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How does your mental health affect your thinking? What kind of friends are particularly good for your health?

Psychiatrist Daniel G. Amen takes a holistic approach to brain health. According to Dr. Amen, mental health—including your thought patterns, social connections, and spiritual beliefs and practices—affects your brain’s well-being.

Keep reading to take a closer look at how your mental health impacts your brain health.

Dr. Amen on Mental Health

According to Dr. Amen, mental health encompasses your thought patterns, self-perception, and self-esteem. He discusses how relationships and spirituality are part of the bigger picture of mental and brain health. Amen suggests three tips for nurturing your mental health and describes how each improves your brain function.

1) Exercise your mind: Challenge your brain with intellectually stimulating activities such as chess and card games to promote the growth of new brain cells and preserve cognitive function.

(Shortform note: Sanjay Gupta (Keep Sharp) mirrors this advice, explaining that intellectually stimulating activities make your brain more resistant to disease by creating new neural connections and strengthening existing ones. This increases your brain’s ability to adapt to neural damage or other challenges (or what scientists call your “cognitive reserve”). In addition to playing games, Gupta recommends learning a language or doing some other complex skill that gets you out of your comfort zone.) 

2) Manage stress effectively: Amen advises developing a stress-management program that includes mindfulness techniques, deep breathing exercises, and journaling. This prevents chronic stress from harming your brain cells.

(Shortform note: These mindful, self-reflective methods are effective because they help you become aware of and address your stressful thoughts. Another way to keep stress at bay is to make a conscious effort to resolve all conflicts before ending your day. Researchers found that people could keep their stress hormone levels from piling up day after day by working through arguments on the same day before going to sleep.)

3) Seek mental health support: Consult qualified mental health professionals to address and manage mental health concerns such as anxiety from past traumas. Getting a handle on these issues helps maintain your capacity for rational thinking.

(Shortform note: Research supports Amen’s advice to address traumatic events, showing that trauma often causes long-lasting mental and physical health issues. Studies suggest that between 40% and 50% of trauma survivors experience anxiety and depression and that these symptoms can last up to 20 years when left unresolved. In one study, 68% of trauma survivors reported experiencing physical health problems five years after the traumatic event.)

Social Interactions

A significant aspect of mental health is your social interactions, which encompass the relationships, communication, and connections you have with others. Amen suggests that nurturing relationships with friends, family, and peers helps your brain stay active and engaged, reduces stress, and provides emotional support, all of which are crucial for brain health.

(Shortform note: While healthy, meaningful connections can improve your mental health, unhealthy relationships can have the opposite effect, making you feel unsafe and unloved. Before sinking time into nurturing a relationship, consider whether doing so will make you feel safe and have a positive effect on your life. Ask yourself whether the relationship makes you feel a sense of mutual respect, trust, honesty, and compassion—key elements of a healthy relationship.)

Amen adds that your brain will benefit even more if you build relationships with individuals who prioritize wellness, as their habits and support can positively influence your lifestyle. 

(Shortform note: The influence of others’ positive habits on your well-being may be partly due to mirror neurons—nerves that fire when you witness someone else’s emotions or actions and mimic the other person’s experience in your mind. Studies show that these mirror neurons can help you internalize and replicate intellectual and physical behaviors—which is why surrounding yourself with those who engage in healthy habits can make your habits healthier.)

Spiritual Fulfillment

Spiritual fulfillment encompasses your sense of life’s purpose and meaning. Amen identifies two methods for tending to your spiritual fulfillment and outlines how each positively affects your brain and mental health.

1) Contemplate profound questions: Reflect on your values, beliefs, and connections to the world. This practice stimulates neural pathways (information-transmitting networks in your brain) related to self-awareness and mental health, contributing to optimal brain health.

(Shortform note: Research clarifies that engaging in self-reflection stimulates your brain by activating at least seven integral parts of the default mode network—a brain network primarily involved in introspective thinking. This highlights that while self-reflection may seem like a simple activity, it’s a complex and powerful tool for improving your brain health and well-being.)

2) Engage in spiritual activities: Amen recommends practices such as meditation, prayer, or volunteer work to foster rational thinking and mental flexibility. These activities help to relieve stress and broaden your perspective on life, countering the impact of ruminative thoughts that might otherwise entangle you in self-defeating patterns.

(Shortform note: Research shows that spirituality benefits your brain by improving stress resilience and cognitive performance. In one study, participants—categorized based on how frequently they engaged in spiritual activities—underwent various tests to evaluate their stress response, cognitive functions, and psychological health. The study found that those who regularly engaged in spiritual activities showed improved stress responses and better cognitive performance compared to those who rarely engaged in such practices.)

Dr. Amen: Mental Health Impacts Your Brain Health

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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