For many, the word “health” conjures images of kale, green smoothies, running and weightlifting at the gym. When people say they need to take care of their health, they’re usually referring to their physical health — primarily their eating and exercise habits. But what about mental health? Though it is an oft-neglected aspect of health, a fit mind is just as important as a fit body.
“Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain”, a New York Times bestseller by Daniel Siegel, MD, is an introspective introduction to the significance of mental health. While his book focuses on the still-developing minds of adolescents (who are, contrary to popular belief, 12- to 24-year-olds), Dr. Siegel’s book is applicable to readers of every age.
Towards the end of “Brainstorm,” Dr. Siegel suggests a technique that promotes optimal brain matter and activates the growth of neural connections. Called the Healthy Mind Platter, the technique is made up of seven activities:
Taking time-in is all about mindfulness and taking time to reflect on your own feelings, thoughts, hopes and dreams. Dr. Siegel describes it as “how we reflect on the inner nature of our mental lives and our bodily sensations.” There are numerous exercises that help facilitate time-in (including some on DrDanSiegel.com). By taking time-in each day, you can improve your compassion, boost your immune system, and better confront the difficulties of daily life.
Time and time again, research has proven how vital sleep is. Without sleep, you become more irritable, lose your memory strength and are more likely to be overweight. The United States National Sleep Foundation suggests teenagers need eight and a half to nine and a quarter hours of sleep per night and adults need seven to nine hours of sleep per night. In addition to avoiding caffeine and turning off digital devices before bed, Dr. Siegel suggests journaling about the day’s events to help you fall asleep.
Focus time is just what it sounds like — “periods of time when we focus intently on one thing at a time,” according to Dr. Siegel. Although some people claim they they’re expert multi-taskers, doing a million things at once isn’t great for the brain, especially if you’re still between the ages of 12 and 24. But even for adults, focus time is essential in facilitating brain growth.
Dr. Siegel is a strong advocate of downtime, or a period in which “we have no plans, nothing we are trying to accomplish, nothing that needs to be done.” It’s important to have some type of downtime every single day, no matter how booked your schedule is. Dr. Siegel stresses that downtime, however, is quite different from inadvertent mind wandering while attempting to focus on a set task. While mind wandering is usually an accidental break from accomplishing a set goal, the goal of downtime is to have no goal.
For me, the word “play” brings to mind childhood games and recess on the school playground. But in terms of the Healthy Mind Platter, playtime isn’t about school ground activities — it’s “a time when laughing and creating and goofing around are accepted and people are engaged and silly and having a great time, without judgment, without a winner or loser.” For teens and adults alike, a lot of life’s day-to-day business is serious. Make time to have fun, be creative and play. To make room for playtime in his own life, Dr. Siegel signed up for an improv acting class.
Exercising each day is not only physically good for your body, it’s good for your brain. Moving for 30 — or if possible, closer to 45 — minutes every day stimulates brain growth and neuroplasticity improvement. It’s even good for your mental health and can help boost your mood. Lifting weights, running and even walking are solid ways to ensure you have physical time every day.
Connecting time isn’t only about connecting with others — it’s also about connecting with the planet. Dr. Siegel suggests the term “3G-2P” for remembering the purpose of connecting time. The 3G — “gratitude, generosity and giving back” — is what we should do to the 2P — “to other people and to the planet.” Spending time (hopefully face-to-face) with friends and family is essential to the people aspect of connecting time. Being out in nature and taking care of the environment are part of the planet aspect of connecting time.
It’s hard for me to fit each activity in every day — and truthfully, I don’t. Like many of you, I simply can’t find the time because I’m too busy with focus time (work). But aiming to make even a little daily time for all seven elements of the Healthy Mind Platter can improve your brain growth and mental health.
The Healthy Mind Platter is only one small part of Dr. Siegel’s “Brainstorm.” The groundbreaking book also contains information on the makeup of the human brain, attachment theory, the changes of adolescence and more. Reading “Brainstorm” will not only give you a plethora of informational knowledge, it also offers practical insight into how to mentally approach life’s greatest challenges.