Our brains are the most fragile organ in the body. Nature has designed not only a hard skull to protect it, but also a bath of cerebrospinal fluid to serve as shock absorber and nutrient/waste transportation system for all those delicate neurons and synapses.
So we are incredibly fortunate, because while the brain is prone to cumulative injury over decades, it also houses our minds, which are the more powerful supercomputers that we know of.
I believe that our minds are key to protecting our brains, especially when we can harness their power to build habits, to motivate, and to manage stress. I have come to think of this harnessing as mind mastery, comprising three components:
- Building strength through consistent repetition
- Creating flexibility in thinking and freedom from limiting beliefs
- Developing stamina by managing energy through emotional cultivation
As you may know, there are many books and articles detailing specific recommendations and behaviors related to dementia prevention. And while knowledge is important, it’s often not enough to create sustainable change in self care practices because we often get in our own way.
Our minds are key to protecting our brains
What I mean is that even starting out with all the knowledge of how good it is for me to exercise, doesn’t necessarily motivate me to put on my shoes and step outside on a daily basis. So what gets in the way? Maybe it’s getting home too late, being too tired, or having too much to do. Sound familiar?
It turns out that building sustainable new habits requires rewiring our brains by shifting away from the automatic default mode of the old habits, to new ways of thinking and acting day to day. This is both easier and harder than it sounds. Easier, because it often only requires a tiny 1% shift in consistent action that accumulates over time, and harder because our minds and bodies want to stay in the comfort zone of the familiar default state.
Rewiring our brains is simply a matter of creating new neural pathways that get stronger and stronger with repetition, like a muscle. Think about when you learned to drive a car - it probably felt like there was a lot to pay attention to, and yet these actions are more or less automatic now. You have repeated them so many times that your brain has become accustomed to doing them with ease and familiarity.
We often sabotage our best intentions in self care practices by getting stuck in limiting beliefs about ourselves. It’s like when I believed for many years that I wasn’t a runner. I thought that runners had to have a certain physique, like lean and wiry. And then I met a friend who was built more like me, who told me all about her running in a marathon.
Rewiring our brains is simply a matter of creating new neural pathways
It took many years for me to let go of that belief, but I’ve since learned that it can happen much more quickly when we are open to being more flexible in our thinking. Beliefs are just thoughts or sentences in our minds that we’ve repeated so often that we think they must be true. So if beliefs are bits of programming in our minds that have become automatic through repetition, it’s just a matter of considering if we want to keep them, or if we want to rewire new neural pathways.
When I believed that there was nothing that I could do to prevent dementia, I got very fearful and wanted to avoid and deflect any mention of the subject. But I’ve come to see that when I was willing to shift my mindset, it actually allowed me to get unstuck and begin discovering the facts of the situation.
We know that stress or negative emotions can be harmful because they keep us in that constant neurochemical state of fight-or-fllight with cortisol and adrenaline. We usually think of destressing as moving into a more passive rest-and-digest state, that happens when we are able to take a break.
But that’s like running a distance race until you are literally falling over because you are completely exhausted to move any more. What if your strategy involved proactively managing your energy by pacing yourself? What if you knew how fast you run to stay the distance from training and testing your endurance?
Turns out that we can handle emotional and mental stress in the same way by gauging duration and intensity of exposure, then intentionally shifting into the rest-and-digest state. I have found stress management through emotional cultivation to be one of the most difficult self care practices to learn, but it truly has become a superpower.
The Mind Mastery Program is a unique approach to self care that is integral to the Optimal Brain Performance online course, because it teaches us how to execute on our knowledge and intentionality. Training our mental fitness helps us to feel confident that we know what to do to protect our brain, and it allows us to develop a sense of certainty that we can handle the future.