There is no doubt that 2020 was difficult for everyone and tragic for many, but the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines in some countries gives us much-needed hope for a return to normalcy and a happy 2021. However, spending months filled with anxiety, sadness and loneliness can easily create a spiral of negativity from which it is difficult to escape.
This is because chronic stress changes the brain. And sometimes when we are depressed, we lose interest in doing things that might make us feel better. To fully enjoy our lives in 2021, we must break all destructive habits and regain energy. In some cases, this may initially mean forcing yourself to do things that will gradually make you feel better. But if you experience more severe symptoms, you should speak to a professional about therapy or medication.
Here we offer you six ways that, according to science, will generate a positive change in your brain:
1. Be friendly and helpful: Kindness, altruism, and empathy can impact the brain. According to one study, making a charitable donation activates the brain’s reward system in a similar way to receiving money. This also happens when helping others who have been treated unfairly.
Volunteering can also give meaning to life, promoting happiness, health and well-being. Older adults who volunteer regularly also show greater satisfaction with their lives, and less depression and anxiety. To sum it up: making others happy is a great way to make yourself happy.
2. Exercise: Exercise is linked to better physical and mental health, including cardiovascular health, and reduces depression. During childhood, exercise is associated with better school performance, and in young adults it promotes cognition and helps to perform better at work. In older adults, exercise maintains cognitive performance and provides resistance against neurodegenerative disorders, such as dementia.
Studies have shown that more physically fit people have greater brain volume, which is associated with better cognitive performance in older adults. People who exercise also live longer. One of the best things you can do to “reboot” your brain is to get out and get some fresh air during a walk, while running or during a vigorous session of cycling. However, be sure to choose an activity that you really enjoy so that you will continue to do it.
3. Eat well: Nutrition can substantially influence the development and health of the structure and function of the brain. It provides the proper foundation for the organ to create and maintain connections, which is essential for improving cognition and academic performance. It has previously been shown that a lack of nutrients can lead, in the long term, to structural and functional damage to the brain, while a good diet is associated with increased brain volume.
A study carried out by the UK-Biobank in which 20,000 people participated ensures that a higher intake of cereals is linked in the long term with the beneficial effects of having a greater volume of gray matter (a key component of the central nervous system), which is related with better cognition.
However, diets rich in sugars, saturated fat or calories can damage the functioning of neurons. In addition, they can reduce the brain’s ability to make new neural connections, which negatively affects cognition. Therefore, whatever your age, remember to maintain a balanced diet, which includes fruits, vegetables and cereals.
4. Stay socially connected: Both loneliness and social isolation exist across all ages, genders, and cultures and have increased further with the COVID-19 Pandemic. There is strong scientific evidence that social isolation is detrimental to physical, cognitive and mental health.
A recent study highlighted the negative effects on emotional cognition of isolation caused by the Pandemic; the damage was less in those who remained in contact with others during confinement. Developing social interactions and reducing feelings of loneliness is also associated with a lower risk of mortality and a variety of diseases.
Loneliness and social isolation are increasingly recognized as critical public health problems that require effective interventions. And social interaction is associated with positive perceptions and increased activation of the brain’s reward system. In 2021, be sure to keep up with family and friends, but also broaden your horizons and try to make new connections.
5. Learn something new: The brain changes during critical periods of development, but it is also a life-long process. New experiences, such as learning new skills, can modify brain function and the underlying brain structure. For example, juggling has been shown to increase white matter (tissue made up of nerve fibers) structures in the brain associated with visual-motor performance.
In the same way, musicians have been shown to record an increase in gray matter in the parts of the brain that process auditory information. Learning a new language can also change the structure of the human brain.
An extensive literature review suggested that mind-stimulating leisure activities (be it chess or other cognitive games) increase brain reserve, which can instill resilience and protect older adults from cognitive decline.
6. Sleep well: Sleep is an essential component of human life, yet many people do not understand the relationship between good brain health and good sleep. As you sleep, the brain reorganizes, recharges, and removes toxic waste by-products, helping to maintain normal brain function. Sleep is very important for transforming experiences in our long-term memory, maintaining cognitive and emotional function, and reducing mental fatigue.
According to several studies, sleep deprivation causes deficits in memory and attention, as well as changes in the reward system, which often disrupt emotional functioning. Sleep also exerts a strong regulatory influence on the immune system. If you get the optimal quantity and quality of sleep, you will find that you will have more energy, better well-being and will be able to develop your creativity and thinking.