Wellness and Well-Being
Make the best investment of your life by taking charge of your health.
By Kimber Hartmann and Jennifer Zientz
What would you consider your most valuable asset? Your education? Your experience? Your track record? These answers are each rooted in something deeper—your brain. Sometimes we use our brains purposefully; sometimes ineffectively; sometimes even recklessly. As lawyers, our success ultimately depends on the strength of our brains—the ability to think nimbly and flexibly, attend to minute detail, and generate innovative solutions to problems.
Too often, we push our brains to the limit by working long hours and internalizing stress. As we now know from neuroscience research, chronic, unmitigated stress disrupts the brain mechanisms that promote and protect cognitive health, such as reasoning ability, emotional stability, and sleep.1 We know best practices for physical health, such as regular exercise and a heart-healthy diet. But how often do we consider the care of our brains—our most valuable asset?
The good news is that the brain is plastic, dynamic, and able to rehabilitate itself—a principle called neuroplasticity.2 Brain blood flow, connectivity, and white matter can change for the better when you practice “brain-healthy” habits.
But what does brain health mean and how can we improve it? The Center for BrainHealth, part of the University of Texas at Dallas, has spent decades researching human cognition—what makes a brain healthy, what contributes to decline, and what interventions can help. Here’s what we’ve found:
Nutrition and Exercise
What’s good for the body is also good for the brain. Dianna Purvis Jaffin, BrainHealth’s director of strategy and programs, recommends a Mediterranean diet or the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension diet,3 as well as a weekly exercise routine of cardiovascular activity, resistance training, flexibility exercises, and stretching.4
Nurturing social connections and fostering deep relationships are imperative for cognitive well-being. Research has shown that social support reduces cortisol and cardiovascular reactivity to stress, while social isolation can lead to depression and increase vulnerability to heart, respiratory, gastrointestinal, and other types of diseases.5 Studies have also shown that meaningful social connections can stave off symptomatology in some cases of early Alzheimer’s disease.6 In short, humans are social beings, and our brains were designed to need the company of others.
As recently as 20 years ago, sacrificing sleep for the sake of our jobs was considered heroic. But today’s research shows that sleep is a restorative biological process and a vital sign of both physical and brain health. Brain repair occurs during sleep via the removal of toxic neuronal proteins, such as those associated with Alzheimer’s disease.7 Individual sleep requirements vary, but six to eight hours a night is generally recommended. Irritability, fatigue during the day, and oversleeping on weekends can all point to a sleep deficiency, according to Russell Foster, a sleep and circadian rhythm expert and senior fellow at the University of Oxford.
Mindfulness is more than just sitting in a quiet room with your eyes closed; there is ample scientific evidence of its benefits. Mindfulness training can improve resilience and emotional self-regulation, strengthen attention and cognitive performance, and may decrease depression and anxiety.8 Add mindfulness practice to your day by taking five minutes to focus on your breathing, or actively turning negative thoughts into positive ones.
Chronic stress can have deleterious effects on the brain, but moderate stress can actually be good for us. According to Ian Robertson, co-director of the Global Brain Health Institute, moderate stress triggers just enough of the neurotransmitter norepinephrine to push you into a “sweet spot” of functioning.9 To find this sweet spot, reframe stressful situations as opportunities, rather than threats. A University of Pennsylvania study asked participants to say aloud either “I feel excited” or “I feel anxious” before a nerve-wracking task, such as a timed math test. The group who said “I feel excited” performed objectively better on all tasks than the group who said “I feel anxious.”10
More than just word puzzles, science-based cognitive exercises help improve decision-making, problem-solving, and reasoning. With cognitive training, we can “rewire” our brains to think more deeply and expansively and generate innovative solutions to challenges. BrainHealth’s research has shown that cognitive training increases brain blood flow, connectivity, and white matter integrity.11
We have the power to improve our brains. Here are actionable steps you can take today:
1) Focus on one task. It’s a misconception that our brains can multitask; when you take on two high level activities simultaneously, the brain actually switches rapidly from one cognitive process to the next.12 This drains the brain; meaning multitasking is actually counterproductive. Eliminate distractions and focus on one task at a time.
2) Get your 5x5. For five minutes, five times a day, step away and take a break. Take a quick lap around your office, or close your eyes and focus on your breath. These mental breaks will reenergize your brain.
3) Tackle two priorities every day. We all get distracted by incoming emails, texts, or phone calls. To avoid getting diverted by fire drills, block time on your calendar each day to accomplish your two top priorities.
As attorneys, we face intense demands on our brains, but we have the power to control our brain health. Take a few minutes each day to make your brain health top of mind. The quality of your work, the welfare of your clients, and your own well-being all stand to benefit.TBJ
is the director of development at the UT Dallas Center for BrainHealth. She retired from her law practice as a managing shareholder after 20 years to pursue her passion for helping others on a full-time basis in 2012. She is a member of the State Bar of Texas.
is the head of clinical services at the Center for BrainHealth. High performance cognitive function across generations is her passion, and her work promotes cognitive resilience and regeneration by establishing cognitive benchmarks and training elite thinkers to reach beyond their perceived potential.