as much as it’s beneficial to avoid situations that cause stress and anxiety, there’s much to be gained from everyday activities that calm and nurture us — such as spending time in nature, patting a pet, being with people we care about, meditating, getting enough sleep, and doing things we love.
Clearly, managing our minds is an important life skill.
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