John Randolph Ph.D., ABPP

The Healthy, Engaged Brain

7 Ways to Promote Brain Health During a Pandemic

Tips for maximizing your cognitive functioning and well-being.

Posted May 06, 2020

 iStock
Source: iStock

This is undoubtedly one of the most challenging periods in modern history. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve experienced significant disruption in our daily routines, unanticipated stress related to our home and work lives, and shifts in how we view the world and the future.  

How can we find silver linings in the context of the changes we’re experiencing? What do we have control over? Fortunately, there are a number of things we can do to promote our emotional and brain health at this point. With a little effort, we can even develop brain-healthy habits in the process.

See how you’re doing in the following areas:

Stay physically active. Exercise is one of the best lifestyle activities we can engage in for brain and mood enhancement. Working out may take a different form right now (have you heard about the guy who ran a marathon in his backyard for charity?) but it remains as important as ever. Many virtual exercise classes (such as cardio workouts, yoga, and weight lifting) are available for free, and you may have access to some exercise equipment at home.

The bottom line is that when you ramp up your heart rate, you’re doing good things for your brain. Physical activity can improve our processing speed, memory, and executive functioning skills, and can help us grow new brain cells too. We can also ward off stress more effectively if we’re physically fit. Consider the opportunities that are currently available to you to maintain your fitness level and improve brain health at the same time.

Maintain a structured schedule. Simply put, creating a schedule adds purpose and focus to your day. Those of us who are working from home or are unemployed may feel out of sorts without a typical routine. Using an electronic calendar such as the one on a cell phone is an easy place to start; some people prefer going old school with a day planner or simply creating a new list in the morning to plan the upcoming day.

Considering the current circumstances, your schedule may contain things that weren’t there in the past—time to read the paper in the morning, exercise time, hobby time, and so on. Using a schedule will provide some predictability for your day, not to mention nurture a sense of accomplishment when you’re able to cross a few things off your to-do list. 

Stay mentally engaged. As I wrote in my last piece, mental activity is a great way to improve quality of life, reduce stress, and keep our minds sharp. With more free time due to stay-at-home orders or self-quarantining, this might be a good chance to re-up hobbies that have been languishing on the back burner.

Reading is always an option; how about starting or resuming the book you’ve been meaning to get to? Or perhaps re-engaging with the musical instrument that’s collecting dust in the attic? Other options might include doing a virtual museum tour (there are many of these, including at the Smithsonian, Guggenheim, and Van Gogh museums), starting a home improvement project, doing crossword or jigsaw puzzles, or sketching/painting. These sorts of mentally stimulating hobbies can help distract us from the challenges we’re all facing, and promote positive feelings related to engaging in something personally meaningful.

Maintain physical, not necessarily social, distancing. We are all being encouraged to engage in social distancing. However, this mandate is really for physical distancing, not for social isolation per se. While we miss the physical proximity with our friends, colleagues, and family members, we can still find many ways to connect with those we care about.

The three pillars of social connectedness related to brain health—social activity, social networks, and social support—remain critically important. Continuing to stay in touch through phone calls, videoconferencing, email, and social media can help maintain connections with others and promote brain functioning too. And providing direct or indirect social support to others—such as donating to a fund for first responders or sewing face masks for elderly neighbors—can help those in need and foster a sense of purpose in an uncertain time.

Mobilize your stress management strategies. Do you feel varying levels of stress simmering in the background of your consciousness? Most people are probably in the same place right now. It’s a good time to reflect on what has worked for you in the past to reduce stress and tension, and potentially consider new strategies, too.

Stress-busting options that may be worth exploring include mindfulness meditation, tai chi, breathing techniques, or exercise. Spiritual practices can also be useful for boosting positive emotion and facilitating brain health. This is a perfect time to engage in activities that bring you joy, which in turn reduces your overall stress burden. Of course, please also note that there are many psychologists and other therapists who are working virtually to minimize health risks while remaining available for mental health needs.

Eat as well as possible. Beyond nourishing our bodies with proper nutrients, a balanced diet keeps the brain firing on all cylinders. Foods that are part of a Mediterranean-style diet, such as fruits and vegetables, fish, beans, nuts, and olive oil, keep us healthy and boost cognitive functioning at the same time. In contrast, a Western-style diet with processed food, sugary drinks, and lots of saturated fat is problematic for both the body and the brain.

Since poor dietary standards also make it harder for the immune system to effectively do its job, try to prioritize healthy foods throughout the day (such as reaching for carrots instead of cookies when looking for that mid-afternoon snack).

Sleep in the Goldilocks zone. Sleep is something that’s easy to neglect in our busy lives. Now that many of our schedules have changed, often dramatically, sleep might be easier to come by. That said, keep an eye on your sleep duration; while too little sleep is an obvious risk with a busy schedule, too much sleep can be problematic too, both for our emotional state and our cognitive skills. Try to schedule consistent sleep and wake times so that things don’t get too out of whack. This will also make it easier to get back to a typical sleep/wake interval when resuming the schedule you had before the pandemic began.

Even making progress in a few of these areas can be helpful for your brain health and overall wellbeing. And don’t forget to keep an eye on the future—like other pandemics, this one will eventually end. I hope you are able to stay healthy and safe in the weeks and months ahead.

References

Carlson, M.C. et al. (2012). Lifestyle activities and memory: Variety may be the spice of life. The Women’s Health and Aging Study II. Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society, 18, 286-294.

Eisenberger, N.I. (2013). An empirical review of the neural underpinnings of receiving and giving social support: Implications for health. Psychosomatic Medicine, 75, 545-556.

Ferrie, J.E. et al. (2011). Change in sleep duration and cognitive function: Findings from the Whitehall II Study. Sleep, 34(5), 565-573.

Fox, K.C.R. et al. (2014). Is meditation associated with altered brain structure? A systematic review and meta-analysis of morphometric neuroimaging in meditation practitioners. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, 43, 48-73.

Hill, T.D. et al. (2006). Religious attendance and cognitive functioning among older Mexican Americans. Journals of Gerontology, Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences, 61(1), P3-P9.

Jonasson, L.S. et al. (2017). Aerobic exercise intervention, cognitive performance, and brain structure: Results from the Physical Influences on Brain in Aging (PHIBRA) study. Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, 8, 336.

Staubo, S.C. et al. (2017). Mediterranean diet, micronutrients and macronutrients, and MRI measures of cortical thickness. Alzheimer’s & Dementia, 13, 168-177.