I’ve been leading Wellness programs at Singularity University over the last two and a half years, and had the opportunity to learn from researchers and scientists working on the leading edges of neuroscience, positive psychology and other fields that directly impact our health and well-being.
I’ve led my own workshops on neurotraining, mindfulness meditation and the mindsets and practices it takes to be a thriving changemaker in a world of accelerating complexity. One of the research findings that stands out for me is about neuroplasticity, or the ability of our brains to physically, structurally change.
What Neuroplasticity Means for the Expat Aid Worker
Neuroplasticity has massive implications for what we chose to do with our lives. Most of us have been told by science that as we get older, it’s all downhill. Don’t bother learning new things, new languages, new sports, the old theory cautioned, because it will be too hard and your brain just isn’t up to it.
Neuroplasticity means that not only is it possible to change our brain’s patterns, circuitry and programming at any time in our lives, but that even the well-grooved neural pathways of a notoriously bad habit can be reversed with focus and attention over time. This runs counter to the narrative of adult learning most of us have assimilated: that as we get older, our brains start to degrade and not function as well.
I remember hearing that after age seven, brains don’t learn languages as easily. The unspoken implication was one of unarguable defeat: if you didn’t achieve such-and-such by an early age, don’t bother trying to do it now. Learning and all the joy and failure that comes with it was, so the belief went, not worth all the effort because after all, it wouldn’t work anyway.
Thanks to new research, we’re now over that.
Us aid workers and changemakers are on a mission to create a world that is more fulfilling, socially just and environmentally sustainable. Many of us know that the systems we’ve inherited in the world today are outdated and won’t get us there. Old ideas about the planet’s seemingly endless capacity for growth or our inability to learn new things or make lasting change are falling by the wayside, rapidly being disproved by evidence-based research.
The paradigm shifts that this entails are part of a larger narrative that I explore in my work as a coach and as Wellness faculty at Singularity, but I want to share what this all means for us aid workers, because it’s important and empowering for those of us creating impact around the world.
We’re going to be exploring more about what recent findings from neuroscience research mean for creating our own health and happiness over the next few months. Right now, I want to explore the groundbreaking work of Martha Herbert, whose tips for brain health I’m adapting for us here.
10 Tips for Expat Aid Worker Brain Health
1. Go for the extraordinary.
Many of us live our lives in boxes, bound by assumptions that might not be ours or decisions we made long ago that no longer resonate. Practice stepping out of the boxes around your life and allow yourself to be as big and bold as you’ve imagined.
This can take many shapes, from advocating for an innovative project at work to deciding to strike out for a new duty station or job assignment outside your comfort zone. Maybe you give yourself permission to go on a weekend getaway with your partner or friends that you’ve been thinking about for ages. Or approach someone you don’t know but you’d like to, and invite them to lunch.
Whatever it is, you likely already have a sense of what’s keeping you from living more in the field of the extraordinary. Don’t hold back! Gay Hendrick’s classic, The Big Leap is great encouragement for this, if you need a little push.
2. Know what you can’t control – and what you can.
Twelve Step programs ask a Higher Power for, “The serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage the change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” Learning what we can and cannot influence is key to being able to affect change in our lives, both in our internal and external worlds.
Mindfulness and meditation are key practices to create the self-awareness required to know what’s in our control and what’s not. By creating self-awareness with regular practice, we nurture our ability to assess ourselves appropriately in any given situation. This, in turn, helps us to know where we can apply our attention and focus to create change.
Being accurate about where we see ourselves and our efforts is a cornerstone of emotional intelligence and a foundation of good mental and emotional health.
For instance, we might look at our genes (using a kit from 23 and Me, for example), and think that our risk for a certain disease is fixed and unchangeable. In fact, our actions and environment often play a defining role in whether or not a certain gene is expressed, so we potentially have more control over this than we might think.
3. Repair and support cells and their cycles.
The stronger our physical health, the quicker our immune system is able to recover. This is where exercise, nutrition and meditation come in. The food and water that we put into our bodies literally creates our physical health – or lack thereof. Daily choices of organic whole foods and probiotics build nutrition while nourishing the Earth as well.
Being intentional about our nutrition gives us the building blocks of good health in our bodies and especially our brains.
It can be hard, especially in high-stress work environments like the ones we face, to remember to take good care of yourself in this way. Especially if your local market isn’t as varied or familiar as you’d like, or the supermarket options for fresh fruit and vegetables are wilted and imported, finding good food can be a real challenge.
Try searching out whole food options, drinking more water and including more leafy greens and cruciferous vegetables (like broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage) in your diet. Even small steps here create changes, so do what you can. Your health is worth the time and effort!
4. Get your gut and immune systems on your side.
Maintaining a regular circadian rhythm of sleeping and waking is important to keeping our immune systems strong. So is getting enough rest, exercise and nourishing yourself with plenty of water and good nutrition.
The gut contains neurons, just like the brain, and what we’re learning about the microbiome (the ecosystem of microorganisms in our bodies whose cells outnumber our own) is fascinating –and something I’ll explore in a future post.
