Refreshing Our Brains After a Difficult Year

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Without a doubt, 2020 was a year like no other. People were abruptly thrown into hardships that were difficult to navigate, with some even having to overcome deeply tragic events. It was largely filled with months of unease, grief, and loneliness, leading to some forming patterns of negativity during this time.

Chronic stress affects the brain, and when we are feeling down, we sometimes do not have the motivation to participate in activities that could potentially make us feel better.

*Enter 2021*

To enjoy our lives and prioritise our wellbeing in the new year, we need to rid ourselves of our destructive habits and regain our energy levels back. For some people this may mean having to force yourself to do the things that will gradually improve your mental and emotional wellbeing.

However, please note that if you are experiencing more severe symptoms, you may want to speak to a professional.

In an article from The Conversation, 3 scientists give 6 evidenced-based ways to change our brains for the better in 2021. These methods could provide a basis to help you make the most of your time!

Kindness and helpfulness

Studies have shown that there are many positive impacts of being kind, altruistic and empathetic, on the brain. The study listed in the references below has shown that donating to charities tends to activate the brain’s reward system in a similar way to one receiving money. The same goes for helping those who have been wronged.

Also, volunteering is able to promote a sense of meaning and purpose in life. Many studies show that those who regularly volunteer have a greater life satisfaction and decreased risk and levels of anxiety and depression.

It seems that making others happy is a wonderful way of making yourself happy!

Exercising

There are numerous studies and papers addressing the link between exercise to both better physical and mental health. In childhood, exercise is linked with improved school performance; in adolescents and young adults exercise stimulates better cognition and job performance, and in older adults, exercise preserves cognitive performance and gives protection against neurodegenerative disorders such as dementia. Research has also shown that those with increased fitness levels also have increased brain volume, which is associated with improved cognitive performance. It is also said that those who exercise frequently also live longer!

Going out and getting fresh air on a fast walk, jog or cycle is one of the best things you can do to reboot and refresh your brain – but of course, it is always worth choosing something you genuinely enjoy so you are able to see it through.

Eating well

As with exercising, eating well and healthily significantly influences the health and development of brain structure and function. It supplies the brain and body with the appropriate nutrients, vitamins and building blocks needed to build and retain connections: necessary for increased cognition and academic performance. Noa Weinberg previously authored an article discussing the benefits of broccoli and blueberries on the brain.

These are just 2 examples of the types of foods you can incorporate into your diet to improve brain functioning. On the downside though, research has also shown that lack of nutrients, especially long-term, can cause damage to the brain’s structure, emphasising the need to eat a balanced diet.

And so it seems as if an apple a day has more benefits than simply keeping the doctor away!

Being socially connected

Social isolation and the loneliness that comes with it, in many cases, are not new to the human condition. However, in the era of COVID-19, it has been further exasperated. Research has tried to explain this phenomenon in order to provide insight to grapple with the ‘new normal.’ One of our previous articles by Inés Echeandía throws some light on how people experience social isolation, and how these are represented in our brains.

Other studies have shown the detrimental effects that social isolation can have on our physical, mental, and cognitive health. It is also noted that fostering social connections is linked with a reduced risk of mortality and a range of illnesses.

As we continue in 2021, I encourage you to maintain contact with your friends and family, but also maybe try and form new connections in order to expand your horizons.

Learning something new

New experiences and skills can alter brain function and its underlying structure. Juggling has been shown to increase white matter (tissue composed of nerve fibres) structures in the brain associated with visuo-motor performance. In a similar way, musicians have been shown to have more grey matter in the brain parts that process auditory information. Learning a new language can also lead to brain structure changes, and an article by Dinah Basha describes the protection that bilingualism has against cognitive impairment. Many papers also show that cognitively stimulating leisure activities, such as chess, increase brain-reserve, which are protective against cognitive decline in older adults.

Perhaps try and pick up a new language, a new game, or a new instrument to mark your 2021 journey!

Importance of Sleep

Sleep is a vital aspect of human life, yet many do not truly comprehend its upsides. During sleep, the brain re-energises itself, stores experiences into our long-term memory, maintains cognitive and emotional function, and reduces mental fatigue. Inés Echeandía’s recent article emphatically discusses the argument that lack of sleep is a risk factor for depression in adolescents. Research has also found some associations with sleep deprivation and attention and memory deficits, as well as changes in the reward system; frequently disrupting emotional functioning. Lack of sleep also negatively impacts our immune system; making it important to factor in, when discussing our mental and physical health.

Having the ideal quality and quantity of sleep results in more energy for the day, improved health and wellbeing, and increased creativity and thinking!

After these 6 evidenced-based ways for refreshing and rebooting our brain in 2021 and after the tumultuous year that was 2020, I hope we will be able to dedicate this new year to better ourselves, break out of certain negative habits and probably help others do the same.

If you think the above suggestions are helpful, or have some of your own, please let us know in the comments as we would love to hear from you!

Finally, we at brain-based wish you a very Happy New Year, and we hope 2021 brings you joy and good health!

Original Sources: 

  1. Sahakian B.J, Langley C and Feng J. (2020). “Six ways to ‘reboot your brain’ after a hard year of COVID-19 – according to science.” The Conversation.
    Original Link: https://theconversation.com/six-ways-to-reboot-your-brain-after-a-hard-year-of-covid-19-according-to-science-151332
  2. Moll J, Krueger F, Zahn R, Pardini M, Oliveira-Souza R.D, and Grafman J. (2006). “Human fronto-mesolimbic networks guide decisions about charitable donation.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.0604475103

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