We have so much information about how we’re supposed to take care of our bodies----what we’re supposed to feed them, how we’re supposed to keep them moving, how we’re supposed to relax them, etc. We know that some foods take a negative toll on our bodies, like certain fats or sugars, and our bodies let us know this through symptoms of tiredness, stomach pain, or even serious disease. Some of us are even allergic to certain foods, like peanut butter, and when exposed to it, may experience breathing issues, rash, or other serious consequences. We know that too much sitting and not enough exercise can result in loss of muscle and/or heart problems, while at the same time too much physical exertion without sufficient rest can result in injury and impeded longevity.
Might say that any lack of adequate nutrition, exercise, or rest is (in a sense) toxic to our well-being.
Regardless of whether or not we follow along with and apply this information in our lives, we still have it. The guidelines to leading healthier physical lives are readily available and can even be surprisingly straightforward when approached with a curious, open, and willing mindset. There are personal trainers and health coaches who make it their life’s work to customize exercise/dieting programs to fit our needs and to hold us accountable when it comes to our goals. There is even 24-hour gym access to allow for more realistic fitness planning within our busy schedules. Whether we do it or not, we’re pretty clear on what our bodies need and how/where to get it.
Is it the same when it comes to our brains though? Do we really know how to feed them, when/how to stimulate them, or when/how to rest them?
Unfortunately, there is still so much unknown about the brain. What it requires for optimal performance, or what its optimal performance potential even is. For instance, how many memories is it supposed to be able to store? How many facts is it supposed to be able to learn? How many emotions is it supposed to be able to experience/process?
Luckily, throughout my work as a therapist, I have found it encouraging to witness my clients improve their minds without needing such concrete answers to these questions. One way they achieve this is by limiting/avoiding what I like to refer to as “brain poison.” Much like the toxic sugars, fats, or allergens our physical bodies are hurt by, brain poison is anything we “take in” and “absorb” that causes us mental pain/discomfort. Now, of course limiting or avoiding all mental pain/discomfort in our imperfect world is not possible as it is simply an unfortunate part of being human. The idea, however, is to focus only on the areas of our lives we can best manage/control in an effort to at least decrease such negativity.
The challenge is that whatever is experienced as brain poison can vary greatly from person to person. Take a minute to consider these popular examples of brain poison: Social media, world news, and verbal abuse.
Despite the benefits of social media, many have found it detrimental to their lives. Consider, for instance, how it allows for such easy access to an ex’s profile page. Not only does this profile access make it more difficult to get over a breakup, but worse, it puts us at risk for seeing pictures of that ex with a new (and attractive) partner posted all over it! Poison.
Similarly, when it comes to world news, many of us rationalize the repeated intake of such violent/frightening images and stories of war, death, corruption, and alarmist weather reports with the idea that we need to remain “informed.” The truth, however, is that the daily news really has nothing much new to tell--- each story is pretty much just a different version of one of those same categories above that we are already all too familiar with. We get it! With this, it’s important to realize that we are no longer “informing” ourselves and instead, we are simply bombarding ourselves with sadness and fear--- poison.
Verbal abuse is one of the most serious forms of brain poison. Whether it comes at us in insults about our physical appearance or intelligence, or rather in loud angry outbursts from a loved one that tend to diminish feelings of emotional safety, the toll such negative communication takes on our minds is undeniable. Subjecting ourselves to disrespectful, humiliating, and just plain mean treatment from another is the physical equivalent to taking a spoonful of that peanut butter you’re so highly allergic to. POISON. We wouldn’t do this to our bodies, so why would we let it happen to our minds?
We have to start thinking of ourselves as mentally-allergic to these things---allowing us to take their impact on our lives much more seriously and to therefore, adjust accordingly. Whether this means blocking your ex on social media (or removing yourself from social media platforms altogether), making rules about listening to/watching just ONE news segment for a limited amount of time per day, or ending a relationship with someone who consistently leaves you feeling down on yourself, the results can only be positive. There is no true downside to limiting/preventing the further intake of brain poison from sources like these, as the gain will always outweigh the loss.
Aside from limiting/avoiding our intake of brain poison, another way improved brain-health is achieved is by incorporating more "brain-soothing/brain-boosting" stimuli in our lives. Again, every person may have his or her own idea of what classifies such stimuli, but consider these popular examples here: Therapy, music, and healthy social relationships.
There are many forms of therapy that can be both mentally-stimulating and also mentally-relieving. For example, clients who come to me for individual or couples counseling have reported increases in feelings of inspiration, motivation, and even creativity. Some have referred to such effects as “light-bulb moments,” “rebirths,” and “awakenings.” The process of therapy works to explore new and very different perspectives that may have never been heard or understood before and, in doing so, allows the mind to make new and fascinating connections that allow clients to perceive the world much differently. This, of course, is both exciting and also relieving as dysfunctional thoughts/ideals are shifted and aligned with a more logical (and often more tolerable) reality.
Similarly, music is often experienced as something very healthy for the brain---it’s like mental broccoli! The brain feeds off of music and can often be simultaneously energized and relaxed with even the simplest of melodies. Music helps to open our minds to our inner thoughts and feelings, allowing us to process emotions we normally don’t give time to during our busy days. Music helps us to both face and escape our realities--- pretty incredible.
Finally, healthy social relationships have a way of fueling our minds and helping them to grow. Those who offer us positive words of encouragement, support, and compliments are crucial to have around us, as they keep us from becoming doubtful, fearful, and lost in the midst of life’s challenges. Allowing our minds exposure to each positive comment from others is like getting a brain massage--- each word is another calming, satisfying stroke to the amygdala!
It’s important that we start paying attention to our “mental allergies” the way we do our physical ones, figuring out what our brains can and cannot handle and then respecting this (without judgment or self-criticism) whenever possible! The mind needs a fitness and dieting plan too because, like the body, it can only take in so much junk before desperately needing more sufficient nutrition.
What is your brain poison? What is your brain-booster/reliever? Simply answering these questions can get you on track toward a much healthier and much happier life.