The Muscles in Your Mind
Why your brain and mind need training.
| By Camilo Sáenz-Moncaleano, PhD, Sports Psychology | February 11, 2020 |
There’s a reason that we chose the phrase “mental fitness” to describe our work. By doing so we’re trying to achieve two related goals:
First, we want you to start thinking about your mind in the same way you think about your body (if you’re not doing so yet). It’s interesting how sometimes we think about “mind & body” as separate elements, as if they were literally two different worlds of who we are. We’re usually comfortable asking for help or guidance for how to work on our body or find a solution for something that’s not working correctly, but not our mind. We are fully aware of the benefits of training our body, and probably are taking care of it in some way, but that is not always true about our mind. Needless to say, there is no such thing as a separate body and mind; we are one, and our body has an influence on our mind, and our mind influences our body.
Secondly, the fact that people usually perceive body and mind as separate entities has it roots in the idea that things in our mind are unchangeable – they are the way they are and it’s difficult, or even impossible, to change. Often we hear phrases like: There’s not much I can do about it, I was born this way, I’m simply not good at ([insert whatever you want here]), or I’m too old to change/learn that. These are all examples of the fixed mindset that many people have. It signals that unlike our body – which can be changed, trained and enhanced through exercises and practice – there’s not much we can do about our mind. It’s completely fixed, there’s no space for growth, and we’re stuck in the way we are.
Our brain and mind is the most wonderful, interesting and mysterious machine. Most people call the mind the next frontier because it seems that we know more about how the universe works than how our brain and mind function. There are many things in the study about the mind that we simply do not know, some things that we think we know but that will certainly change in the near future, and others that we are sure we fully grasp. Something we are sure about and that we have actually been lucky enough to see with they aid of technology, is something called neuroplasticity.
Neuroplasticity could be the subject of many blog posts, but I’ll just give you a crash course on it; whenever we see a baby or a child, we know that their brains are developing and growing through the experiences they have. Their brains are being molded and are thus constantly changing. We believe that this process stops at some point; in the same way as we stop growing physically, we believe our brain reaches a peak development, and that from that point it suddenly stops, which makes learning and changes almost impossible. The fact is that neuroscientists have discovered that our brain keeps generating new connections between the synapses that make up our brain, through learning (or following an injury) our brain has the ability to form and reorganize synaptic connections. Simply put: our brain keeps growing, and we can make it stronger and fitter. Yes, it’s true that learning a new language or how to play an instrument is easier when we’re younger, but through exercises, practice and time, we can shape our brain into whatever we want no matter our age.
In the same way that we need physical training, our brain and mind need it too. Training your mental fitness is the fuel that allows you to adopt and maintain positive lifestyles. By actively training it, you will achieve a greater sense of physical and mental well-being, which in turn will lead to a more balanced life and higher levels of performance in school or at work. This means creating long-lasting changes in your brain through exercises and constant practice, as we do with our physical training.
Continuing to use the physical training analogy, we can think about our mind as a muscle that needs to be trained. This muscle in our mind – in fact, we believe there are three major muscles – are the ones that allow us to be in tip-top shape to face all the challenges life has in store for us. When we talk about the three muscles inside our heads, we are talking about a set of trainable skills that we need to be aware of, and train them as often as possible. Similar to what happens with the muscles in our body, when we do not use them they atrophy. Furthermore – much like muscle injuries or traumas – setbacks, experience or failures take a heavy toll on the muscles of our mind.
These three muscles, namely Mental Energy, Mental Flexibility, and Mental Strength that whenever in shape, they create a synergy – a state of mind – that allows us to have a balanced, successful and happy life.
- Mental Energy. We have all been in those situations where we’re completely drained, not only physically but also mentally. In the same way that we can develop physical endurance, we prepare ourselves for challenges and manage our mental energy in such a way that we can endure more.
- Mental Flexibility. Life is not a scripted story, and more often than not we must face situations that change all our plans. Training your mental flexibility means being adaptable to multiple situations; it means a higher understanding of how we feel, how we think and how we react, in order to be flexible and adaptable to what life has in store for us.
- Mental strength. Even when we are able to maintain high levels of energy and flexibility, sometimes life throws things at us that are difficult to manage. It is not a matter of if, but when. Nonetheless, we can cultivate the right mindset to stand up and try once again, to train our strength and resilience.
In the following post we will dive into each of these muscles, to gain a better understanding on how they work and how we can train them.
– Published on February 11, 2020