Are you ever too old to start improving your mental health?

Jason Brien.

No. From the get go it’s an emphatic no. The old adage ‘you can’t teach an old dog new tricks’ has been firmly disproven many times over and the myth that you cannot improve your mental health if you are old is just that…a myth. It is these mistaken beliefs which keeps ‘older’ people from having a good crack at improving their mental health. If you don’t know already, the brain is plastic and so capable of making neural pathway changes no matter how old you are. 

Let me start with a brief anecdote about myself before briefly explaining the concept of brain plasticity. There isn’t much in terms of trauma and adversity that I haven’t experienced in my almost 40 years of life. When I got to my early 30’s, I genuinely thought that my brain was broken. That it could never be fixed and so I thought I was forever stuck the way I was. This was until I read the only non-academic psychology/self-help book of my life titled ‘The brain that changes itself’ (Message me for the free PDF link if you’re interested). 

It was through this book that I understood how I could use the concept of brain plasticity to literally change my brain. Brain plasticity simply refers to “ The ability of the nervous system to change its activity in response to intrinsic or extrinsic stimuli by reorganizing its structure, functions, or connections”. There are a few key principles related to brain plasticity such as ‘use it or lose it’, ‘use it and improve it’, ‘repetition matters’, ‘intensity matters’ and so on (to learn more check out the resources links on my website version of this article). 

As we just read, one of the fundamental principles of brain plasticity (and mental health improvements in general) is practice and repeat. Over and over again. It is usually this hard work which turns people off of mental health recovery just like the thought of diet or exercise turns people away from the weight loss journey. To stick with the weight loss analogy for a bit, just like it is harder to lose weight or to gain muscle as we age, so too is it harder to break old patterns of thinking, feeling, responding and behaving. 

Harder but not impossible. Ultimately, if you want to see the mental health gains you have to put in the work day in and day out. Week in and week out. Month in and month out. You get the point. If you want to break old, unhealthy and maladaptive habits, you must first start to recognise your minute to minute and day to day thoughts, behaviours, feelings, etc. This is where mood, thought and behaviour journals become extremely important. If you don’t somehow document everything that you currently do (within reason of course) how else will you notice if something needs changing? 

Mindfulness, meditation and calming exercise also complement journaling quite well as they help you to slow down any racing thoughts/feelings long enough for you to ‘capture’ them and write them down. Once you know the true nature of your thoughts, feelings and behaviours you can start looking at challenging, changing and replacing them if need be. For example, if your default pattern is negative thoughts, you will need to practice and repeat positive and neutral thoughts. 

If your distress tolerance levels are low, which obviously leads you to experience great stress and distress, guess what? You are going to have to practice distress tolerance skills over and over again until you alter the ‘old’ neural pathways and habits and so create new ones.  If your default behaviour is to react aggressively whenever you are challenged, then guess what? You are going to have to practice and repeat emotional management skills until the non-aggressive approach becomes your new norm.

Just like people make excuses for why they are too busy to stick to a weight loss routine, so too will they make up excuses for why they cannot implement or stick to a good mental health routine. The thing is though, if you do nothing at all, don’t expect ANYTHING to change. When I give my clients worksheets, I tell them that it’s ok NOT to sit at a table for 1 hour a day and study then diligently because realistically this is not possible. Rather I recommend that they print them out and put them on the fridge. Or put them on the inside of the toilet door. 

The goal is to gain exposure to these new ways of thinking, feeling or behaving. Rather than playing candy crush while sitting on the toilet, read through the worksheets stuck to the back of the door. Try some of the new skills. Practice them and repeat them as much as possible. Remind yourself that whilst you cannot physically see the changes, each act of  reading, practicing and repeating is influencing your brain. Each positive thought you have makes less room for the negative ones. Use it or lose it. If you don’t use the negative thoughts… bye, bye negative thoughts.