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7 Tips to Keep Your Mental Health in Check During Isolation, According to Brain Experts

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Right now, our lives have been turned upside down and inside out—or at least, that’s what it feels like. While most of us are still allowed to leave our homes for essentials and outdoor exercise, staying indoors away from people most of the time isn't exactly doing wonders for our mental health. “Isolation by its very nature can be harmful to our mental wellbeing," says Sara Davenport, health expert and author of Reboot Your Brain ($18). "We humans are creatures that blossom when in close contact to others. We like to live in groups; we thrive together. The touch of a human hand, and the attention and love of another being is what, for most of us, gives point to life and a reason for existence." She goes on to say that separation and isolation can destroy our spirit and cause us to feel stressed, so it’s unsurprising that the mere thought of a prolonged period of isolation can have a negative impact on our wellbeing.

Many of us are currently feeling more anxious than usual. “Anxiety is characterized by intrusive thoughts and bodily sensations that take up precious mental resources, and divert energy and attention needed elsewhere,” says Davenport. “In addition, a build-up of stress is the last thing your immune system needs, as our immunity is quantifiably affected by conflict or trauma. Grief, loneliness, simmering resentment, boredom, anger, jealousy and hatred will all lower your defense mechanisms, so it’s important to adopt behaviour that will help to counteract that.”

So what can we do to feel “normal” again in an increasingly abnormal world? The team at Peak, the brain-training app, tells Byrdie that though the brain can be the last part of the body we think to exercise, mental wellbeing—feeling good, functioning well, and coping with life circumstances and change—is dependent on flexing those mental muscles.

Below, we're sharing seven brain-boosting tips from the experts to help your mental health and boost your mood while you're in isolation.

1. Practice Gratitude

It may be hard to fathom how you can be grateful for how life is right now, but Dr. Sanam Hafeez, an NYC-based neuropsychologist and member of Byrdie's Beauty & Wellness Review Board, says that the most important concept behind staying mentally strong is understanding that very little about these circumstances are in your control. "Try and spend some time reflecting on the world, your own world, and find three things every day to be grateful for," she says. "Gratitude is a strong emotion, and we can always find something to be grateful for."

Davenport agrees, saying that gratitude journaling is a great way of improving mental health resilience (not to mention, happiness). She recommends spending ten minutes in the evening noting down three things that happened or occurred to you during that day that you feel grateful for. "These can be as big or as small as you like and could relate to something that happened, or simply to a passing thought," she says. "Examples could include laughing with a child, listening to a piece of music you love, feeling the warmth on your back as you do some gardening. Retraining your brain to notice the good things in your day-to-day life, big or small, will help you to become more optimistic, and the journaling itself has well-documented therapeutic benefits."

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2. Give Yourself Things to Do

"Meditation, yoga, prayer, are all ways to decrease stress and start fresh every day, as is a good run or 30 minutes on the elliptical. It releases endorphins and puts you in a more positive frame of mind," says Dr. Hafeez. While we may be busy working from home during the week, the weekends can feel particularly long right now. To remedy this, Dr. Hafeez suggests picking one activity or project for the day and focusing on that. "Organize your jewelry, do some gardening, go through mail or email that's been pending, write to some friends you haven't contacted in a while," she says. "Try to meet that one goal. Then have a larger, looser goal, such as learning to cook, taking an online class to learn a skill like knitting, or creative writing, and try to allocate some time to do that. It can be 30 minutes or one hour—it's all up to you. This way, you are meeting every goal and making an impact on your overall well-being." Duolingo is a fun, free app where you can learn a new language.

On the flipside, don't feel pressured to be productive every second of every day. Now is the time to be kind to yourself, so if seeing everyone's quarantine projects on social media is making you feel anxious, consider taking a break. Sometimes, bingeing your favorite show can be as anxiety-soothing as doing something productive (might we suggest the Great British Bakeoff?).

Click here to read one editor's experience dealing with the social pressures of social distancing.

3. Exercise for Your Brain

We all know exercise is crucial for our bodies, but exercise works in very specific ways to support brain function. Psychologist Natalia Ramsden, founder of SOFOS Associatesa specialist brain optimisation clinic in London explains that numerous studies have found that acute exercise (also known as a single session of exercise) improves defense activity and brain health. "As we exercise, our heart rate increases which, in turn, means increased blood flow to the brain," she explains. "With this increased blood flow comes more oxygen and nutrients than when we are at rest. An increase in blood flow equals more energy and more oxygen, which in turn allow our brains to perform better."

Not only does exercise breathe oxygen into our brains, but it helps to keep our neurons young. "Exercise has been identified as a key way to encourage neuroplasticity—the formation of new neurons and the strengthening and growth of neural pathways in the brain," notes Davenport. "Research published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States showed that cardio and weight training increased the volume of the hippocampus (the area of the brain responsible for the consolidation of short and long-term memory) by two percent and reversed age-related volume shrinkage by one to two years."

So, which exercise is best for the brain? Davenport notes that studies suggest regular cardiovascular exercise has been found to be one of the best ways to encourage neuroplasticity in the brain. "Even 30 minutes a day of moderate exercise has been found to increase the production of new synapses," she says.

