You may spend a lot of time thinking about what foods to eat to nourish your body and mind – and with good reason, as there is definitely a connection between inflammation and depression, which can be either exacerbated or alleviated in part by your chosen diet. In addition, a nutritious food plan can help to stave off illnesses such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, some forms of cancer, and osteoporosis.
However, we also need a healthy balance of experiences to nourish our mental health and well-being. With this in mind, Dr. Dan Siegel, a clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine and the founding co-director of the UCLA Mindfulness Awareness Research Center (MARC) and Dr. David Rock, Executive Director of the Neuroleadership Institute, have created the Healthy Mind Platter.
According to Siegel and Rock, a healthy mind is the product of integration, which connects various elements of a system such as your brain’s functioning and your relationships with other people. The authors believe that in order to reach optimal mental health, we need to nurture our social relationships as well as our brains. So, in the Healthy Mind Platter, the “daily essential mental nutrients” for a healthy mind and well-being consist of the following:
Focus Time: Concentrate intently on a task with a particular goal in mind. The intent is to pay close attention. Examples include taking an exam, working on a crossword puzzle, and reading an instruction manual. In today’s world where information comes to us fast and furious, and we are being pulled seven different ways at once, we need to make a concerted effort to practice the art of Focus Time.
Play Time: Be playful, spontaneous, and child-like; discover new experiences. Playing tag, making up songs, goofing around, taking classes in improvisation, and drawing a picture are all play time activities. Play is a crucial component of child development and continues to help us as adults with flexibility, creativity, resilience, and continual learning. Also, play is a powerful antidote to stress.
Connecting Time: Connect, preferably in person, with other people and communing with nature. Examples include having lunch with your best friend, shooting the breeze with your spouse, and watching a sunset. Social connection can be considered as vital to our well-being as such basic needs as water, food, and shelter.
Physical Time: Move your body, preferably in an aerobic way, such as swimming, taking a walk, and bicycling. Taking a yoga, Pilates, or dance class are additional options. When we exercise, we increase metabolism in our entire body, improve our cognitive function, bolster our learning and memory functions, and can lessen stress, anxiety, and depression. If this weren’t enough, regular exercise helps to maintain brain plasticity and protects the brain from damage.
Time In: Direct your attention inward and notice the feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations that arise. Practicing mindfulness meditations, whether seated, standing, lying down, or walking also qualify as time in. When we engage in reflection or mindfulness, we tend to activate the relaxation (parasympathetic) part of our autonomic nervous system, which helps our minds and bodies return to equilibrium, promoting mental, emotional, and physical well-being.
Down Time: Allow your mind to be unfocused, meander, or relax. Down time is not goal oriented – we allow ourselves to just simply be. Worrying and planning tomorrow’s to-do list don’t count here. Down time consists of inactivity (while still awake), with openness to what activity may (or may not) present itself, instead of having an agenda. Often intuitive thoughts or insights will occur to us during downtime, although this is not its primary intent. In our current society, where we often grab our cell phones or other electronic devices the instant we have a free moment, we can easily deprive ourselves of down time.
Sleep Time: Give yourself from seven to nine hours of deep sleep a night, based on your specific needs. Putting away electronic devices such as phones and laptops, drinking herbal tea, and reading a relaxing book can help set the stage for restful sleep. Sleep is vital for our emotion regulation, cognition, and memory consolidation. When we sleep, we integrate that day’s activities and recharge for the next day.
How many of these do you engage in on a regular basis? Are you skimping on any, and if so, which ones? Do you overindulge in others? What can you do to create more mental balance in your life?
The next time you’re feeling depressed, anxious, lonely, or just a little out of sorts, take a look at what mental activity “nutrients” you may be lacking as of late. Taking this inventory can guide you as to what you could incorporate into your life more often. Also, be aware that any activity done in excess isn’t likely to do you any favors. Just like you wouldn’t eat just tofu every day for a month, try to moderate your Physical Time, for instance.
By incorporating all seven activities in your life on a daily basis, you will be well on your way to helping your brain and relationships to operate at their highest capacity. You’ll reinforce and strengthen the connections within your brain as well as your relationships with other people, and learn greater flexibility and balance.
However, don’t worry if you don’t do all seven activities every day – that’s simply a goal to strive for but isn’t always realistic. Just like not eating fruit or vegetables on one day isn’t going to do you in physically, missing out on one of the Healthy Mind Platter activities here and there won’t compromise your cognitive and mental health. The important point is to try for balance and consistency.