Brain Health—The Bridge To Living Optimally (Part 2)
In the last issue, we showed the circular relationship between brain health and physical, cognitive, emotional and social well-being. By looking after your brain or taking care of any aspects of your well-being (body, cognition, emotion or social) or even doing both at the same time, you are on the path to achieving a holistic well-being. This issue we explore how Dave applies this knowledge to reap real results.
Revisiting the Brain Health Triangle
Dave is the typical office worker with a deskbound job. He has been neglecting his brain health albeit unknowingly. If he continues to do this, he will face several health-related issues such as obesity which in turn would lead to heart problems and diabetes, cognitive decline, lowered self-esteem, and decreased social activities. To understand how Dave reverses his lifestyle, let us first revisit the three components depicted in the brain health triangle—“what I do”, “how I think”, “how I feel”.
For someone caught in a busy work life, it is easy to be influenced by thoughts such as “I feel too tired to exercise” and “I have no time to eat healthy”, to the detriment of one’s physical (body) health. These thoughts shape our beliefs, even though they are untrue and are based on a lack of knowledge or even avoidance. What happens when one stops exercising (“what I do”)? Not only his muscles and stamina gradually weaken over time, making him tire out easily, mood level also decreases as less mood-enhancing endorphins are produced (“how I feel”), and thought process (“how I think”) becomes more distorted as he further reinforces the thinking that he should not exercise anymore, or there is no point in exercising, citing aging as a factor. The end result is he will stop exercising altogether!
Similarly, when it comes to diet, munching on delicious but unhealthy food (“what I do”) leaves us feeling good (“how I feel”); we start to think that such food is convenient and harmless (“how I think”). This vicious cycle which vitiates our brain health can also originate from our emotions. For example, someone could have been facing mounting stress at work or at home; without adaptive coping strategies or mechanism, she is left feeling frustrated and hopeless (“how I feel”), which then leads to negative thoughts of herself (“how I think”) and withdrawing from social activities (“what I do”). The vicious cycle may also start from the cognition aspect. Someone who has made a mistake starts entertaining negative thoughts of himself (“how I think”) which then results in feelings of guilt (“how I feel”) and resorting to drinking alcohol to cope (“what I do”).
Converting a Vicious Cycle to a Virtuous Cycle
We have seen how the various scenarios, whether starting from the body, emotions or cognition can adversely affect our health. More so if these scenarios are allowed to perpetuate; if we do not let go of our actions (“what I do”), thought patterns (“how I think”) and emotions (“how I feel”), habits take root. Besides ‘addicted’ to certain actions, we also start ‘getting used’ or ‘feel at ease’ to think or feel in a certain way— we are being hardwired over time! At the same time, the brain always prioritises instant gratification over long-term benefits or goals, as the emotional part of the brain often takes precedence over the logical part. To put it simply, our brain consists of the two hemispheres, the left and the right, each with its own specialised function; the left brain is responsible for logical and abstract reasoning, whereas the right brain is associated with emotions and non-verbal communication. The right brain is always more dominant when a baby is born while the left brain learns language and acquires logic later. When the left and right brain are talking to one another in harmony, then we will be balanced—we are able to manage our emotions well and are logical. Unfortunately, for most of us, our right brain usually wins the battle due to factors such as lack of guidance and healthy role modelling from childhood, and rewards in the form of instant gratification from the pleasures of tasty food and lounging on the couch. It does take effort to synchronise the left and right brain so that they work seamlessly, in tandem. Thankfully, the brain can be trained and rewired. It has the ability, called neuroplasticity, to reorganise itself by forming new neural connections throughout a person’s life, as long as one becomes aware, and starts to initiate a change, no matter how small the change is. This is the way to break away from the vicious cycle described earlier.
The Old Dave
“No one has ever advised me on brain health. Just after National Service, I was rather fit as I was younger. After I started to work, my jobs had always been deskbound, and I ate out with my colleagues a lot. The food gave me comfort and distraction. After a long day at work, I just wanted to lie on the couch back home. I just stared at the TV to distract myself from the stress at work. Somehow this had become the routine for the next few years. I remember my relatives started commenting that I was overweight. I felt really bad about myself and decided to stop going out altogether. I became tired and moody easily, and just wanted to sleep.”
The New Dave
Dave was tired of being tired and overweight all the time. He wanted change and a turn around. When a friend died at 36 from a heart attack, this gave him a final wakeup call.
