When people talk about mental health, they don’t often think about the “health” part of the phrase. In fact, most people assume that the only way to recover from mental illness is to take medication or spend hours talking to a therapist.
But it turns out that it’s possible to train our brains to improve brain health, just the way we train our bodies.
“Your brain is an instrument. It’s a living, changing, malleable thing,” explains Elizabeth Wade, an occupational therapist and Life Skills Specialist at Yellowbrick. “The more you use your brain, and the more different ways you use it, the more flexible and adaptive your thinking patterns can become.”
Having a mental illness, such as depression or anxiety, can interfere with your ability to think clearly. Someone with depression may have brain waves that are slowed down, while someone with anxiety and stress may have activity in a rigid but chaotic pattern — both of which would prevent someone from being able to make reasonable, meaningful decisions.
In fact, brain scans of the young adults who come to Yellowbrick show that initially many have significant cognitive impairments in areas such as attention, memory, decision-making and executive functioning.
Wade says many people with mental illness have a tendency toward rigid thinking and often have difficulty seeing multiple options or solving problems. For example, someone with mental illness may think “I’m not good at making friends,” or “I’m a terrible person,” and the more the person thinks those same thoughts, the more ingrained they become in his or hermind.
That’s why Yellowbrick uses brain training to re-wire our neuropathways, helping us to make our brains become more flexible, which allows us to ultimately think different thoughts.
In order to do this, the young adults at Yellowbrick participate in computer-mediated cognitive exercises designed to enhance problem solving, memory, visual spatial understanding, attention and more. For example, one brain training module may require you to remember a string of numbers, while another one may have you organize images, solve a Rubik’s cube, or mentally rotate a picture. In addition, the young adults engage in real-world cognitive training, including group problem-solving, where they have the opportunity to see that there are many different ways to approach a problem.
Wade says by challenging your brain, you are activating different neuropathways and improving your ability to adapt to the challenges of the world.
Of course, if you don’t have access to these specially designed computer brain training programs, there are other ways you can strengthen your brain on your own.
4 Brain Training Tips
- Try Something New
“One of the best pieces of advice I can give is to try something new every day,” Wade says. You can drive a new way to school or work, make a new recipe, read a new book, etc. “When you do something new, you’re no longer on autopilot. You’re noticing things, you’re alive and in the moment.” Not only does that help create new neuropathways, it also doesn’t give you time to wallow on your problems.
- Consider Multiple Options
When facing a problem or making a decision, brainstorm possible solutions with the critical part of your mind turned off. Give yourself the freedom to explore and propose approaches. Consider the pros and cons of each option only after you have developed a list of possibilities. This method reduces rigid thinking and opens you up to more creative solutions.
- Do Things the Hard Way
Another way to train your brain is to avoid using technology as a crutch. Instead of copying a phone number one digit at a time, try to remember the entire thing at once, then check to see if you are right. Or try to figure out an arithmetic problem by hand, using your calculator only as a backup. Engaging in any activity that is mentally challenging, including the ones mentioned, will strengthen your brain.
Getting your body moving is another great way to support the health of your brain. Wade says exercise can help boost the flow of blood and oxygen to your brain, which is the most energy-intensive organ in the body. Studies have shown that exercise can help with memory, attention, and executive function.