Martina Ratto, our resident Cognitive Scientist, tells us why mental health is a cognitive matter:
We might already know that our mental wellbeing is related to the way we think, but we might be surprised to discover the strong link between our mental health and the mechanisms underlying our thinking, which is our cognition. Actually, they are two sides of the same coin, which is our brainpower.
Cognitive and mental health
If we think about cognitive health at all, we might think about age-related mental decline. Simple things like forgetting information and being slowed down in our thinking, to more serious neurological diseases like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, where cognition is severely impaired. We might also think about neuro-disorders and learning difficulties, such as Autism or ADHD. These immediately come to mind since cognitive issues such as lack of attention or memory are at the surface level of the problem.
On the other side, when we think about mental illness what usually springs to mind is depression, anxiety or other psychiatric disorders, and we naturally think of them as just related to mood, emotions, personality or self-control. What we don't consider is the impact cognition has on our mental wellbeing.
Mental health impacts our brainpower
People with common mental health problems, such as stress, depression and anxiety also suffer from impairment in the key areas of cognition; attention, executive function, processing speed, working memory, and episodic memory. This is not something noticed only by experts. Poor cognition has a direct impact on our day-to-day abilities, such as communicating with our families, socialising with friends, working effectively and self-management. We don't need a diagnosis of mental illness to understand a slow down in our mental capacity on days when our mental wellbeing is low. On the other hand, when we feel good our brains work more effectively.
A shield for our mental health
Good cognitive fitness also acts as a preventative strategy for mental illness. If we have poor cognitive fitness, our mental health can be at risk. Cognitive deficits are significant predictors and major risk factors for mental illness. And the reasons for this are twofold.
Firstly, poor cognitive health has a negative impact on our emotions, our coping strategies, and on our tendency to think about past events. It can also mean we catastrophise or obsess about the future. We may struggle to exercise self-control, and display inappropriate emotional responses, negative thoughts, or act impulsively. This can cause issues with social relationships and management of our day to day lives, thus worsening our mental wellbeing.
On the contrary, robust cognitive health contributes to building good psychological resilience, self-management and control of emotions and impulses, which are major protective factors for prevalent mental diseases. When our cognition is in a good state, it coordinates our mental processes making sure they are all well-tuned.
The regulatory role that cognition plays on our mind has got a direct effect on our brain and on the stress response of our body. Stress can be good to keep us active and engaged up to a certain point. When we go beyond this point, stress becomes distress and has a negative influence on both our mental and physical health. When under stress our body releases stress hormones such as cortisol. When out of control these can be harmful to our health, causing inflammation. Both psychiatric and neurological diseases have prolonged inflammation among their roots. Through cognition we can regulate stress with good coping mechanisms while building mental resilience, to increase our stress threshold - where stress becomes distress and we are at risk of burnout. We all have a different threshold but we can always change this by nurturing our brainpower.
A final note: Mental health is something that relates to all human beings. It’s not just about mood or personality disorders, but also about our behaviours around sleep, nutrition or sex, which are all components of our mental health. By looking after our cognition, we can benefit in all aspects of our life.
Read ‘Cognition - The superpower of our brains’ for more info about cognition.