Slow and Steady
As Dave had lived the sedentary life for quite some time, it would be unrealistic to expect a drastic change in his routine overnight. The fact that Dave wanted a change in his life was already a battle won (positive shift in cognition—“how I think”). It provided him with the driving force to start off with something small and manageable, and more importantly, sustainable. For instance, instead of taking the lift, he would take the stairs to reach his flat on the sixth level. At first, Dave found it challenging to even climb one level. He was breathless, but at the same time determined to do it, albeit at a slower pace.
Refreshed by Newfound Energy
After two weeks, Dave found the climb easier. While he felt tired, it was a different feeling from that of lethargy—it was a pleasant feeling of knowing that energy has been expended for a good purpose. And he could sleep very well after the exercise. Dave also started cooking simple meals at home, adding in more vegetables to his meals and eating more fruit, as well as cutting down on the portion of white rice and having more brown rice. To his surprise, Dave felt more energetic, more focused and was able to manage his workload better.
Connecting with Self and Others
Through the advice of his colleagues, he took steps to solve work issues by talking to his HR manager who turned out to be more helpful than thought. Within the next few months, Dave began to hit the pool. He also took tennis lessons at a community centre and made a few friends in the process. Dave started reading novels again, which he said, made him more imaginative and willing to explore new things. On top of that, he had been attending a regular mindfulness class where he learnt compassion, towards himself and others.
Small Steps to Big Changes
“I never thought that I would feel good and healthy again. It is amazing how taking a small step would lead to bigger steps. My last medical checkup showed that my blood pressure, sugar and cholesterol level were all within the healthy range. I definitely feel less frustrated and able to manage my emotions better. Now that I have made some few friends, talking to them really helps too. Other people have commented how sharp I am and how fresh I look now!”
Dave is now living life to the fullest and on his way to achieving peak brain performance and brain health, as the healthy cycle gains self-momentum. It is likely that he will enjoy a good quality of life for a long time to come, as the benefits of taking care of his brain health are often seen in later years. Ask yourself: Why is one 80 year-old able to be independent and jog every other day while another is weak and needs to be cared for, putting unforeseen medical conditions aside?
Building Blocks to Brain Health
The case study of Dave has been simplified to illustrate brain health quickly. But it is a real case that is applicable to everyone looking to start the journey towards better brain health. We leave you with the building blocks—B-R-A-I-N-S—which Dave had used to his advantage:
B: Balanced emotions – work on understanding and resolving painful emotions; learn coping strategies such as mindful colouring and learning to be grateful for the little things in life by journaling. Seek help from professional such as a psychologist when needed.
R: Rational thinking – maintain and improve on cognition by exposing and challenging your brain to novelty such as continuing your education and taking up new courses, learning new skills like gardening, doing brain exercises, making conversations with different people and travelling.
A: Active physically – participate in exercises and physical activities such as walking, climbing the stairs, swimming, badminton and high intensity training.
I: Interpersonal relationships – form meaningful relationships with others such as connecting with family, close friends and colleagues, attending social events, caring for animals and volunteering for the less privileged.
N: Nutrition – eat healthily by incorporating more greens like vegetables and fruit, complex carbohydrates like brown rice and wholegrains, good fats like nuts and fatty fish, as well as cutting back on processed foods like canned meat and snacks, and sugar.
S: Sleep – develop a good sleep hygiene such as removing electronic devices in the bedroom, and maintain quality sleep for six to eight hours a day. A chronic lack of sleep can adversely impact on all aspects of health with effects showing only decades later. Seek help from professionals such as a multidisciplinary sleep clinic if needed.
Brain Health Checkup?
Besides a yearly physical health checkup, you can also go for a brain health checkup. This involves a detailed psychological assessment to access one’s cognitive functions such as memory, attention and language. However, this is often expensive and can only be done once every few years, which by then may be too late. A proactive and holistic approach to monitoring, prevention and early intervention is therefore key to optimising brain health. To date, Cognifyx is the only Cognitive and Behavioural Science company which assesses and improves brain health through a mobile application. The app is a gateway to a brain health ecosystem which deploys personalised and scientifically developed programs such as brain monitoring, brain exercise-games, brain nutrition, physical activity and sleep analysis. It also provides resources as well as access to professional help such as a psychologist and sports physiologist. So we can now continuously monitor our brain health and achieve peak performance in all aspects of our lives.