Did you know that stress can have physical effects on the brain, impairing our abilities to learn and remember? (When stress hormones flood the brain over a prolonged time, parts of the brain like the hippocampus can actually shrink.) We all have stressors, but it’s how you handle stress that’s key to a sound mind.
Don’t view stress as a problem, but as a challenge. A skier on a mountaintop may interpret her pounding heart, fast breathing, and sweaty palms as fear or excitement. Every stressful situation creates physiological symptoms — but you can decide how to play it.
Approach relaxation as a task. Like anything else on your to-do list, you have to set aside time for relaxation, or it won’t happen. Commit to a time and place for your “play date” — and then ease up! It’s time to have fun.
One man’s relaxation is another man’s poison. Some people need a walk alone in the park, but that might drive you crazy. You might want to spend a half hour with your kids, or playing fetch with your dog. It’s your time — you decide.
Beware of “stressing” relaxation. That time unwinding while watching TV? It might actually be stressing you out — raising your blood pressure, frazzling your nerves, and making your heart beat faster. Try to find a relaxing activity that physically calms your mind and body.
Mindful moments can save your day. A 10-minute meditation in the morning can reap rewards throughout your day. Studies show that meditation can increase gamma rays in the brain and increase positive emotions, empathy, and the ability to help others.
We all know that we should sleep more, but we don’t always know why. A good night’s sleep helps regenerate neurons within the cerebral cortex and form new memories, and it improves verbal acuity. But how do you ensure a good night’s sleep?
Create a sleep routine. Children wake up and go to bed at a certain hour, and adults should follow a regimen, too. The body will regulate itself even if life goes haywire. Start winding down an hour before bedtime, just like kids do.
Keep a restful sleep environment. Experts warn against working from your bedroom, or even watching TV, or using your computer there. Make your sleep area a haven from the rest of the world, so that when you enter, your mind and body will relax.
Limit toxins. Avoid alcohol, tobacco, and caffeine, especially a few hours before bedtime. Although many think alcohol helps them sleep, it actually just knocks them out, causing them to have a restless time throughout the night.
Eat right for sleep. Eat your largest meal at lunch, with a light meal for dinner. Avoid eating before you go to sleep.
Think right for sleep. Studies show that what you think about before you go to bed can affect your sleep and dream state. If you spend a few minutes thinking about things you are grateful for, you will have better dreams and be happier in the morning.
Everyone knows that exercise is good for your body, but it also keeps your mind in shape, especially cardio. Exercise promotes neuron growth and releases endorphins to boost your mood and improve learning and memory. How can we improve our couch-potato ways?
Start slow. Some people get intimidated even by the thought of exercise. But studies show that taking 20-minute walks three times a week is a great start to physical — and mental — health.
Vary workouts. Variety is the spice of life, and for many, the key to keeping fit, too. Incorporate your favorite sports into your week, such as biking, hiking, swimming, and running. If the weather keeps you indoors, shake it up at the gym with different machines and strength training.
Exercise with friends. There’s nothing that will get you going better than a little companionship — or competition. Set a schedule with a friend to go walking or running together, to play tennis or racquetball, or get a group together for basketball. (Who says all social activities need to revolve around food?)
Take on a goal. These days, almost every cause, from Alzheimer’s to AIDS, has an exercise fundraiser to go with it. So if you want to run a marathon, walk a 5k or bike across a city, you can support your favorite cause at the same time.
Exercise in moderation. Don’t be so gung-ho about exercise that you overdo it and will then have to stop due to injury or fatigue. Make exercise a part of your life — just a part, not the whole thing—and your good habits will become second nature.
4. EAT WELL
Good nutrition is good for the brain. New studies have shown that the Mediterranean diet — lots of fresh vegetables, healthy oils, fish, nuts, fruits, and whole grains—can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke and prevent dementia.
Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. Author Michael Pollan summed it up succinctly in Food Rules. Eating well can be simple, as long as you eat natural and unprocessed foods, make sure to eat lots of grains, and keep your portions modest.
Breakfast is brainpower. To function optimally, our brains need a steady supply of glucose and neurotransmitters. During our six to eight hours of sleep, that supply is cut off. When you eat a healthy morning meal, you get your brain working quickly for the rest of the day.
Beware of sugar! A low-fat diet is great—but not when sugar and calories are added to make up for it. Sugar can cause an increase in delta, alpha, and theta brain waves, which can alter your ability to think clearly.
Be French or Italian. Many studies show it’s not exactly what other nationalities eat, but how they eat. Both the French and the Italians take long meals in the company of friends, with little snacking in between.
Indulge yourself. Although a severely restricted calorie diet can create a longer life, sometimes we all deserve a break. Have a square of chocolate, a glass of wine or a slice of bread and brie — once in a while. Don’t forget, food not only gives sustenance, but pleasure too!