Perusing my Flipboard updates this morning, I pounced on an article from brainmysteries.com which explains some of the mind-blowing research of today’s brain scientists. For years, we’ve been told that our brains are hard-wired by the age of five or six and that by middle age, it’s all downhill. Not so, according to recent studies that reveal that the brain is “capable of changing, healing and ‘rewiring’ itself.” We’re now learning that middle age is actually the peak of mental acuity, thus improving problem-solving and coping mechanisms, by using both sides of the brain.
What you do with your brain has a greater influence than how old it is. “Neuroplasticity” is the word for the ongoing ability to control brain fitness by engaging in mental activities that create new neural pathways to strengthen brains in the same way that exercise strengthens muscles. For example, instead of vegetating on the couch playing video games, discover ways of building up your brain: healthy eating and exercise, conscious relaxation, challenging work, and continuing education. When my mother suffered a loss of oxygen to the brain from prolonged periods of sleep apnea, I got her doing crossword puzzles again and that helped her regain vocabulary and memory.
Experts in the “epigenetics” field are proving that genes can be influenced by what we do as well as what we “think, feel and believe.” This is a huge leap in our understanding of the brain and our DNA. Dr Dawson Church explains in The Genie in Your Genes that thoughts and beliefs can affect which of our genes are turned on or off. In a study of how stress adversely affects healing, Ohio University researchers discovered that subjects engaged in “sarcastic, argumentative conversations” healed 40% slower than those in neutral discussions. Stress chemicals like cortisol, adrenaline, and norepinephrine suck up the body’s energy, slowing down repairs of cells. Constant stress also shrinks the hippocampus which is needed for regulating stress and maintaining memory.
If you constantly relive things that hurt you or make you mad, you sensitize the amygdala which makes you more upset in the future (that might explain road rage). Activities like meditation have been shown to allow realignment of neural pathways to prevent the mental decline one expects with aging. Unlike positive thinking, affirmations, and yoga, only meditation sparks increased activity in prefrontal brain areas, allowing a sustained “sense of positive well-being.” Other habits can also interrupt the stress feast:
Establish a five-minute session in the middle of your busy day when you do nothing. This one is easier now that I’m retired and do a lot of nothing and a few somethings, all for no money.
Eat breakfast every day to reduce stress on your metabolism. I told my students this and those who tried it were amazed at how alert they were and less stressed. Turns out, Mom was right!
Take a breath under stress. Breathe through your nose for 4 beats and exhale through your mouth for 5. Repeat twice a day (or when you notice tension or stress). I have done this since my twenties to reduce anxiety.
Imagine how the your world would change if you retrained your brain to reduce stress while strengthening mental energy. Maybe you can teach an old dog new tricks!
©2015 Linda L Labin, PhD (except cartoon)