Visualising the Components of a Healthy Lifestyle

By Jurie G. Rossouw



Achieving a sense of mental wellbeing that includes neurological health requires the optimisation of a range of interacting lifestyle components. It can be a complex task to keep track of each of these components and how they relate, especially given the various factors that can influence wellbeing and self-esteem. To facilitate this, a visualisation of these components can be a powerful tool to aid understanding and track progress to enhanced self-esteem.

Mental FitnessThe food pyramid is a good example of a simple visual tool that helps to illustrate the components of a healthy diet. In a similar way, we can use this concept to visualise the components that make up a healthy lifestyle. By constructing a ‘mental fitness pyramid’, we can show each of these components in layers that support subsequent layers above, clearly illustrating their interactive nature. This visualisation can accelerate cognition and internalisation of what it means to live a healthy lifestyle for both physical and mental wellbeing1.

This pyramid is an augmentation of Maslow’s theories and incorporates the latest views from the field of neuropsychotherapy to build a plan that actively includes research on neurological health. The following paragraphs detail each of the layers and their components.


Physical health – the foundation of the pyramid

Robust physical health, of both the body and particularly the brain, is a foundational element of mental fitness. Failing physical health may sabotage efforts to enhance self-esteem and it is significantly associated with depressive and anxiety disorders2. Evidence clearly shows that even simple deficiencies in vitamins or nutrients can result in symptoms such as confusion, tiredness, and depression3. A healthy brain allows for more consistent energy and whole-brain activation to deal more effectively with every-day challenges.

Four major factors contribute to physical health:

  1. Healthy eating is needed to keep the brain nourished with the right nutrients, including protein4, dietary fats5, vitamins and minerals3. Just as important, healthy eating keeps unhealthy foods away from the brain, such as sugars and high-GI carbohydrates6,7 which have been shown to have addictive properties and reduce neurotrophic factors.
  2. Exercise is important for long term brain health through the release of neurotrophins that help the brain to adapt and learn, while also protecting it against neurodegenerative diseases8. Ideally, at least three sessions of aerobic or weight training9 per week should be included.
  3. Quality sleep is critical for the brain to consolidate and store memories, as well as perform neural adaptation10. Sleep deprivation has a strong negative effect on brain health, including an increase in cortisol levels and reduced prefrontal cortex activity11,12. Lack of sleep can also result in increased amygdala activation, resulting in increased impulsive eating of high calorie foods13. Current research suggests a requirement of around seven to eight hours of sleep each night14.
  4. Enriched environments are those that you find stimulating and rewarding15. This includes the quality of the environment itself and the attitude taken towards it. Enriched environments play a major role in the physical health of the brain, particularly through higher order neural structuring and is discussed in more detail in the sections below.

Basic needs – what the brain needs to thrive

Creating a stimulating and rewarding environment requires a basic knowledge of what the brain needs to function at its best. When we give our brain what it needs, we can start living in a way that maximises our brain function and we can experience a truly fulfilling and satisfying life.

There are three basic human needs16

  1. Attachment comes from our evolution into social beings. We have an incredibly deep desire to be connected, support others and receive support. Attachment includes approach and avoidance patterns that influence motivational schemas throughout life.
  2. Control and orientation refers to the craving for feelings of safety and security, as well as having multiple realistic options available to act upon. Orientation more specifically refers to the need to be being able to understand events and accurately assess situations so that the world makes sense to us.
  3. Pleasure and avoidance of pain is a central part of brain function and basic neural chemistry. Dopamine releases to motivate us towards more pleasurable activities, while the amygdala fires to help us avoid painful situations.

Having an understanding of these basic needs enables us to develop a more accurate appraisal of current activities and goals to determine whether these are addressing the fundamental needs of the brain. Each of the basic needs require physical health to provide a sound foundation for maximal higher-order brain function.

Quality beliefs – shape internal beliefs to maximise brain function

Beliefs are what we hold to be true about the world we live in. Emotions, thoughts and actions flow from these beliefs. Beliefs are rarely actively challenged, as they form throughout our lives without us paying too much attention to them. Importantly, many of our beliefs form during childhood, before adequate mechanisms have developed to accurately question and analyse information and situations. This results in the formation of incorrect or unhelpful beliefs that go unquestioned into our adult lives, causing unnecessary pain and anxiety. Changing beliefs includes making changes to fundamental outlooks on life and biases. For example, a recent study has shown that holding a bias to interpret ambiguous events in a positive way results in a six-fold reduction in depressive symptoms17.

