What does it mean to be mentally healthy? There are as many ways to define mental health as there are people attempting to proffer a definition. Among mental health professionals, mental health is synonymous with well-being, the state of being healthy and happy. The vast majority of us desire well-being, though many find it frustratingly transient. Fewer than those who want it are those that are successful in fabricating enduring well-being. However, well-being can be both achieved and increased.

One way to conceive of well-being is to consider brain functioning and its impact on behavior, a discipline called neuroscience. The brain, the control center of our beings, is involved in every mental, physical, emotional or spiritual experience we have. Experience influences the functioning of the brain by shaping and molding it. The more we experience something, the stronger the brain configuration and nerve pathways become under those conditions. The stronger the configuration the easier it is to experience this state again.

There is a reciprocal relationship between brain functioning and behavior. Not only do our experiences shape and mold our brains, but our brains also influence our behaviors and experiences. In other words, the more the brain adopts a certain configuration (and we are born with tendencies toward certain brain configurations) the stronger the impact on influencing behavior.

So, in order to have mental health, we must engage in lifestyle behaviors that will help shape and mold our brains to function in an integrated fashion that will promote the achievement of higher levels of well-being.

Before reviewing the lifestyle behaviors that promote good functioning brains, two important factors that influence the brain will be highlighted.

First, stress can be toxic to the brain. Stress can inhibit integrated brain functioning by changing both the biochemistry and structural functioning. Intense stress or prolonged stress is especially disruptive. So, learning to manage stress is very important to have a healthy integrated brain.
Lifestyle behaviors that promote an integrated brain also reduce stress.

Second, healthy relationships promote brain integration thus, increase well-being.
Relationships are fundamental to our lives; we are born because of a relationship.
Our survival is dependent on relationships.  We are born dependent on others for food, clothing, and warmth. Healthy relationships help us grow and thrive and prosper.
Relationships can also be destructive causing pain, anguish and can thwart progress and cause brain destabilization. People who have good relationships report being happier, tend to live longer, get sick less and have less stress.

Dan Siegel, a UCLA psychiatrist, helped develop a “prescription”, if you will, on how to promote brain integration. He outlines 7 daily activities that help strengthen the internal connections in the brain, the connections that develop when we interact with other people, and the connections that develop when we interact with the world around us. The sum of these connections represents the totality of human functioning from a brain perspective.

7 Daily activities for Brain Integration and balance

1. Focus Time – closely focusing on tasks in a goal-oriented way; doing something that is challenging makes deep connections in the brain i.e. putting together a music video, writing a poem, writing a paper.

2. Play Time –  just as it sounds…playing, being spontaneous or creative, enjoying new experiences helps make new connections in the brain.

3. Connecting Time -connecting with other people (better in person) and taking the time to connect to and appreciate nature strengthens the relational and social circuits in the brain i.e. hanging out with friends, visiting relatives, vacationing with family.

4. Physical Time – exercise, moving our bodies aerobically is better for the brain when large muscle groups are used for a sustained period of time, pumping the heart, the blood and activating energetic respiration strengthens the brain overall.

5. Time In – quietly reflecting internally, focusing on sensations, images, feelings, and thoughts helps brain integration i.e. meditation, mindfulness, prayer.

6. Down Time -when we are non-focused, without any specific goal, and let our mind wander or simply relax helps the brain recharge i.e. leafing through a magazine, sitting in the backyard, watching light TV.

7. Sleep Time- during sleep, the brain rejuvenates and restores, learning is consolidated. Some researchers suggest that during sleep, toxins are removed from the brain.

There is no specific recommendation as to how much time to devote to these activities. Everyone is different and our needs change over time. What is important is to be aware of the activities that are necessary to create stronger connections within the brain.

You can keep track of which of these 7 activities you regularly perform. See what amounts feel right for you and add the activities that you may not perform as much. Performing them even for short periods of time is helpful.

Submitted by Holly O. Houston, Ph.D., Director Anxiety and Stress Center