Keep yourself healthy by feeding and exercising your brain
Stress, anxiety, disappointment … 2020 seems to come up with new ways to add these to your life daily. Managing stress is a key skill, considering how damaging stress can be to your health and habits. The Mayo Clinic suggests that prolonged stress can cause headaches, anxiety, loss of sleep, and a host of behavioral issues like self-medication, overeating, and social withdrawal. These can snowball into health, social, and mental health problems.
Our lives are filled with low-level, stress that drains us. While the stress response is crucial in live-or-die situations, what most of us experience is a sense of low-level anxiety that doesn’t help us navigate our life’s challenges. Instead, this kind of stress distracts us, all while lowering our immunity, interfering with our sleep, and taking away enjoyment from the small pleasures of the everyday.
Dealing with stress is complicated, but learning something new can have significant mental health benefits.
Learning makes your brain healthier
Studies indicate that learning a new skill, like a foreign language or a musical instrument, can help fight the symptoms of neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s.
In general, learning anything new increases the density of myelin, the insulation chemical around brain cells that improves virtually every aspect of cognitive functions. The process of learning can also help stimulate neurogenesis, or the growth of new brain cells, helping stave off cognitive decline in old age.
But, even if you are not worried about age-related cognitive decline yet, stimulating your thinking and imagination by learning helps you improve your overall cognitive health and function.
Learning helps create healthier habits
In his book, “The Power of Habit”, Charles Duhigg explains that you can radically transform your routines by instilling a “keystone habit”. He describes how small changes that people introduce into their routines can carry over in virtually all aspects of their lives.
Building a learning ritual can be a keystone habit for your self-care routine. By scheduling and taking the time to diligently practice a skill, you create a space in your life for working on yourself. Even if you start by allocating 15 minutes on practicing your chosen skill, you will find it easier to do other positive things for yourself.
You are also likely to see results from regular practice, giving you that confidence boost in seeing your results. Once you’ve made some progress on a skill with only 15 minutes a day, you will see other life goals as more easily attainable. Suddenly you might feel motivated to exercise more, eat healthier, and spend more time on shaping your brain and body towards your desired state.
People rarely practice do things alone. Even a solitary skill will have a community grow around it. By starting up a new learning habit, you are also entering a club and community. Whether it’s line dancing, chess, or digital marketing, you are facing the same discoveries and challenges as many other dedicated practitioners.
Learning something new provides social connections that help build your network of support. By joining the club, you don’t just open new career avenues and meet your friends, you are literally extending your life. Time and again, research suggests that having strong ties to a community helps improve your health, wellness, cognitive function, and quality of life. It even seems to give you an edge in fighting diseases and living longer.
Learning gives you a superpower
Once you master the basics of a new skill, purposefully practicing it and pushing yourself slightly outside of your comfort zone can result in entering a state of “flow”. In Psychology, flow is a state of immersion in an activity that happens when you are doing something you love, with just the right amount of challenge. This state is associated with a myriad of health benefits, as well as contributes to your overall life fulfillment.
Learning helps create states of flow, which are associated with better mental health outcomes and higher overall life enjoyment. By taking up a new hobby or skill (or expanding your existing skills) you are creating greater opportunities to experience flow. Even without considering the useful work you may accomplish, simply experiencing a state of flow will improve your life.
Learning new skills helps give you more resources
Learning new skills provides you with greater opportunities for career growth. By adding a new skill or expanding your repertoire of knowledge, you are able to see what you do professionally from a broader perspective. By investing in yourself (and also reaping all the cognitive and psychological benefits above) you are making yourself more valuable to your team.
Now, while career growth is nice in and of itself, feeling relevant and experiencing success is actually ridiculously good for your mental health. Achieving goals helps make you feel better about yourself. It also helps you build resilience, that property that motivates successful people to get back up after a disappointment. By cultivating resilience and creating a track record of achievement for yourself, you are also helping yourself feel less anxious, and healthier overall.
Taking up new skills or deepening your knowledge by investing in continuous learning can help you feel a greater degree of self-esteem, relevance, and social connection. While learning French or practicing a musical instrument is not a panacea to serious mental health issues, investing in yourself can improve your overall well-being. The act of learning something new can help reduce stress and anxiety, help keep your brain healthy, and provide avenues for social connections based around something you are passionate about.