The importance of this layer in the pyramid is a reminder to constantly question and review beliefs to ensure they rest on a basis of rationality. This process builds quality beliefs that are more useful, practical and conducive to the attainment of goals.

Personal resilience – respond positively to adverse situations

Personal resilience is the ability to positively respond to adverse situations18. We all have to respond to difficult situations, but the key is to respond to them in a positive way, which includes the active employment of positive emotions19. Resilience is valuable in dealing with common challenges such as difficult decisions, tough deadlines, personal crises, and stress. Higher levels of resilience allow improved management of these situations, or even prevention of certain negative events through proactive action.

Personal resilience can be improved by:

  • Being better at problem solving and having confidence in your own judgement. This requires higher prefrontal cortex activation and is impeded by higher amygdala activation
  • Being realistically optimistic rather than overly optimistic, allowing for difficult realities to be faced while still being hopeful that they can be overcome
  • Involving others and having a support network in place, feeding into our basic needs for attachment and control
  • Having firm values and principles, and being committed to your actions
  • Embracing change and actively working to change oneself to adapt. This requires higher levels of brain derived neurotrophic factor to facilitate brain adaptation to new situations and environments20

While humans all have different levels of personal resilience, this can be enhanced by actively focusing on improvement. Being more resilient builds the ability to stay focused on and achieve goals, even through difficult periods, to work towards a higher sense of self-worth.

Clear goals – the top of the pyramid

Clear goals sit at the top of the pyramid and are differentiated from normal goals through clarity and congruence. Having clear goals means having total clarity on what one wants to achieve, the steps needed to achieve each goal, and prioritisation to clarify what stands above all else. This includes considering the consequences of the chosen goals and the path ahead.

Congruence is critical for clear goals. Goals that are not congruent may oppose each other, resulting in a clash of efforts that becomes a source of frustration, disappointment and anxiety. Congruency means that goals work together and support each other.

Klaus Grawe21 summed this up perfectly, stating that we are in our most positive state (happiness and fulfilment) when “…current perceptions and goals are completely congruent with one another, and the transpiring mental activity is not disturbed by any competing intentions”.

Having clear goals and knowing how to achieve them makes it easier to navigate difficult situations and stress, allowing us to focus efforts on what matters most, helping to reduce amygdala activation and anxiety in turn. This ability to focus effort on what is most important builds towards a more satisfying and fulfilling life22.

Self-esteem enhancement – the end result

Self-esteem enhancement includes self-worth, the confidence to explore our own creativity, effectively solve complex problems, and having the confidence to engage in higher brain thinking. While the pyramid represents the components of mental fitness that we have direct control over, self-esteem enhancement sits on top of the pyramid as the culmination of all the other components.

Any shortcomings within the other components of the pyramid can compromise self-esteem enhancement. Therefore, the pyramid provides a simple tool to help identify and diagnose where there may be a shortcoming, and provide a clear view of what needs to be done to build a healthy lifestyle. All the components work in concert towards better health, improved risk management abilities and increased mastery of skills, which has been shown to predict higher self-esteem23.

Using the pyramid to check mental fitness

Being mentally fit means having the psychological stamina to make the right decisions every day to reach goals and achieve enhanced self-esteem.  The pyramid provides a visual tool to check mental fitness against, by simply answering the following five questions:

  1. Do you consistently eat healthy, exercise and get quality sleep to ensure you have a healthy brain?
  2. Does your lifestyle and goals address each of the basic needs?
  3. Do you consciously question your own beliefs to weed out unhelpful beliefs and biases?
  4. Are you resilient and able to positively respond to stressful or adverse situations?
  5. Do you have absolute clarity of what your goals are and the kind of person you want to become?

Answering “No” to any of the above questions may highlight a gap in mental fitness and, more importantly, an opportunity for self-improvement. The mental fitness pyramid is a useful visual tool that helps keep track of development areas and progress towards building enhanced self-esteem, and ensures it is built upon a solid foundation of neurological health and healthy thought patterns.


1 F. Coffield, D. Moseley, E. Hall & K. Ecclestone, “Learning styles and pedagogy in post-16 learning: a systematic and critical review” Learning & Skills Research Centre, London, 2004.

