The power of neuroplasticity
Helping your clients survive the pandemic.
By Vivienne O’Keeffe, CIBTAC, AAD, PEA
Question: what’s taking a bigger hit from the lockdowns, the economy or mental health?
Although the answer is debatable, we do know that many people have been emotionally scarred. Since the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic on March 11, Google has been reporting major jumps in global searches related to anxiety on topics ranging from mental health tips and techniques to handling panic attacks.
In our high-touch spa business, most treatments involve the kind of direct physical contact you just can’t perform on Zoom. Nonetheless, as a spa professional, you can make a difference in your clients’ lives – either by sharing these suggestions in person with those who feel comfortable, and/or by reaching out to them until the pandemic is no longer a threat.
Some of you may recall from previous articles that I’m a member of the Mental Wellness Initiative (MWI) of the Global Wellness Institute (GWI). The lens of mental wellness extends from the innermost aspects of individual experience to the influence and condition of what is sometimes called the ‘social mind’ – the mental condition of the surrounding society and its effect on mental wellness. For this article, I am condensing part of the GWI’s just-released report Mental Resilience in a time of Stress and Trauma, authored by Dr. Lawrence Choy, Professor Gerry Bodeker and Melisse Gelula. The GWI defines wellness as the active pursuit of activities, choices and lifestyles that lead to a state of holistic health. Mental wellness refers to evidence-based practices proven to help reduce stress, worry, loneliness, anxiety and depression – and improve our ability to cope, connect and thrive.
A surprising amount of mental wellness relates to what is called neuroplasticity – the ability of the brain to form new learning channels. The old saying ‘You can’t teach an old dog new tricks’ has become, well, old. Prior to the 1990s, coined the Decade of the Brain, the scientific community was convinced that the adult brain was not capable of improving its cognitive capacities. Since then science has discovered not only that stem cells exist in the adult brain, but that through a process called neurogenesis, they can help regenerate neurons to aid in memory and learning.
In short, we can upgrade our brain’s operating system even into old age. And we have substantial scientific evidence to show how good wellness habits can boost the brain’s ability to change and rewire itself.
To promote neuroplasticity we need to engage in experiences that provide sensory, emotional, and mental stimulation. And manage our stress levels; too little or too much stress impairs functioning. Chronic stress impedes healthy development of the brain’s prefrontal cortex (PFC), impairing its overall functioning and presenting potential lifelong consequences for our ability to achieve a sense of well-being. Chronic stress and trauma habituate us to a life of impulse, defensiveness and survival. The genesis of inner peace and calm is self-care, love and compassion.
Reduce bad stress and boost neuroplasticity
Here’s my Reader’s Digest version of how the whitepaper suggests we can reduce bad stress and boost neuroplasticity.
Build new habits: Engaging in mental wellness practices such as meditation, deep breathing and walks in nature will promote growth and resilience of neural pathways.
Get your heart pumping: A good fight/flight/freeze stress response depends on aerobic exercise. Exercise not only mobilizes our body for action, it helps us feel in control of our circumstances and environment. Plus, natural processes that arise when we exercise equip us to better combat acute and chronic stress.
Stay positive: Cultivating spirituality and maintaining a positive mindset are key to mental wellness. Developing trust, security and love in healthy interdependent relationships helps develop the brain. Committing regularly to activities like praying, journaling, volunteering, social bonding and psychotherapy drives positive neuroplasticity.
Be sense-able: Activities that stimulate our senses, challenge our cognitive and motor abilities and enhance our social interactions are great for maintaining positive neural changes throughout our lifetimes. Dancing, playing music, aromatherapy, traveling, hiking and volunteering enrich our lives and our brain’s development.
Go deep: Studies show that meditation induces large-scale neuroplasticity, which promotes development in critical areas including the brain’s PFC (pre-frontal cortex). Different types of meditation deliver different benefits. Mindfulness meditation cultivates non-judgmental awareness, discipline, attention control and emotional regulation. Transcendental meditation promotes calmness, restful alertness and heightened self-awareness. So-called loving kindness and compassion meditation fosters selflessness, empathy and positive relationships.
Eat smart: Our diet and our gut microbiome play huge roles in the inflammatory processes affecting brain health. Diets featuring reduced calories, intermittent fasting, anti-inflammatory foods, antioxidants, supplements, prebiotics and probiotics can all support brain health and positive plasticity.
Hit the sack: Essential for overall health, a good night’s sleep is particularly necessary for plasticity associated with memory processing – and vital for maintaining such “housekeeping” functions as waste removal.
Stay clean. This one is quite literally a no-brainer. Substance abuse – smoking, alcohol, drugs, etc. – impair neuroplasticity. Moderate, minimize or (best) avoid exposure to addictive and harmful substances.
Take a deep breath: Physical exercises involving controlled breathing – yoga, tai chi and others – help us endure chronic stress. Deep breathing activates the vagus nerve, which is a direct channel to the “rest/digest” branch of the nervous system. Vagal activation counteracts and mitigates the stress-inducing activity of the fight/flight/freeze branch of the nervous system that favours healthy neuroplastic changes.
These are just a few of the recommendations of the GWI’s excellent whitepaper. If you’d like to know more about the MWI and its contribution to mental wellness, you can visit the website: https://globalwellnessinstitute.org/initiatives/mental-wellness-initiative/
Induce a yawn to help you sleep
If you’re feeling too wound-up or have trouble falling asleep, this self-induced yawn suggested by naturopathic doctor Rigobert Kefferputz can release excess energy and tension. I’ve tried it and found it really effective.
- Gently tilt your head back to a comfortable position and allow your mouth to hang open.
- Contract the back of your throat as if to pop your ears.
- Open your mouth so that you feel air hit the back of your throat. Inhale and exhale completely.
- When the yawn comes, reach and extend into it, riding the yawn to stretch the jaw muscles.
- Repeat 8-10 times until you feel the tears of joy come rolling in – Literally!
Dr. Rigobert Kefferputz is the founder of Naturopathic Medical Retreat Centre on Salt Spring Island, BC, and a board member of the Canadian Association of Naturopathic Doctors. His website is www.drkefferputz.com
Published in Mandarin and English as “The Power of Neuroplasticity” in Spa China January/February 2021 – page 28.
Published as “The Power of Neuroplasticity” in Spa Canada November/December 2020
Vivienne O’Keeffe, CIBTAC, AAD, PEA, is President of Spa Profits Consulting Inc., and an expert in designing successful spa concepts. She is also an international consultant in developing product lines, treatment plans and training programs, a member of ISPA and a recipient of the Spa Industry Association of Canada Outstanding Industry Service Award in 2001, 2005 and 2012.