By this time of year, we have been peppered with strategies to avoid weight gain and been told that egg nog is the worst thing we can do for our abdomen and arteries. We have been offered techniques to structure our day to maintain a workout schedule while we attend nightly cocktail parties, and how to plan a healthy "cheat" that will not throw us too far off the six pack path. These articles have their utility, but often ignore the most important part of the body: your brain. How can we care for our brain during this time of year? Here are some strategies that you can begin during the holidays, and hopefully weave into your New Year's Resolutions for 2017.
1. Focus on your mood. Take time this holiday season to check in with how you have been feeling over the past year. If you realize that you have been frequently sad, have a tough time enjoying what you used to find pleasurable, and/or are having problems with appetite, sleep, or concentration, you might be suffering from depression or some other mood disorder. Left untreated, depression can not only erode quality of life, it also might be a risk factor for dementia. We do not entirely understand the physiology linking depression and brain health. It could be that the chemicals released in depressed brains have a deleterious effect on the cells making up the brain. Another possibility is that when we are feeling low, we are less motivated to engage in healthy behaviors. Regardless of the cause, the holidays are a great time of year to take stock in your overall mental health and seek out the care of a professional if you find your mood has been leaning low.
2. Take 5 and Meditate. If you are wondering how to stay sane and grounded through the holiday season, meditation might be an inexpensive and accessible answer. There have been countless studies that document the positive effects on mood, physical and mental health, and neurological health. One study found that after 8 weeks of meditation, certain brain areas had grown in thickness. Another study found that regular meditators in their fifties had the same size prefrontal cortex as those in their twenties. Meditation sounds a lot more intimidating than it is.
One of the most common forms of meditation, mindful meditation, asks the practitioner to set aside a certain amount of time each day and anchor his or her attention in the present. Many achieve this by focusing on the breath, and when the mind gets distracted with thoughts, fantasies, plans, or feelings, simply bringing focus back to the breath. When practiced regularly, this easy habit can help you feel more resilient in both your personal and professional life. Many successful entrepreneurs have touted meditation as helping them grow self-awareness and reach their professional ambitions.
3. Turn up the music. It is good for you. Science has shown that when we listen to music, multiple parts of our brain become active in a manner that is atypical from everyday behavior. It is believed that our brains process music into different parts and then reassemble them into an integrated experience. This is like exercise for our brain, which needs to be stimulated and used in novel ways to maintain healthy neuronal pathways. If you really want to give your brain a good workout, try to pick up a musical instrument. Playing music activates motor areas of the brain, along with creativity and emotional centers. It has been shown to increase the width of the corpus callosum, the area that separates the two hemispheres of the brain. This is salient because the size of the corpus callosum is associated with neurological health and intelligence.
4. Relationships. They are what it's all about. Interpersonal relationships are as important to human survival as food and shelter. Ancient and modern day philosophers have agreed that relationships make people happier and feel more vital. One study found that if you have a friend that you see on most days, it's comparable to earning $100,000 more each year. Seeing your neighbors on a regular basis gets you $60,000 a year more. Having and maintaining healthy relationships helps mitigate personal difficulties, and helps us to gain perspective when problem solving. The holidays are a great time to see people that you care about and strengthen connections with others. Take some time this season to reach out-the dividends will reinforce themselves throughout the year.