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  • Writer's pictureAli Brown

Continuing the Year of the Brain

Renewal and Reinvention in the Season of Reawakening



Having grown up in an area of the country where winter lasted seven to eight months out of the year, and the first sign of awakening didn’t come until well into April if not May, I recognize this post may feel a bit premature to some of you. But from my seat in the center of the country, the sound of birds and the faint smell of budding trees and grass is starting to seep through that crisp scent of winter. So, as promised in January, I want to continue our journey into the year of the brain, but this time with that springtime sense of renewal, rebirth and reawakening to carry us through.


As someone who has invested a considerable amount of time and energy into building a life, a family, and a career, I have a deep appreciation for the feeling of being so invested in a path, or having a habit so deeply engrained, that it feels almost impossible to change. Many of us spend so much time with our heads down, putting in the work to get to that next phase of life, only to look up in the end and realize we may have been aiming in a direction that wasn’t the exact fit we were looking for. It can be natural to consider changing directions only to decide that we can’t stomach letting go of the time and energy we’ve invested in becoming the person we are here today. And so, I come back to the changing seasons. I come back to the way nature washes away its investment each year with the cold air of autumn and then the frost and snow of winter, all so that a beautiful rebirth can happen each spring. I come back to the way, though the leaves fall, and the buds die, the trunks and the branches of the trees remain through the ever changing seasons. And I come back to how, through pruning the things that weigh us down, we too can make space and energy to make change and renewal in our lives for a new and refreshing season. Change is not only possible, it’s the natural course of things. We need only to allow ourselves to embrace it, and maybe even direct it a bit to end up closer each year to the place where we feel most renewed, grounded, and healthy.


In January we took a different view of new year’s resolutions with the first three of six major brain health principles. This month, I want to complete the list with the remaining three brain health practices and principles so that as you enter your season of reinvention, you’re empowered to choose a path full of health for your brain, body, and soul. Let’s use this month to prune the things that have weighed us down and invest in the beauty of reinvention and renewal.


Stimulate


When I tell you that stimulating your brain through cognitive leisure activities has immense power to promote brain health and protect against degenerative changes, many of you will immediately think of a crossword puzzle. Now I happen to enjoy crossword puzzles, a ritual part of Sunday breakfasts out with my family as a kid, but I realize that they may not be everyone’s vessel full of steeped beverage (cup of tea…see what I did there?). But in all seriousness, the term ‘cognitive leisure activities’ can represent activities that are just as varied as the dreaded term ‘exercise’ hopefully now represents everything from walking the dog to swimming laps to chasing kids on the playground or dancing in the kitchen. It’s not the actual activity but what it does to us and for how long that matters. Cognitive leisure activities, which are more clearly defined as activities you engage in for enjoyment of well-being and that require active information processing. In other words, these are activities that give you pleasure and make your brain work in a directed way. This could be anything from reading to doing jigsaw puzzles, playing games, or playing an instrument, building a spice rack, learning a language or navigating a new baking recipe, enjoying a museum or even painting your own piece of art. Whatever it is, it increases your sense of enjoyment, and requires you to flex your mind muscles. Now you may be asking what playing monopoly or cooking my way through Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking could possible be doing for your brain health, so let me explain. Our brains are incredibly plastic and malleable. That is to say, they are constantly adapting based on the experiences we put them through. In the same way that we can encourage our bodies to become more fit and efficient through targeted use of physical activities that challenge our cardiovascular and musculoskeletal systems, we can push our brains to become more efficient and effective in their cognitive abilities through use of those muscles just a hair beyond our resting capacity. When you go for a brisk walk, you push your lungs to work just a little harder than they do at rest, this encourages your lungs to adapt and operate more efficiently. Similarly, when you engage in an activity that pushes your cognitive activity level up to a level just above where you sit at rest (maybe by reading a new novel or by strategizing your epic win in that 4-hour game of monopoly), you encourage your brain to adapt and become more efficient developing what’s called cognitive reserve. This efficiency is incredibly protective against the degenerative changes seen not only with normal aging but with the development of Alzheimer’s disease. And the great news is that, similarly to how even small bursts of physical exercise can make you more physically fit, just 15 minutes of an activity is enough to make it an activity that contributes to building cognitive efficiency. As for frequency, studies show us that engaging in 11 sessions of cognitive leisure activities per week reduced risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease by 63% compared to engaging in less than 7. So play a few games of Solitaire, read for 15 minutes before bed each night and try a new recipe each weekend and you will be well on your way to improving your brain’s efficiency and protecting your mind as you age.


