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How Intellectual Stimulation Enhances Mental Health

The phrase ’personal development’ sounds a bit like part of your CV or a slightly tedious interview question, but it’s actually a vitally important part of creating a well-rounded sense of self. It refers to the ongoing process of learning and the furthering of knowledge and/or abilities. It could be anything that works your brain, pushes you out of your comfort zone or introduces you to new things, whether that’s staying in or returning to higher education, learning a new skill or sport, embracing new experiences, or a journey of self-discovery.

You might wonder what the point is – after all, you learned all the essentials at school and you’re getting through life ok, right? But engaging in ways to grow your mind and your inner self can have a whole host of benefits beyond just learning some new information.

Firstly, there are physiological benefits – mentally challenging ourselves by learning a new skill physically changes the structure of the brain by stimulating neurons. This increases neuroplasticity, which refers to the brain’s ability to create new neural pathways, which has the effect of protecting the brain from the ageing process as it maintains the function and speed of the brain’s electrical signals. The enhanced cognitive skills that we use when doing something new (e.g. visual comprehension, memory and coordination) build and strengthen neural connections that can help to stave off dementia.

Then there are the wider benefits to our wellbeing – focusing on personal growth can produce a sense of pride and accomplishment that you don’t get from many other avenues of life, by giving you an outlet to see what you’re capable of. Challenging ourselves boosts confidence and self-esteem and helps us to become more resilient, which opens up a world of opportunities that we feel more able to take advantage of once we believe we can achieve it.

In many cases, it also provides to the opportunity to meet new people who also enjoy the activity you are engaging in, thus widening your social circle and fostering a sense of belonging and combatting loneliness. It can also be a useful distraction from less positive areas of your life that gives your mind a break from feeling anxious or stressed, and allows you the headspace to think more clearly.

Trying new things can also include setting yourself goals, which is a great way to focus the mind and foster a sense of motivation and momentum. Goals give us a purpose to work towards and to structure activities around, which can help establish routines and habits that build a strong foundation of positive mental health.

Enhancing your range of skills might also have practical benefits, such as opening up employment opportunities or allowing you to complete tasks that were previously beyond you, which can help improve your overall quality of life and sense of wellbeing.

The most important thing is to find what works for you – there are lots of ways to engage in personal growth, but it can be hard to know where to start. that suit you, your interests and your lifestyle:

  • Go back to school - if you always wish you’d studied something but never got the chance, or would like to gain qualifications to further your career, consider enrolling on a course. There are many adult education opportunities, whether that’s an evening class, online course or going back into full or part-time formal education

  • Learn a new skill – whether it’s a new language, woodwork or knitting, picking up a new skill can broaden your horizons and expand your talents

  • Find a hobby – try something new that challenges you, or reawakens skills that have been forgotten, such as painting, writing, playing an instrument or taking up a new sport

  • Add to your responsibilities - if you get the chance to add a new task to your role at work, or try for a promotion, this can help enhance your skills and develop yourself professionally

  • Keep active – that’s your mind, not just your body. Try to keep your brain sharp by doing crosswords, reading regularly or completing jigsaws – anything that stimulates you without overwhelming you

  • Focus on you – personal growth can be about self-awareness, understanding and accepting yourself as you are, and being the best version of you that you can be

It’s worth adding a note of caution here – it’s important not to overdo it. Don’t try and start a pottery course in the same week that you start a new job while also learning a language online. This can ultimately backfire and lead to feeling frustrated, overwhelmed and despondent. Make sure you set realistic and achievable goals that allow you to grow in confidence, or the opposite can happen and you can end up feeling like you’ve failed, which will knock your growing self-esteem.

The key is to remember that personal growth is not about being perfect or the best, but about finding the joy in things that make you feel the most fulfilled and allow you to flourish.

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