For now, by practicing good physical self-care and including more fermented foods in your diet, you’ll be building your physical resilience and be better able to recover from shocks and stress, whenever they happen.
5. Build better brain health.
Sleep is essential to helping our minds reorganize and recover from the day. Most of us don’t get enough of it and would benefit from scheduling more sleep in our lives. If you find that you wake up rested before your alarm clock rings, you’re getting enough sleep. And I suspect that you likely already know if you’re not getting enough!
The body and mind self-repair during our sleep cycles, and compared to the work required for a healthy diet and adequate exercise, sleep is one of the easiest ways to build and maintain long-term brain health.
For those of us working in emergencies, it can be challenging to find enough time to get the sleep that we need. But our proper physical functioning for everything from cell repair to the balance of the hormones in our endocrine system depends on it. Sleep isn’t cumulative, so losses one night aren’t easily made up the next. Try to get the hours you need each night and notice the difference it makes in your mental, emotional and physical health.
6. Calm brain chaos.
Stress takes a massive toll on our immune systems and sadly, most of the stress we experience is internal and by choice. Mindfulness and meditation are ancient practices that literally rewire how the brain responds to stress with results that can be observed after as little as 100 minutes of meditation.
Our minds are naturally active and need to be consciously calmed and trained, just like we train our bodies with exercise. It’s easier than you think to create better mental health through meditation.
If you’d like to start a personal mindfulness practice, sign up here for the free 8-week course I created based on the work of the Oxford researchers who wrote Mindfulness: An 8-Week Course for Finding Peace in a Frantic World.
7. Engage with the world.
Happiness and human connection is contagious and extremely good for us on a biochemical level, in our bodies and our brains. The hippocampus is the part of our brains responsible for memory and empathy, among other things, and research shows that it can literally enlarge with practice.
The next time you’re in public, in your office, out with friends or even walking on the street, try making eye contact with the people you pass and smile. If they return the smile, your body creates a chemical response that releases healthy hormones into your bloodstream, boosting your mood and your mental and emotional health. Even if they don’t return the smile, you will have created a similar relaxation response in them and helped to strengthen their immune system and create more health and happiness in the world.
So many of us changemakers start to close ourselves off from connection when things get stressful. It’s a natural response to feeling pain and overwhelm, but by reaching out and connecting with those around us, we move ourselves out of isolation. This deepening engagement does wonders for starting to shift anxiety, stress and even depression.
8. Celebrate your breakthroughs.
We all work really hard and don’t give ourselves nearly enough credit for our achievements, struggles and successes. Creating space to honor and acknowledge ourselves when we’ve done something awesome is important because it helps us to integrate our learning and to see ourselves in a healthy and positive light.
So, the next time you complete something major or experience a moment of breakthrough, hold onto it. Pause and give yourself time to enjoy the sense of accomplishment that comes with learning and finishing something important.
Creating more conscious awareness around these moments helps us cultivate more accurate self-assessments of our own capabilities and strengths. It also helps to break the cycle of auto-pilot or trance we often find ourselves in unconsciously, especially when we go from one to-do list item to another without pausing to be present for the joy available in this moment.
9. Be the change.
What seem like individual, isolated steps towards the practice of well-being can have a ripple effect on those around us, even if we don’t immediately see any change.
Especially if you’re in a community where health and wellness aren’t priorities, and an after-hours culture of drinking and going out make self-care difficult, it can feel useless to try to make an effort to improve your brain health and general well-being.
I invite you to do it anyway. When others see the actions you’re taking, dialogues develop and allies appear. You never know where they’ll come from until you take the brave first steps, and realize you’re not alone.
10. Do it for yourself, your friends, your family, and the world.
What we are finding more and more in the research about consciousness and the brain is how connected our inner worlds are to how we experience the outer world. If you are usually outward focused and always doing, try practices like mindfulness and meditation that create more inner focus and being in your life. By focusing on ways to build and support health, you’re setting a positive example that carries its own energy of propagation.
By taking steps for your own wellness, you’re saying to yourself and the world that you’re worth it – and so are they. This is how change happens: when each one of us decides that it’s up to us to create the more beautiful world our hearts know is possible.
The Challenge of Change
It can feel a bit intimidating to realize how much about our lives is open to interpretation, revision and change. Recent research invites us to take on a new view of ourselves as works-in-progress. Where we choose to go with this new information is entirely up to us. By taking responsibility for ourselves and our choices, we create deep freedom to fully live the lives we want for ourselves.
It’s a much bigger worldview than the one we might have been told is possible. And for us changemakers, it opens up worlds of possibility.
I’m so glad that we’re together for the journey.
I’d love to hear how the information I shared in this article impacted you, and what you found most interesting or challenging. Reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I promise I’ll write back.
Like I always say, sharing is caring. If you know someone who might enjoy learning how to optimize their brain health, don’t be shy. Send them this article and start a conversation about how we can all take better care of ourselves and create greater health and happiness.
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