Here’s the amazing thing about your brain: It’s always changing, reorganizing and making new connections between neurons, depending on how you use it. This phenomenon, known as neuroplasticity, is the brain’s natural response to new experiences, thought patterns, and habits.
What does any of this have to do with mental health?
Interestingly, neuroplasticity can work for or against you. Bad and good habits are equally capable of triggering changes in your brain.
Anxiety and depression can alter the structure of your brain. The hippocampus actually shrinks when you’re experiencing depression, and the volume of gray matter in your brain decreases when you’re experiencing anxiety. It’s a good thing these changes are reversible!
Avoidance isn’t the Answer
Physical or emotional avoidance provides instant relief and is most people’s go-to-solution for anxiety and depression. For instance, if you have social anxiety, staying home as much as you can seems like a good solution.
However, all this does is cause the neural pathways associated with social aptitude to die-off, making your anxiety worse. Continued exposure is the only way to protect those parts of your brain.
How to Rewire Your Brain
New Environments and Experiences
This is probably the last thing you want to hear if you have anxiety, but exposure to new environments can open up new pathways and connections in the brain. This is actually one of the hidden benefits of traveling; new friends, experiences, and memories trigger the release of dopamine. More dopamine means more motivation, and as a result, less depressive symptoms.
You don’t need to spend loads of money on an exotic vacation to get these benefits. Start with that new restaurant that you’ve been dying to try, a new hiking trail, or basically anything else that takes you to someplace you’ve never been.
Always wished you could play an instrument but never had the motivation to learn? This could be the boost you need.
Learning new skills is the easiest and most effective way to trigger neuroplasticity. Ever heard the phrase “If you don’t use it you lose it”? Well, if you haven’t learned anything new in a while, the connections in the ‘learning center’ of your brain are probably close to dying off! Go ahead and sign up for some classes before they do! Art, cooking, language, and music classes are all beneficial as long as you’re learning something new.
Exercise increases blood flow to the brain, which triggers an increase in the volume of gray matter and connections. According to a study with Parkinson patients, new brain cells can form after just two months of exercise. Also, while some exercise is better than none, higher levels of exercise get you faster results.
New experiences, new skills, and exercise are probably the most effective triggers of neuroplasticity, but they’re also a big undertaking. If you’re looking to start small, here are some tips for you.
● Read fiction – This requires using your imagination, which is probably something you haven’t had a chance to do in a while.
● DIY project – whether you decide to paint one of your rooms a different color, build a new cabinet or redecorate, it’s all beneficial for your brain.
● Sleep – Nothing kills brain cells and connections faster than lack of sleep. So, evaluate your sleep routine and find ways to improve it like having a set bedtime, or banning screens from your bedroom.
The volume of gray matter and connections in your brain play a major role in your mental health. Luckily, you have a lot more control over those two things than you think. Try exposing yourself to new environments, learning new skills, and committing to an exercise program for at least two months and see how much better you feel!
Photo by Artem Beliaikin on Unsplash