As we move into autumn, and face darker evenings and colder days, many of us will find our mental wellbeing can take a bit of a knock. While the importance of things like getting enough sleep and exercising to keep mentally healthy are well documented, Swedish brain researcher and medical doctor Katarina Gospic (opens in new tab) says there's another element that is often overlooked. She says that to improve mental wellbeing, it's important to regularly challenge your brain. We got in touch to find out exactly how that works.
"Challenging your brain in terms of doing new things keeps the brain agile," says Katarina. "When we challenge the brain by learning new things, new connections are created between the brain cells that give us increased capacity. By activating the brain, we increase the conditions for the brain to feel good." She suggests thinking of your brain as a muscle that you need to exercise, just as you would in the gym with other muscles.
Before you crack out War and Peace or enroll on a course in nuclear physics, you might be pleased to hear that there's another option. There are plenty of tiny things you can do, day to day, to give your brain a mini workout without feeling overwhelming. Things like not immediately turning to Google when you don't know the answer to something, taking a new route to work, going somewhere new for lunch or even just opening up a conversation with someone you don't usually speak to – all these things can help open your mind up a bit.
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As well as helping open your mind up a bit, this approach can help you manage bigger challenges, when they do come along, too. "It is good to expose yourself to the small uncertainties of everyday life," explains Katarina. "It keeps you on your toes and you learn to adapt on the fly. You become less anxious when you learn how to handle not being in control all the time."
Beyond embracing challenges, Katarina has a simple formula for a healthy mind: sleep, exercise, love and nature. Sleep and exercise are well known and understood, the latter two perhaps less commonly considered.
"Love refers to good social relationships," explains Katarina. "We do not even need lots of friends, just a few really good ones are enough." According to Katarina, this element is so vital that when it comes to mental wellbeing, maintaining good social relationships might even compensate for a 'bad' lifestyle in other ways.
So what about nature? "Nature is a true benefactor," says Katarina. "Did you know that plants release substances that can boost our immune system? Just by living close to nature you decrease the risk of the most common lifestyle diseases. That's magical."