Health and Aged Care

Brain fitness is a real concept so how can we engage in this?

decorative image of lights inbrain shape held by hands over a sunrise cityscape.

I am fortunate enough to work in an organisation that embraces such amazing talent. Talent that is rich, diverse and that can help so many people. Specifically, I am talking about QUT’s wonderful researchers, academics, and corporate educators who delight in sharing their learnings with the world. This got me thinking about the challenges we are all working through right now. Who at QUT has a toolbox of “goodies” we can access; tips and tricks up their sleeves that can help us get through this time. There are obviously so many angles we could take, but one that I am particularly interested in (this goes back to my undergraduate studies in Psychology!), is mental health.

Mental health is getting some much-needed air time right now. Ultimately, as a result of the unprecedented times, we are living through, it’s recognised that mental health cases will increase exponentially. Though it’s refreshing to hear that extra funding is being provided to mental health providers to help them manage the challenging times ahead, there’s plenty that we can do to help ourselves and others, to remain, or, become brain fit.

I am a big fan of the research that QUT’s very own, Professor Selena Bartlett, leads. Selena is a QUT Professor of Neuroscience and a group leader in Addiction Neuroscience and Obesity at the Translational Research Institute. Selena is passionate about educating people on the possibilities that exist within the brain. So, with this in mind, I reached out to Selena to see if she’d like to help in some way. In record time, Selena responded with “absolutely, I’d love to help”. So this is where our recent journey began…

Since connecting with Selena a few weeks back, we’ve had the opportunity to run two webinars on “Brain training to enhance your mental strength during the COVID-19 pandemic.” One webinar was run for our QUT Community and the other for a number of our external Clients. Selena likes to make her sessions as collaborative as possible. Though sharing her leading research is certainly a focus, it’s about answering the burning questions that we all have around this important topic

She emphasizes how important it is to double down on brain fitness during this time. The level of uncertainty and fear activates the brain and leads to greater stress and anxiety than we may be aware of. Putting into place as many tools as possible is really important for the coming months and year.

Though much was covered during her webinar sessions, through participating in them myself, as well as reading her articles and listening to her podcasts, here is my summary of what we can all be doing to help our brain remain healthy right now.

1:  Physical Exercise

Simply put, Selena encourages us to go outside for a walk. We are lucky in Australia to have beautiful nature reserves. Walk at lunchtime, go into nature, and breathe. If you weren’t walking before, Selena recommends you start now. It’s more important now than ever. In her own words, we should “get sunshine, drink water and breathe”. Sitting all day is not going to help us. Even if you don’t enjoy exercise, shake your arms, do a little dance; anything that will get the dopamine going.

2:  Get working on that morning routine

Maintain as much routine as possible. Give your brain some knowingness and safety: this will help alleviate some of the chaos that is going on in your brain right now. Selena suggests that we dress up as if we are going to work. Also, when you get up, think of three things you are grateful for – start the day on a positive note.

3:  Stay connected

As much as the social distancing restrictions have made physical connection more challenging, Selena suggests that one thing we should guard ourselves against is isolation. Do not isolate yourself right now. Reach out by phone or virtual means. Do not wait for someone to call you, take it upon yourself to pick up the phone and call others. Ask how they are doing and how you can help. We need to ask for help too. Helping others and engaging in altruistic type behaviour has also been shown to lift mood and so I encourage you to reach out to your neighbours, your work community and ask how you can help.

4:  Diet and nutrition

Selena researches alcohol and sugar addiction; in fact, she has a lab and leads a team on just this. She suggests that anxiety and stress become super activated by sugar and alcohol and so we should limit this as much as possible during stressful times. The physical structure of the brain is getting wired by consuming these things. As our mind starts to associate drinking alcohol or eating chocolate with relaxing, it will soon want more to feel the same way. Your brain will start to associate drinking with relaxing and feeling good. It’s all in moderation as they say.

5:  Switch Off

Our brain freezes when we are feeling stressed or anxious. It might not feel like it’s helping us but this is our brain’s way of staying safe or surviving; it is trying to protect us. What we, therefore, need to do, is unlock a frozen brain. In the recent webinars we’ve run, Selena asks a member of the audience to put their hands in a bowl of ice-cold water for 60-90 seconds. This activity causes a temporary transmission of pain, which in turn, creates a natural analgesic effect that helps release endorphins and serotonin. This activity will stop your brain in its tracks immediately. It will take your mind away from the worries you are having. Selena suggests we try this activity each morning; it will get our brain in the right zone as we start off our day. So, with this in mind go get a bucket of ice-cold water and try this one for yourself. Even better, get the entire family involved – even extended family by virtual means!

There were several questions around relaxation and mindfulness too. Living through these times warrants some much-needed rest time for our brain. Mindfulness has been shown to help with this. It helps our mind to remain still and focused as opposed to wandering through our list of 100 things to do! If you haven’t tried mindfulness before, there are some wonderful apps out there that you can try at home. Additionally, why not learn more about this technique by registering for our upcoming workshop on Mindfulness at Work, scheduled for virtual delivery on the 12th May.

 

I hope this information has helped you. Listening to Selena speak over the last few weeks and learning more about how the brain works, has really helped me. If you’re interested in learning more about Selena’s work, please visit her webpage at http://selenab.com/ and her Shining Mind podcast https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/shining-mind-podcast/id1471835230 where you’ll find more information on her research and be able to access her many podcasts. Additionally, if you are keen to engage Selena for a workshop on this topic, please reach out to me and I’ll make the right connections for you.

Wishing you happiness and health during this time.

Kelly Lorentz

Update: Professor Selena Bartlett will be facilitating a half-day online workshop on “Inside Leadership: A Neuroscience Perspective”. Click here for details.

 

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Kelly is a Partnership Manager within QUT Executive Education, partnering with organisations across the Health, Ageing and Disabilities sectors in respect to professional development. Kelly has a wealth of knowledge and experience in sales, marketing and communications, Human Resources and project management.

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