We’ve all heard the phrase “use it or lose it”. Last week, that phrase took on new meaning for me. The day started out innocently enough. I couldn’t find my car keys. I looked high and low – under the sofa cushions, in my purse, on the table by the door. I even looked in the dog’s crate on the off chance that he took a liking to my key ring. No luck. When I had reached the point of panic (I was so late for work), the keys miraculously appeared…on the table by the door where I had looked not five minutes before. I chalked the experience up to being rushed and went on my way. Later that day, I was talking to a colleague about a routine matter and, in mid-sentence, I drew a blank and could not finish my thought. To be honest, forgetting something is not that uncommon for me. I am the queen of Post It Notes and if I don’t write something down, it flies out of my head as fast as it entered. But twice in the space of a few hours? I have to admit that part of me started to worry just a little whether these moments of forgetfulness were normal or an indicator of something to be concerned about. Being “of a certain age”, the specter of forgetfulness has become a bit more salient.
A few days later, I was walking though the gym on my way to spin class when a flyer caught my attention. It was an article on, of all things, mental fitness. Being a counselor, my first thought was that the term “mental fitness” must refer to one’s emotionally stability and sense of reality. Because I work primarily with kids and families, the issue of mental decline doesn’t often come up so I didn’t immediately consider mental fitness in the broader sense. As I read the article, I learned that mental fitness is more than just emotional stability. Mental fitness actually refers to the use of intentional mental exercise to help stave off mental decline and strengthen memory, concentration and information processing. As we age, one of the greatest fears we have is losing our mental capabilities. I started thinking about the concept of fitness and the mind-body connection. I had to wonder, if we are nurturing our physical or “body” fitness, doesn’t it make sense to also nurture our mental or “mind” fitness? Is it possible to stave off mental decline?
The answer seems to be a resounding YES! Recent findings in the study of memory and mental fitness suggest that there are things we can do to delay or discourage the loss of mental functioning. Puzzles, brain teasers and games quickly come to mind. These tasks are good exercise but challenge can come from so many sources; it is so much more than doing the Sunday crossword puzzle in ink (although that is a daunting challenge for me). Challenging activities stimulate and strengthen brain function. One way to challenge our brain is to try something new. Learn to play an instrument, learn a new language or try a new hobby. Unfamiliar situations challenge the brain to work a little harder. For example, try brushing your teeth with your left hand if you are right-handed. The brain requires nurturing and nourishment to support optimum functioning. Minimizing stress, eating a healthy diet and staying physically active have all been shown to support mental fitness. I even found a strategy to help me keep up with my keys! Actively processing what we want to remember using imagery or mnemonics requires more complex brain activity and strengthens mental functioning. By creating a mental snapshot or verbalizing out loud where my keys are, my brain is more likely to recall their location. These strategies are like mental gymnastics that can keep our brains in peak condition.
Once I started exploring the topic of mental fitness, I found a growing body of research and quite a few resources. I suspect that as our population ages and interest in mental fitness continues to grow, counselors will see this issue present itself more often in counseling sessions. The concept of mental fitness seems to be a natural fit for the wellness model. How might we incorporate mental fitness strategies into the counseling process? It’s a topic I am certainly interested in learning more about. So, armed with a few strategies, I have decided to try and use it before I lose it. I’m going to try and incorporate some mental exercise into my fitness routine and see how it goes. But first I have to go find my keys.
Dawn Ferrara is a counselor in private practice and clinical manager for a community-based children’s mental health program. Her areas of interest include disaster mental health counseling, lifestyle management, and counselor wellness.