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The greatest benefit to the brain, according to experts, comes from HIIT. "After interval training, and especially following a HIIT session, levels of BNDF (brain derived neurotrophic factor) in the brain rise dramatically," says Davenport. "Research published in Cell Metabolism found a substantial mitochondrial boost following a three-month HIIT programme. Mitochondrial capacity was increased by 49 pe cent in younger participants and by 69 percent in older people, while aerobic exercise reversed the ageing of mitochondria." Mitochondria are essentially the battery packs that keep our cells running, so they're seriously important.

You can check out our favorite at-home workout subscriptions here.

4. Sleep for Your Health

We all know how important sleep is for, well, everything from our skin to our muscles. Our brains benefit, too, as does our immune system. "For our brains, sleep is a period of necessary and vital restoration," says Ramsden. "During the night, we transition from one sleep stage to another, allowing our brain to restore its capacity for learning, make room for new memories and prepare for the day ahead. When you don’t get the full amount of restful sleep you need, you make fewer cytokines, a critical protein that targets infection and inflammation and acts as an immune boosting response."

If you're struggling to get a restful night's sleep right now, the National Sleep Foundation says magnesium can help you to fall asleep; the team at Peak note that brocolli and almonds are naturally rich in magnesium, so try factoring them into your last meal of the day. Alternatively it is thought transdermal delivery of magnesium is effective, so you can also consider bath salts or a magnesium-rich body spray.

Click here for 20 ways to fall asleep faster, according to sleep experts.

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5. Play!

"Playing games can be a brilliant distraction from the mundane day-to-day and give you a necessary time out from work," the experts at Peak tell us. "Playing with friends—either in your house or online—can help you feel connected and helps maintain those important relationships, while playing specific brain-training games can help you improve different areas, including problem solving, memory, and mental agility."

A study published in the Frontiers of Behavioural Neuroscience revealed that users who played the Decoder game in the Peak app significantly improved their concentration and attention span. 

If you want to get away from the screen, the team at Peak suggests turning on some feel-good music and letting loose. "Not only can dancing help with your physical wellbeing but it can be emotionally uplifting—the perfect release for your brain after a day of work sitting at a desk," they say. 

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6. Help Out Your Immune System

Did you know you can boost your immune system via your brain? With a global pandemic in motion, we're all for boosting our immunity any way we can. If you struggle with meditation, Ramsden suggests trying an alternative mindfulness activity such as coloring. "It’s relaxing, immune-boosting fun and a great way to pass the time," she notes. "Research shows that mindfulness meditation increases activity in the prefrontal cortex, right anterior insula and the right hippocampus. These areas act as the command centre for the body’s immune system. Mindfulness meditation activities stimulate these areas, which in turn helps the immune system function more effectively."

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7. Know Your Nootropics

Nootropics are "brain pills" that promise to make you smarter (Byrdie covered nootropics in-depth here). “Nootropics are ‘cognitive enhancers’, or substances that are proven to improve a range of mental functions, including memory, intelligence, motivation, attention and concentration, while doing no harm," says Davenport. "Some are single-source supplements, such as omega-3s from fish oil or gingko biloba, but many comprise a combination of ingredients and nutrients."

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"Some nootropic combination supplements have a sound evidence-base behind them, and you’ll save time, hassle and money in the long run by buying them, but it’s worth knowing which individual nutrients have brain-boosting benefits, too," she notes. "That way, you can assess the individual components and work out which nutrients are most likely to be beneficial to you."

Davenport reveals her three favorite brain-boosting single supplements below:

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1. Omega-3 Fatty Acids

"The brain is 60 percent fat and it needs several types of long chain omega-3 fatty acids to function optimally: alphalinolenic acid or ALA found in plant oils, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and docosapentaenoic acid (DPA), all commonly found in oily fish. However, krill oil, made from the tiny crustaceans that feed on the phytoplankton in the depths of the oceans, is the purest source of omega-3. It has been extensively studied and found to reduce inflammation better than fish oils."

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B Vitamins

"There are eight different B vitamins, and many play a crucial role in brain health, particularly in mental energy and brain-repair processes. All are important but most research has concentrated on three: B6, B12 and B9 (folate, the natural form, or folic acid, its synthetic form).

Vitamin B12 is particularly important for brain health and is one that most of us need to consider taking as a daily supplement. Unlike some vitamins, B12 is stored by the body for long-term use, which means that deficiency can take time to develop. Vegans are particularly at risk of deficiency, as B12 is only found in animal products. The symptoms of B12 deficiency can include memory deficiency and low mood and dementia. Vitamin B12 increases the levels of GABA neurotransmitters in the brain and low GABA levels are associated with a variety of neurological disorders."

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Curcumin

"An extract of turmeric root, which gives turmeric its distinctive colour and flavor, curcumin has been found to have powerful anti-inflammatory benefits. A University of California study focused on 40 older adults who were complaining of memory lapses but did not have symptoms of dementia. After twice-daily supplementation with 80mg of a high-potency curcumin extract, theracumin, significant improvements in memory, attention and mood were observed. Look for a supplement with phospholipids, as the curcumin is absorbed many times faster than from other products.

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