2 K.M. Scott, et al. “Depression–anxiety relationships with chronic physical conditions: Results from the World Mental Health surveys” Journal of Affective Disorders, Volume 103, Issue 1, 113 - 120, 2007.

3 “Nutrient Reference Values for Australia and New Zealand” Department of Health and Ageing National Health and Medical Research Council, published online, 9 September 2005.

4 M. Journel, C. Chaumontet, N. Darcel, G. Fromentin, D. Tomé, “Brain Responses to High-Protein Diets” Advances in Nutrition, May 2012.

5 B. Sjögren, M.W. Hamblin, P. Svenningsson, “Cholesterol depletion reduces serotonin binding and signaling via human 5-HT(7(a)) receptors” Eur J Pharmacol, 8 September 2006.

6 R. Molteni, R.J. Barnard, Z. Ying, C.K. Roberts, F. Gómez-Pinilla, “A high-fat, refined sugar diet reduces hippocampal brain-derived neurotrophic factor, neuronal plasticity, and learning” Neuroscience, 2002.

7 N.M. Avena, P. Rada, B.G. Hoebel, “Sugar and Fat Bingeing Have Notable Differences in Addictive-like Behavior” Journal of Nutrition, March 1, 2009.

8 C.W. Cotman, N.C. Berchtold, “Exercise: a behavioral intervention to enhance brain health and plasticity” Trends Neurosci, 25(6):295-301, Jun 2002.

9 R.C. Cassilhas, K.S. Lee, J. Fernandes, M.G. Oliveira, S. Tufik, R. Meeusen, M.T. de Mello, “Spatial memory is improved by aerobic and resistance exercise through divergent molecular mechanisms” Neuroscience, 202:309-17, Jan 2012.

10 R. Staats, P. Stoll, D. Zingler, J.C. Virchow, M. Lommatzsch, “Regulation of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) during sleep apnoea treatment” Thorax, 60(8):688-92, Aug 2005.

11 R. Leproult, G. Copinschi, O. Buxton, E. Van Cauter, “Sleep loss results in an elevation of cortisol levels the next evening” Sleep, 20(10):865-70, Oct 1997.

12 W.D. Killgore, “Effects of sleep deprivation on cognition” Prog Brain Res, 2010.

13 S.M. Greer, A.N. Goldstein, M.P. Walker, “The impact of sleep deprivation on food desire in the human brain” Nature Communications, Article number: 2259, August 2013

14 S. Banks, D.F. Dinges, “Behavioral and Physiological Consequences of Sleep Restriction” J Clin Sleep Med, 3(5): 519–528, August 2007.

15 V. Kazlauckas, N. Pagnussat, S. Mioranzza, E. Kalinine, F. Nunes et al., “Enriched environment effects on behavior, memory and BDNF in low and high exploratory mice” Physiol Behav, 102(5):475-80, Mar 2011.

16 P. J. Rossouw, “Neuropsychotherapy: An integrated theoretical model” Neuropsychotherapy – Theoretical Underpinnings and Clinical Applications, 43-63, 2014.

17 B. Kleim, H.A. Thörn, U. Ehlert, “Positive interpretation bias predicts well-being in medical interns” Front Psychol, 2014.

18 M.M. Tugade, B.L. Fredrickson, “Resilient Individuals Use Positive Emotions to Bounce Back From Negative Emotional Experiences” J Pers Soc Psychol, 2011.

19 M.M. Tugade, B.L. Fredrickson, L. Feldman Barrett, “Psychological Resilience and Positive Emotional Granularity: Examining the Benefits of Positive Emotions on Coping and Health” J Pers Soc Psychol, 2005.

20 E. J.Huang, L. F. Reichardt, “Neurotrophins: Roles in Neuronal Development and Function” Annual Review of Neuroscience, 24, 677–736. doi:10.1146/annurev.neuro.24.1.677, 2001

21 K. Grawe, “Neuropsychotherapy: How the Neurosciences Inform Effective Psychotherapy” Routledge, p. 244, 2007.

22 E.A. Locke, G.P. Latham, “New Directions in Goal-Setting Theory” Current Directions in Psychological Science, October 2006.

23 R. Y. Erol, U. Orth, “Self-esteem development from age 14 to 30 years: a longitudinal study” J Pers Soc Psychol, 101(3):607-19. doi: 10.1037/a0024299, Sep 2011.



Integrating Knowledge Into Practice

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