Work Out For Your Brain
Always work on your mental strength. We all recognize the need to practice when developing a skill such as playing an instrument. Likewise we know that, to encourage heart health, we need to exercise regularly and that to strengthen a muscle we have to do repetitive movements of that muscle. But did you realize that there is exercise for the brain as well that helps develop and maintain good brain health?
In the last blog post about shame and guilt, I touched on the concept of mindful imagery in which you think about a mistake that’s bothering you and replay it in your mind with a different outcome. For instance, if you got mad at someone and yelled at them, you would then imagine all the thoughts and feelings that led up to shouting but create another way to respond to those feelings. Then instead of ruminating on the mistake, you would replay the way you wish it had gone several times. This is a way of strengthening your brain in the direction that you want it to go. If you ruminate over the mistake you’re actually more likely to repeat it because you are wiring your brain with those associations! But if you replay the new outcome, it is more likely to happen the next time you experience anger.
Think of it as exercise and practice for your brain. Josh Waitzkin, American chess player, martial arts competitor, and author, writes “Mental resilience is arguably the most critical trait of a world-class performer, and it should be nurtured continuously... I am always looking for ways to become more and more psychologically impregnable. When uncomfortable, my instinct is not to avoid the discomfort but to become at peace with it. My instinct is always to seek out challenges as opposed to avoiding them.”
Using the example of being angry in this light, you would fully embrace the action that you wish you hadn’t taken and then replay the correction in your mind. More often we try to put the action, and the shame or guilt that it produces, out of our mind only to find our mind throwing it back in our face repeatedly.
Thus, the best training you will ever do is mental training. This takes time each day! Some people have no problem practicing a skill or exercising their body every day but we rarely think of strengthening our minds on a daily basis. For instance, I’ve known for decades that most people like to be listened to and that they will feel close to anyone who truly hears them. And yet, I have to practice good listening skills when I’m with my friends and family. It's not enough, though, to say to myself that I want to be a good listener.
If I’m actually going to strengthen this ability, I have to practice it just like any other skill. I have to challenge myself to put the value of listening into practice by operationalizing it. To operationalize an intention means to identify very specific strategies that will build the skill, like a vocalist planning to sing scales for 20 minutes daily to strengthen their voice. Therefore, I am challenging myself to “collect” new information from each person I have a conversation with. Then I want to see how many things I’ve added to my collection at the end of the day. By structuring my value to be a good listener, I will be rewiring my brain much more quickly. I will know what my goal is and will know if I achieved it on any specific day.
To have a healthy, resilient brain, you will need to purposefully practice each day. One person in group therapy called it brain crunches. See if you can pick one thing for today and really think through how you want to practice. Then practice in as many opportunities as you can find or create.