Is it really possible to retrain your brain, and can anyone do it? Neuroscientist Dr Tara Swart says yes.
You don’t need me or anyone else to tell you that stress, particularly among women, is at a record high right now.
Almost every conversation we have inevitably turns to how we’re stressed about money, our jobs, the state of the world or whether we’re drinking enough (or too much) water. We’re stressed about not sleeping, the environment, our country’s political future and whether anything will ever feel the same as it did in those halcyon days before the pandemic.
The stats show it too. According to the Mental Health Foundation, 74% of UK adults have felt so stressed at some point over the last year they felt overwhelmed or unable to cope.
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And we are trying to do something about it. We attempt to get our eight hours, we practise self-care, we seek out professional help and continue to learn how to do best by our minds and bodies.But the brain is more adaptable than we tend to realise, so perhaps ‘neuroplasticity’ could be the key to helping us thrive in an uncertain world.
According to neuroscientist Dr Tara Swart, neuroplasticity or brain plasticity can be defined as the ability of the nervous system to change its activity in response to intrinsic or extrinsic stimuli by reorganising its structure, functions or connections.
Put simply, the more flexible your brain is, the more easily you can perform functions that help build new neural pathways that allow us to better manage life’s struggles.
Defining stress as “when the load on your body or your mind is too big to bear”, Dr Swart went on to dispel the myth that some stress is good for you.
“Stress manifests much more physically than we think,” Dr Swart explained on stage at the Strong Women Wellbeing Summit. “While a small amount of stress, such as a deadline or nerves before an interview isn’t harmful, any longer period of stress where your cortisol levels remain high can be really damaging.”
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Stress is, for the most part, unavoidable, but is it really possible to ‘rewire’ our brains to help deal with it more effectively? Dr Swart says yes.
When it comes to stressful scenarios, Dr Swart shared that two of the most important aspects of neuroplasticity include learning new skills and adapting to new situations.
“The way to get cortisol out of your body is by sweating it out physically or getting the negative emotions out by journaling or speaking to someone,” she said.
“And when it comes to journaling, what has built up my resilience more than anything is switching my focus on gratitude for external things (such as friends, family, career opportunities and travel) to internal factors (such as my creativity, vulnerability and ability to adapt),” she continued. “So now, when something stressful happens, through journaling I’m much more aware of what tools I have to help me to deal with the situation.”
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Thankfully, we know that we can increase our neuroplasticity through a nutritious diet, focused deep breathing, regular activity and getting plenty of rest. But that doesn’t make it a magic ‘fix’.
As Dr Swart points out, the pandemic had a huge impact on our mental health, and even now we’re not able to understand the entire effects of two years of anxiety, lockdowns and loneliness. But the news that, however frazzled our state of mind, it is possible to slowly but surely retrain our way of thinking is certainly a welcome one.
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