Engage and Connect


Now I should have prefaced these three principles with the disclaimer that they are heavily interwoven. I just told you that the goal was to get 11 fifteen-minute activities per week that promote enjoyment or well-being and that require active processing of information. The great news here is that this next section can also be included in that tally. Another approach to keeping our brains engaged and stimulated are social and artistic activities. Connecting to supportive others in our lives has been shown to have a multitude of different health benefits including lower blood pressure, higher levels of protective neurohormones like oxytocin and lower rates of depression and anxiety. But if you need another great reason to engage with those in your life who fill your cup, social engagement is another great cognitive leisure activity that enhances your brain’s efficiency and protects it from natural and disease related decline. And, in case you were worrying over your intense introversion or your ‘lone wolf’ personality, this principle, too, can look any way that fits your life. One on one connection with a friend, listening to radio or podcasts, writing letters or blogs, even attending religious services or social clubs are all activities that contribute to your brain health in this way. Again, your goal is to sustain the activity for at least 15 minutes at a time, but otherwise, this too can be any activity that you find personally enjoyable and stimulating. No need to change your personality or force yourself to step outside of your own skin to participate in an activity that just feels forced. The enjoyment of whatever activity you choose is part of the point! So bring a close friend along for your walk or take up pickle ball as a pair, find a pen pal or make a weekly coffee date. Whatever brings your life the feeling of springtime sunshine, we are investing in our season of health and renewal.


Lighten


Our body’s stress response is a powerful tool of survival. Unfortunately, our society and lifestyle has evolved in a way that doesn’t always make our body’s natural stress response a helpful tool for our health and well-being. While we evolved to combat immediate, life-threatening adversaries through a complex and whole-body response we have nicknamed the fight or flight response, most of our lives now are more likely to be impacted by chronic social stress than by a true short term imminent threat to our survival. As a result, our bodies, and our brains are paying a high price for remaining in a constant state of overdrive, preparing to fight or flee from an enemy that never fully materializes in the way a predator might have in the prehistoric days. Often the stressors we now face can develop into chronic mood disorders or even physical illnesses. This is why, one of the core principles of brain health is to lighten your stress load through a series of routines and habits that support your ability to cope with and release the stressors that can become chronic and pervasive. Easier said than done, I know, but the great news here is that many of the things we have discussed in these two brain health posts are the exact habits and routines that can help you manage your stress. Physical activity, social engagement, healthy diet and sleep habits and recharging leisure activities are all enormously helpful in contributing to the lowering of the chronic stress demand weighing on our brains and bodies. All of the habits and routines you’ve already planned on building as you’ve read through this post, contribute to this final principle as well. If there is one more practice that can be added in this realm, it’s engaging in these activities with mindfulness. Mindfulness is a term that has gotten a lot of publicity but may not have a ton of clarity so let me try to explain it here. In order to be mindful, all we have to do is try to be present in the moment, without judgement. That is to say, be an observer of the activity you are currently engaged in. Notice the sights and sounds and smells, notice how it makes you feel. Let go of the list in your head of things you need to do later that day or the conversation you are replaying from last week’s staff meeting, so that you can be present in the moment you are currently living in. And, furthermore, let go of the assessment in your mind of how you are doing at that activity. Let go of the ‘should be’s’ and the ‘could be’s’ in favor of just observing what is. Now this is a principle that falls into the simple, not necessarily easy realm, but with some practice and support or mentorship from someone who is well versed in skills and strategies to grow the skillset, it is entirely attainable. After all, don’t we all deserve to stop and smell the roses we’ve grown with all of these new habits and routines? Let’s not just plant the spring season, lets actually enjoy it.


As the seasons begin to change outside your window, I hope that some of these thoughts and ideas are with you and encourage you to invest in your own season of reinvention and renewal. Whether it’s one habit, one principle or one list of goals, I hope that you can find the time, energy and belief in your own potential for reinvention and change to enjoy the beauty of this new season. As always, if you need or want support in your journey, reach out to Tailored Brain Health by emailing info@tailoredbrainhealth.com or call 336-542-1800. We would love to be a part of your Spring this year.


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