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  • Patricia Faust

The Reality of Change and Trying to Stay Brain Fit



I was looking over some of my past blogs and was struck by how different the world is now. The issues on brain health have not changed but the environment has definitely made an impact on us. We are no longer functioning on autopilot. Our reality demands our attention. So where are we in this process.

Physical Exercise

There are six pieces of a brain healthy lifestyle that I identify as a way to stay brain fit. They are physical exercise, mental stimulation, nutrition, socialization, sleep and stress reduction. COVID-19 has made its mark on all of these pieces. Physical exercise is instrumental in releasing BDNF (Brain Derived Neurotropic Factor), a stimulating hormone that enables new brain cells (neurons) to bud and grow. I always recommend walking because it is accessible and doesn’t cost any money to get out and do. But for most of us, we have been confined in our homes. We must adhere to social distancing (6 feet away from each other) and many of the parks have been closed. Now we might have all used that as an excuse to stop exercising but there are those people who demonstrate feats of resilience. One gentleman ran a full marathon – on his balcony! My cousin walks 10,000 steps every day – in her house. So, we have no excuses other than the fact that we are bored and/or depressed and we just don’t want to exercise. This is a big problem and there are many people feeling this way. Physical exercise would actually make them feel better mentally and emotionally. Our brain needs all the new cells it can get because we are killing off many neurons through worry and stress.

Mental Stimulation

This piece of the brain healthy lifestyle creates new synaptic connections between the new neurons we are growing. It increases brain volume. I read that the sale of jigsaw puzzles and board games increased significantly. Hooray for those that have brain challenges going on while they shelter in place. Technology has really upped its game with all of the new movies, shows, tours, travel, and anything else you can imagine coming in to our homes on our TVs. These can be good or bad for our brain. If we veg- out all the time and binge watch TV, we are not helping our brain at all. There is no challenge to that. That might have been a good escape at the beginning of this crisis but it will start to take a toll on our cognitive abilities after a while. We need to make the most of the technology we have to help our brains stay tuned-up.

Nutrition

This is a really tough piece of the brain healthy lifestyle to keep up with right now. There are food shortages and there are so many people who have food insecurity. The economic impact of no money flowing into peoples’ lives has caused lines at food banks with people desperate to feed their families. There are shortages of many foods and the cost of food has gone up considerably. This sense of scarcity has raised fears that people won’t have enough to eat.

How can you eat the foods that benefit your brain? It is possible that finding the perfect brain food might be tough but being diligent about serving the cleanest, freshest food possible will help give your brain what it needs. There is an upside – restaurants have been closed and there has been pick-up or take-out orders only. So people are cooking again. We just have to do our best to eat right.

Socialization

We are hardwired to connect to other people. We need to have human touch. But here we are, isolated in our homes and no hugs. Socialization improves our cognitive abilities. We need to be with other people. This doesn’t look like it will happen for a long time. This probably makes me the saddest. We can do video chats, virtual dinners, and work from home, but we don’t have any one nearby that we can joke around with, be inspired by, or just be friends with. Working from home might be the way companies continue to have their employees work. But what happens to your work family? These are the people you spend most of your time with. It is an important part of learning empathy and developing leadership skills. This inability to be with other people is taking a toll on all of us.

Sleep

Worry, anxiety, boredom are stealing sleep from us. You can be exhausted after a day of doing nothing. Or, you fall in bed, too anxious to fall asleep, bills piling up, disappearing bank account and anxiety over having a job – or not, keeps you staring at the ceiling. There is nothing worse than insomnia. No sleep is so bad for our brains. While we sleep we are consolidating memories and cleaning out the toxins that have built up during the day. We lose our emotional ability to stay ‘sane’ during the day. Every one gets on our last nerve. We aren’t capable of thinking. And we really need our cognitive skills to help us navigate this pandemic.

There are things we can do to help us sleep. There is an app “Calm” that has some beautiful audio programs to help you relax and fall asleep. We need to do something physical during the day. It is important that we start to turn our thinking around to become problem solvers again. The coronavirus is beyond our control, but we still have control over our lives in response to it. When you sleep you can tap into your subconscious mind and get some solutions to your biggest problems. Have a journal bedside and write your biggest problems down that you need help with. Just doing that will release that anxiety from your conscious mind. While you are sleeping your subconscious mind is solving your problem. If you wake up during the night, write down your solution because you probably won’t remember it in the morning. Or first thing in the morning you might have your ‘aha’ solution. Again, write it down. We definitely need to sleep.

Stress

Stress is such a huge topic. After the initial shock of realizing that your life will never be the same, stress came in and took over your brain. Actually this is what your brain does – it is always on alert for any threat to your survival. Acute stress with the adrenalin rush comes first. This got you through your first days of figuring out how to survive this coronavirus. But chances are, your brain didn’t stop the acute stress phase and the chronic stress phase made its presence known. Now cortisol is pumping throughout your brain and body and it likes to destroy any thing in its way. Cortisol destroys brain cells, causes cardio-vascular problems, can cause cancer and lowers your immune response. Great – this is the time you need your immune system to be in tip-top shape and cortisol is bringing it down. Stress is not your friend!

We are challenged in ways we have never experienced before. Here is a Cognitive Fitness Strategy that can serve as a template to help you put some semblance of structure back in your life. Take it and modify it as you need to. Stay calm, stay healthy, stay brain fit.

The Cognitive Fitness strategy: An Action Plan for Brain Health

based on the Dana Alliance/Conference Board’s publication ‘Your Brain at Work’.

Write it down: Putting your goals in writing makes them more meaningful. Adding why you want to achieve each goal is a real motivator.

Take baby steps: You’ll feel overwhelmed if you try to address every aspect of brain health at once. Set priorities.

Give yourself a timeframe: And remember: that implies giving yourself enough time to work and master your goals.

Be realistic: People who try to do too much too soon get discouraged and give up altogether.

Social Interaction:

Who did I see today, and for what purposes?

What did I do to reconnect with someone I care about today?

Physical Activity:

How many minutes did I walk today?

How did I work exercise into my day?

Cognitive Stimulation:

What did I learn today?

What routine task did I approach differently?

Did I challenge my mind?

Did I do anything just for fun?

Stress Management:

How was my stress level today?

What caused me the greatest stress today? What triggered it?

How did I cope? How did I relax?

Sleep:

How well did I sleep last night? How long? Did I awaken during the night?

Did I feel drowsy during the day?

Did I nap?

(Your Brain at Work, the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives and the Conference Board)

We have many challenges ahead of us in the next weeks, months and possibly years. It is critical that we bring our best brain forward to meet this challenge.

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