New year, same pandemic restrictions. While 2021 is trying to be somewhat better than 2020 (A vaccine! A new president!), life hasn’t really changed all that much yet for most folks due to the pandemic—and it can take a real toll on our physical, mental, and cognitive health.
As a brain expert, neurologist Faye Begeti, MD, Ph.D., has the (literal) inside knowledge of just how life in quarantine can affect cognitive health. To help people cope, she’s been sharing tips for looking after your brain health during COVID-19 on her Instagram. “You can do as many as you like but it’s important to note that, even if you are not managing to do any of these, that is perfectly okay,” Dr. Begeti shares along with her tips. “It is important that you are kind to yourself during this difficult time.”
If you do want to add some brain-healthy habits to your quarantine routine, check out Dr. Begeti’s list below, along with details about how exactly they bolster cognitive function.
How to look after your brain health during COVID-19, straight from a neurologist
1. Get up and go to sleep at the same time each day
“Inside a tiny part in the center of the brain, about the size of a grain of rice, there is a group of cells called the suprachiasmatic nucleus. They form our master internal body clock,” Dr. Begeti says. The suprachiasmatic nucleus releases chemical messengers to make us alert or sleepy depending on the time of day, she explains. She says it’s important to sync with your internal clock by being consistent about your wake and sleep times, even on weekends or if you’re not commuting. If you work against it, you could feel your energy dragging when you’re still trying to get through the workday—because you’re fighting your body’s natural cues and rhythms.
2. Stick to a routine
Just like how your brain makes associations to things like putting on real clothes, Dr. Begeti says it’s human nature to crave routine, too. “If [a] routine is disrupted, then we have to think a lot more about what to do next which puts pressure on the decision part of the brain, the frontal lobe, which has limited energy and can get fatigued.” Simply put, sticking to a routine requires less mental energy than switching things up. (Here’s some advice on how to create a helpful routine during the pandemic.)
For starters, Dr. Begeti says to treat your morning similarly to how you did pre-pandemic. “Our brain forms associations and connections. We associate our pajamas with lounging around, so spending the whole day in them can make us feel sluggish,” she says. “Getting ready for work in the same way you normally would is a good warm-up for your brain to start the day.”
3. Get a little sunlight early in the morning
Remember how Dr. Begeti said the body has an internal clock that releases energy-giving messages? Exposure to natural light helps keep that internal clock ticking properly by syncing the clock’s functions with the time of day. “Not getting enough natural light may mean that we feel sluggish during the day and alert at night, especially if there is also excess light from screens,” she says. Consider this your cue to go on a masked outdoor walk or jog in the morning for some sun first thing in the a.m. And on cloudy days (or for an extra boost in the winter), consider investing in a light therapy lamp to supplement your dose of sunshine.
4. Limit the number of times you check the news a day
Constant CNN alerts can be a huge driver of mental fatigue, especially in a year as exhausting as what we lived through.Yes, it’s important to know what’s happening in the world, but Dr. Begeti says news overload isn’t good for cognitive health. She recommends setting a set number of times you’ll check the news each day—and sticking to it. Can’t tear yourself away? Apps like Freedom can help you stick to those goals by locking you out of specific apps, websites, or programs for specific hours of the day.
5. Take up a hobby where you can see your progress
“Whether it’s watching a plant grow or partaking in a craft project, do something that grounds you personally and will help you make sense of what essentially feels like a lost period of time,” Dr. Begeti says. You know that everyday-is-the-same feeling? This will help.
6. Plan three things to look forward to every day
Before you start tackling all the demands of the day, Dr. Begeti suggests taking a minute and jotting down three things you look forward to happening over the course of the day. “Dopamine, the key chemical in our brain that signifies reward, is released when we enjoy our favorite things, like a latte or our favorite TV show. However, the same or more dopamine is released in anticipation of such events,” she says. “This is why looking forward to an upcoming event may be just as pleasurable for our brains as the actual event itself.”
7. Think something nice about yourself while you’re getting ready
“Targeting negative thoughts by trying to stop them usually doesn’t work,” Dr. Begeti says. “Try instead to think a positive thought about yourself every time you look in the mirror. It will feel forced at first but, over time, it will become automatic and will have a positive impact.” This daily habit will not only make you feel more confident in the moment but help build long-lasting confidence and positivity as well.
8. Do some easy stretches and exercises
Doing squats while blow-drying your hair, lunges while you wait for your coffee to brew, stretching while on a work call…Dr. Begeti says all these things help not just your body, but also your brain. “In the short-term, physical activity releases endorphins which can make us feel more alert, boost our mood and facilitate learning and memory. In the long-term, it releases chemicals such as brain-derived neurotrophic factor which nurtures our brain cells and protects them from damage and the effects of aging and disease,” she says. Some days, you just don’t have the time or energy to go for a run or move through a yoga flow. That’s okay: working small movements into your day in these ways helps too.
Get started with this 20-minute stretching routine that’ll make your whole body loose and limber:
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