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Healthy Mind Platter and COVID-19

We can foster a healthy mind through some essential ingredients.

Key points

  • Our ability to pay attention, plan, and regulate can be improved by simply taking a few minutes each day to check in with ourselves.
  • Simply having fun by hanging out or being silly creates new connections within our brain and fosters creativity.
  • Building routines into our lives, particularly during the pandemic when it's easy to let them slide, contributes to physical and mental health.

With the current state of the world being thrown for a loop, uncertainty, stress, and anxiety have become prevalent. While we are likely familiar with the daily food groups to optimize our physical health, our mental health is just as important. Colleagues David Rock and Daniel Siegel developed The Healthy Mind Platter as a way to identify what is the recommended daily diet for a healthy mind. This platter may be a helpful reminder during these unprecedented times. According to this Healthy Mind Platter, there are seven essential daily activities that help optimize our mental health.

1. Sleep time

As a society, we are sleep-deprived, yet sleep is integral for both physical energy and mood. Researchers have found that reduced sleep increases the risk of depression, as well as diabetes and other health problems. One important thing to be aware of that may impact our natural secretion of melatonin (a hormone that is integral in a circadian rhythm) is exposure to blue lights at night from our electronic devices. This means that many of us may be awake long after the time we would naturally be falling asleep.

Some things that may be helpful in developing better sleep habits include:

  • Turning off electronic devices at least an hour before bed. Remember, electronic screens (i.e., smartphones, computers, television) disrupt our natural melatonin levels and make our brain think it should be wide awake.
  • Dim the lights about 30 minutes before bed to help our body and mind begin to relax.
  • Keep the bed for restful activities, not work.
  • Avoid drinking coffee, caffeinated tea, or eating chocolate, all of which contain caffeine and can keep some people up at night.
  • Engage in a relaxing activity before bed, such as taking a warm bath or drinking a glass of milk.
  • Journaling can be a helpful way to process the day. Writing in a journal can help some people let go of some of the day’s stressors. Fun fact: Journal writing can improve the immune system and helps resolve challenging issues in one’s life.

2. Physical time

Similar to sleep, moving our bodies helps our cardiovascular health and optimizes our brain functioning and mental health. Research has consistently shown that exercise enhances our mood. You may wish to consult with your doctor on the intensity of the physical activity, but simply going for a walk can make an impact.

Some tips for increasing physical activity in your life:

  • Find small opportunities to increase walking. If you are parking to go to a grocery store, for example, you may try parking farther away. If you live in a building, opt for taking the stairs.
  • Take regular breaks from sitting. This is a big one, particularly during the pandemic when many of us are sitting online for much of our days. Take brief movement breaks, even if it’s just a small stretch.
  • Commit to an exercise class, even if it is online—you may be more motivated to engage in movement from building this regularly scheduled class into your routine.
  • Enjoy the outdoors! Try out an outdoor activity that you may have been putting off, or visit a national park and spend time hiking or boating.
  • Remember, house chores (e.g., vacuuming, mowing the lawn) are full of movement and count.

3. Focus time

Would it surprise you to know that your brain is built to focus on one thing at a time? Focusing on a task without frequent distractions helps our brains grow. Essentially, we want to focus on one task at a time, an important action that strengthens the connections among our neurons and, as such, optimizes neuroplastic changes that are the basis for our learning.

Some tips for increasing focus time:

  • Make a priority list and stick to it. Allow yourself to let go of the many tasks in your mind and just do one thing at a time based on your priority.
  • Set goals and break tasks down into manageable parts.
  • Minimize distractions and have a clean, well-organized working area.
  • Take short breaks if needed and then return to work. This action enhances our attention and focus.

4. Time-in

Taking a time-in means tuning in to how we are feeling in our minds and in our bodies, what we are thinking, what are our intentions, attitudes, hopes, dreams, and goals. By taking the time to check in with ourselves, we are not only improving our own understanding of ourselves, but we are also stimulating the growth of many fibers in the brain that help develop our executive functioning skills, such as attention, emotion regulation, and thinking.

Some tips for time-in practice:

  • Pause and take a few deep breaths, then check in with yourself—what are you thinking? What are you feeling? What body sensations do you notice?
  • Grounding techniques can be helpful, such as the 5-4-3-2-1: five things you can see, four things you can hear, three things you can touch, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste.
  • You can practice mindfulness techniques (e.g., breathing, body scan, self-compassion) to help with time-in. You can use various apps to guide you, including HeadSpace and Calm.

5. Downtime

Downtime is something that may be easy to forget in our busy world. Yet, by allowing our mind to intentionally take a break—literally not planning or doing anything—we are allowing our brain to recharge. Simply let your mind wander while listening to music or resting outside in your backyard, for example.

6. Playtime

What do you think of when you hear the word “play?” You may automatically associate play with childhood and playgrounds, yet activities that bring us joy, engagement, laughter, and fun are crucial for a healthy life, no matter the age. Simply having fun by hanging out creates new connections within our brain, where the brain becomes active in new and unpredictable ways. By engaging in fun activities, we are also developing our creative thinking and the ability to “think outside the box.”

As adults, we are often resistant to this idea of just spending our time goofing around. It may be helpful to shift our perspective and allow ourselves to be OK with and make time for playtime, knowing that this time is healthy and contributes to optimal brain functioning.

One tip: You may want to schedule in playtime, since waiting until you have “free time” to do this may turn out to be never.

7. Connecting time

It may not be surprising to know that social connections contribute to a more meaningful, healthy, and happy life. While COVID-19 has impacted the way that we connect with others, it is important to continue to make connections with others around us, whether it is virtually or in person. When it is safe to do so, face-to-face connections with others are best, as they allow us to observe non-verbal behaviors (e.g., posture, gestures) that we may otherwise miss when we are texting.

Connection time also includes connecting with nature. Nature can have a powerful impact on our mood and energy levels. Simply connecting with our planet by taking a walk or finding ways to take care of our environment can help us feel like we belong to a larger whole and, thus, are more connected to the world around us.

Some tips to help us stay connected (particularly during this pandemic):

  • Stay connected virtually by either chatting or engaging in games online with friends. You can find apps to play different board games and word games online with others.
  • You can organize online events with others, such as virtual paint nights. You can simply have a meal or a coffee together (virtually), which also provides a sense of connection.
  • When it is safe to do so, take a (physically distanced) walk together.
  • Engage in a random act of kindness. For instance, you can bring your neighbor some groceries or flowers.
  • You can write a letter to let people know that you’re thinking about them. I hope I am not the only one who enjoys getting letters in the mail (bills aside).
  • You can join an online class or a support group. Some people enjoy reading clubs, for example, as a way to connect with others.

While ideally, we want to see ourselves checking off each of these components on The Healthy Mind Platter, it is important to acknowledge that some days we will have more or less of each component, and that is OK. At the end of the day, what will help us build resilience is being mindful of the essential ingredients that foster a healthy mind, which in turn breeds a healthy body and a healthy lifestyle. So let’s start by taking ourselves a little less seriously, laughing, playing, connecting, sleeping, moving, and being. As poet Rumi has said, "Do you pay regular visits to yourself? Start now."

References

Rock, D., Siegel, D.J., Poelmans, S.A.Y., & Payne, J. (2012). The Healthy Mind Platter. NeuroLeadership Journal, 4, 1-23.

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