Keeping our minds in good working order is incredibly important – especially as we age. Dementia, defined as a loss of cognitive functioning severe enough to disrupt day-to-day activities, impacts around 55 million people worldwide. If that number isn’t staggering enough, it’s estimated that someone in the world develops dementia every three seconds.
Researchers have been hard at work identifying risk factors of dementia in order to develop recommendations for prevention. Regular physical activity, managing your weight and keeping your blood pressure levels steady have all been positively correlated with lowering the risk of dementia.
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Recently, surprising research found that regular self-reflection – taking time to sit and evaluate your actions and emotions through thought – helped improve cognitive function.
Here’s a look at how self-reflection can improve brain health and how to use it to your advantage.
What Is Self-Reflection?
Self-reflection, as the term suggests, refers to the process of taking stock of your thoughts, feelings and actions. Self-reflection requires you to be aware of not only what you do or think but the potential reasons and motivations behind these thoughts and actions.
Self-reflection can be done at a high level, evaluating your overall life trajectory from a bird’s eye view. This type of self-reflection allows a person to visualize their goals and desires for the future and provides a sense of purpose to work towards.
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At a more granular level, self-reflection can offer insight into our day-to-day responses and feelings. For example, self-reflection can be used to evaluate an interaction with a family member that left you feeling sad. Maybe this family member misunderstood what you were trying to say – or made you feel as though your opinion didn’t matter. Looking at the situation and reflecting on what happened and why it made you feel a certain way allows us to learn and unlock parts of ourselves that give us a deeper understanding of why we are the way we are.
How Does Self-Reflection Benefit Brain Health?
In a recent study published in Neurology, researchers wanted to further explore early findings that conscientiousness and purpose lower dementia risks.
Because self-reflection is tied to both, researchers asked senior participants questions about their self-reflection habits to determine how frequently they take time to unpack their feelings and thoughts.
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Those who reported engaging in self-reflective behaviors more often displayed better cognitive function and improved glucose metabolism, which is essential for fueling the brain.
This discovery is an impactful one. While decreased physical capabilities may limit a person’s ability to get the recommended amount of exercise or maintain a healthy weight in order to lower the risk of dementia, self-reflection is a habit anyone can partake in. However, it may take some practice to get the hang of it.
How to Practice Self-Reflection
The idea of setting aside time to think about yourself may seem silly – especially for those who haven’t tried it yet. But with a growing body of evidence that shows how beneficial it can be, there’s never been a better time to try self-reflection. Here are a few tips for how to use self-reflection to benefit brain health.
1. Start with question prompts
Self-reflection doesn’t come easily to everyone. If you’re unsure where to start, coming up with a list of questions that get you thinking can benefit your self-reflection process. A few thoughtful questions to consider are:
What am I taking for granted?
What goals am I working toward?
What am I most worried about right now?
What matters most to me?
If an answer doesn’t come to you right away, take some time to sit with it and reflect. You may be surprised at what thoughts and feelings these simple questions unlock.
2. Find a comfortable space
Some people may find it easy to practice self-reflection in any environment. But choosing a location to do so with intention can be beneficial to the self-reflection process. Take time to experiment with sitting in different parts of your home. You may find that self-reflection is hard to engage in when sitting at your kitchen table – but much easier when you’re lying on your couch. Selecting a location with minimal distractions is also advantageous – such as sitting away from your TV or computer.
3. Keep self-reflection constructive
Taking time to sit with your thoughts and feelings through self-reflection can be a healthy habit to engage in. However, sometimes well-intended self-reflection can start to skew negatively – especially when we become hyper focused on a certain worry or concern.
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If you find yourself judging your actions in a way where you’re constantly putting yourself down, pay attention to this pattern and find a way to break it. It may be necessary to step away from reflecting on a certain thought, feeling or action of yours until you can be more kind and understanding with yourself.
4. Start a journal
Putting pen to paper can help jumpstart the process of self-reflection and allow you to look back on the progress you’ve made. Consider keeping a daily journal and setting aside an allotted amount of time each day to write down what you experienced that day. How did your interactions with others make you feel? What activities did you partake in that made you feel healthy? What goals did you work toward? What are you grateful for today? Many people find self-reflection easier to do when there’s an action like writing behind it, so you might want to give it a try.
5. Seek help when needed
If you’re having a hard time with self-reflection or if doing so has brought up something that’s been hard for you to process, there’s no shame in seeking help from a professional. Therapists often use self-reflection as a tool with their clients and can help guide your process so that it’s beneficial rather than detrimental.
As dementia becomes more prevalent, engaging in activities that benefit our cognitive function is crucial. Whether you’re a self-reflection novice or have dabbled inconsistently, making this practice a regular part of your daily routine can help keep your mind sharp. Though it may feel uncomfortable to do at first, sticking with self-reflection can be worthwhile.
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