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The mind-body benefits of learning a new skill

Whether you’re bored, have extra time on your hands or want to get out of a rut, learning a new skill can give you the mental and physical boost you need.

“We’re meant to grow, stretch, extend and expand,” Dennis Buttimer, M.Ed, CEAP, RYT, CHC, a life and wellness coach at Cancer Wellness at Piedmont. “As you learn new skills, you’ll discover more gifts about yourself and improve your confidence and sense of well-being. You can also positively affect others with your new skills.”

Reasons to learn a new skill

It gives you motivation. A new hobby or skill can give you the motivation you need to get out of bed in the morning. During this pandemic, most of us are spending more time at home and are physically isolated from many loved ones. This can take a toll on our mental health. Learning a new language, practicing an instrument or tending to an herb garden can give you energy, joy and a sense of purpose.

It helps beat boredom. Doing the same thing every day can get boring and sap your zest for life. While trying something new requires more effort than turning on the TV, the benefits are numerous.

It boosts confidence. “If you engage in a new skill, you’re going to thicken the brain’s prefrontal cortex,” says Buttimer. “As you develop a new skill, you’ll gain courage and confidence, which helps you override fear and anxiety. You’ll feel more empowered.”

It keeps you healthy.Learning is great for your brain at every age,” he says. “As you take on a new skill, the mind begins to reshape itself because the physical brain is malleable. Previously, it was thought that it was only malleable until adolescence. However, now the research shows it can keep changing throughout our lives and for the better, so you have fewer fear responses and a more positive mindset.”

It helps you be flexible. By consistently educating yourself and trying new things, you’ll learn you’re capable of change and growth, which keeps you open to new opportunities in life. “Learning a new skill can get you out of a rut. If you don’t learn new skills, you can start to wither a bit mentally and physically because you’re falling victim to the same habits and mindsets again and again,” Buttimer explains.

It can benefit others. Think about how your new hobby or skill can help others at work, at home or in your community.

It can boost your happiness. “When you learn a new skill, you increase your level of happiness," he says. “It was thought for a long time that a person’s baseline happiness couldn’t be lifted. It turns out that you can keep influencing your level of happiness. As you learn a new skill, you can boost it. You won’t be euphoric all the time, but you’ll lift your sense of well-being.”

How to make the most of learning a new skill

Consider your “why.” It doesn’t matter if a new skill is for work or play – you’ll get benefits either way. Think about what you hope to gain from learning a new skill. Do you want to pass the time, reduce stress, improve your career or boost your health? Once you know what you hope to gain, you can determine which skill you’d like to learn.

Explore possible subjects. Once you know your “why,” start exploring potential topics. If you want to improve your health, maybe you want to learn how to practice meditation or yoga or grow a vegetable garden.

If you want to pass the time by doing something other than watching TV, think about something that you’ve always secretly wanted to do, suggests Buttimer. Maybe you’re not a musical person, but you’ve always wanted to play the piano. Why not start now?

If you know you want to do something, but aren’t sure where to start, look at what’s trending right now, such as knitting, studying a new language, bread-making, coding, calligraphy or graphic design.

Consider your learning style. If you’re a visual learner, sign up for a video-based class. If you want to take a deep dive into a subject, look for a course instead of a one-time class. If you learn best by reading, stock up on books at the library. If you learn best by listening, download some podcasts or an audiobook. Do what works for you.

Take a compassionate approach. Learning a new skill is supposed to be something positive in your life. While it may feel challenging, especially at the beginning, it’s important to take a compassionate approach. You don’t have to do it perfectly; just be open and receptive.

“You could affirm to yourself, ‘I’m being open and receptive to learning this new skill while holding it loosely. This will be fun and positive. Some setbacks are normal when learning something new, but all is well,’” suggests Buttimer. “Depressurizing the situation is important.”

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