The importance of fostering well-being and alleviating mental stress is more apparent now than ever. Mental health challenges are on the rise, leading to a decline in our collective well-being. The good news is that well-being is not a static state, but rather, a set of skills and beliefs that can be learned over time (much like learning to ride a bike). With each attempt to ride a bike, the brain fine tunes its circuitry so that with repetition and practice, we learn to ride with balance and ease. Similarly, with intentional mental training, we can tap into the brain’s capacity for plasticity by practicing skills that nurture a healthy mind, fine-tuning our ability to cope with challenge and change. As these skills become habitual, we become more adept at applying them in daily life, boosting overall well-being and resilience.
Taking care of personal mental health is an ongoing practice. Similar to building the muscles of the body, we can strengthen the metaphorical muscle of the mind with practices that sharpen cognitive performance and self-regulation. Psychologists have identified four core dimensions as pillars of well-being that can be strengthened with training and practice: awareness, connection, insight, and purpose. Let’s explore each in a bit more detail:
Awareness Awareness is the ability to bring focused attentiveness to the environment, internal cues, thoughts, and feelings. This is characterized by being fully present with each activity we engage in, the surrounding environment, and any internal states such as sensations or thoughts. Awareness is a mindfulness exercise and its opposite, distraction, has been connected to increased stress, anxiety and impairment of decision making, planning, and memory. One study revealed that on average, people spent an estimated 47% of their waking life in a state of distraction, which also correlated with feeling less happy. Awareness skills build the ability to recognize mind wandering and re-direct attention back to the present moment. Repeated practice of intentional regulation of attention trains the mind to be in a state of presence more frequently and for longer periods of time.
Intentional Mental Training: Awareness
Sit comfortably and close your eyes. Begin with following your breath, noticing the inhales and exhales. Notice where you feel the breath passing through the nostrils, along the throat, inflating the chest and abdomen, and other nuances or sensations that come up. After a few moments of attentiveness on the breath, begin counting each breath up to 10. If you lose track, start counting again from 1.
Connection is the personal feeling of care and kinship towards others that promotes healthy interactions and supportive relationships. Caring relationships and positive social supports are important to well-being in that quality social support is a better predictor of health than various biological and economic factors. As humans, we come equipped with distinct brain networks that underlie our capacity to form and maintain healthy relationships, which in turn impact well-being. Positive social relationships are essential for healthy functioning and serve as a buffer against disorders such as depression and anxiety. Connection-based practices like compassion meditation are associated with increased altruistic behavior and activity in the brain’s central-executive network, strengthening self-regulation skills.
Intentional Mental Training: Connection
Compassion meditation is a mindfulness practice with the intention of shifting thoughts from judging others to caring about others. Sit comfortably and close your eyes. Center yourself by following your breath. When ready, bring to mind someone you care about. Visualize, feel their presence, and silently offer the following phrases: “May You Be Happy;” “May You Be Peaceful;” “May You Be Free of Suffering.” After several moments of repetition, bring your attention inward and offer these same phrases to yourself. Repeat in your mind a few times until you feel ready to move on.
Insight is self-knowledge of personal psychological processes including how our emotions and beliefs contribute to our experiences and sense of self. To better familiarize ourselves with the contents of consciousness, we can use the mindfulness practice of self- inquiry. To do this, approach the practice with a sense of curiosity. What thoughts, feelings, and sensations are streaming across the mental landscape, and ultimately, who am I in the midst of all of these thoughts? In doing this, we can shed light upon what we are thinking, how it makes us feel, and challenge the self-narratives that don’t serve us, ultimately revealing the root of anxiety and self-defeating behaviors. With this insight, we can change the narrative to growth-oriented mindsets that have a powerful influence on decreasing depression and anxiety and increasing performance. Techniques that train individuals to identify self-limiting maladaptive beliefs and generate alternative more adaptive beliefs, have been shown to reduce symptoms of stress, depression, anxiety, and other psychiatric disorders.
Intentional Mental Training: Insight Deconstructive meditation is using self-inquiry as a tool for understanding the mind and how it creates our reality through our thoughts, emotions, and sensations. Sit comfortably and close your eyes. Set a timer (start with 3 minutes and slowly build). Take a few moments to center and follow your breath. Return to the breath as an anchor to calm you and bring you back to the present moment. Notice how your mind naturally drifts into different thoughts. When this happens, mentally label the thought (you can mentally say “this is a thought”). The idea is to develop the capacity to recognize the constant stream of thoughts without getting lost in the story line. You will likely notice other stimuli like sounds in the environment or sensations in the body – notice how they tug at your awareness – attend to them and then return to the mindfulness of breathing. As thoughts and emotions float through awareness notice if they intensify or weaken or if they change into a different state. The particular thoughts and emotions that arise through this practice are not the emphasis of this activity, rather, the focus is to increase the ability to stay present with what comes up and label it as such (nothing more or less). With time, we learn to deconstruct our inner experience and engage in healthy perspective taking and cognitive reappraisal (the process of re-labeling negative self-talk) leading to corresponding changes in the brain and experience of well-being.
Purpose refers to the sense of clarity around personal core values and how those values are applied in daily life. Our values serve as an internal GPS that remind us where we are going and why we are going there. A strong sense of purpose is associated with improved health outcomes including cardiovascular health, financial health, and overall psychological functioning. Higher levels of purpose in life have shown to have an important role in stress resilience: those who demonstrated higher levels of purpose showed increased stress resilience and accelerated recovery from stress load.
Intentional Mental Training: Purpose
Have a pen and journal close by for this writing exercise. Sit comfortably, close your eyes, and ask yourself: If I could take a snapshot of my ideal day (from waking to going to bed), what would those moments look like? As you are ready, open your eyes. Set a timer for 3 minutes and free write on the following:
- What is my ideal day? Who would I spend my ideal day with? What am I doing that uplifts myself and my community?
Review what you wrote down. If you could define the moments as values, what would they be? Can you sum up the moments into 5 values? (i.e., quality time, family, kindness). Now choose 2 values to cross of the list. What would remain and still be definitive of your purpose? Of the 3 values remaining, circle the one that is most important. Focusing on the value we deem most important allows us to make choices about how we will act in the future, including who we spend time with, how we spend our time, and where we spend our money. By bringing more mindfulness to our day-to-day choices, we can be more purposeful in what we do and connect with what is truly meaningful.
During a time when we face historic levels of stress, we may wonder how we can access a sense of well-being and resilience when it feels as though the world is falling apart all around us. The answers lie in modern neuroscience and contemplative practices. It turns out we can train our minds and rewire neural connections to be more resilient. Mindfulness practices and intentional mental training can build the skills of awareness, connection, insight, and purpose, leading to changes in the way the brain functions and ultimately improving psychological well-being. And while big events in the world will still affect us in some way, we have control over our emotions and behavior.
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