Emotions Fear & Anxiety In Recovery Neuroscience & Eating Disorders

Managing Brain Health During The Coronavirus Pandemic

***This is a general post aimed at absolutely anyone who owns a brain, not just people with eating disorders!!***

Having recently started a course on neuroscience and brain health – I may be writing a bit more on this in the coming weeks.

I find the brain absolutely fascinating.  It is the most important organ in the human body and so complicated that even with the advances in neuroscience today, we barely scratch the surface in what we know about how it works and all it does.

With an organ that is crucial to every tiny thing our bodies do, as well as regulating our thoughts and emotions, it is not surprising that the brain occasionally malfunctions and so looking after our brain is a commitment we should all make as a responsible brain owner.

During these strange and uncertain coronavirus times we find ourselves in, many people are feeling unsettled and anxious and with broken routines and increased isolation from others, it is no wonder these social and economical changes are impacting on even the healthiest of brains.

I therefore wanted to write about coronavirus and our brain health and what we can do (all of us, not just people with eating disorders) to try to keep our brain health and emotional health as good as it can be in the coming uncertain weeks.

What Affects Our Brain Health?

Our brain health is affected by things that fall into three general categories –

  1.  Our general biology and biochemistry and the things that impact on that – some of these are outside our external control (our genetics for example) but others we can positively influence.
  2. External factors – including social support, stress, our environment and work.
  3. Psychological factors – including our thoughts and cognitions, emotions and beliefs.

Within each of these three categories, there are things we can all do that will help to keep our brains healthy, even when the world feels chaotic.  I will address each of these three categories in turn.

Biological Factors:

Sleep is a key factor here.  Even if we are less busy than we might usually be, sleep is still vital to our brains.  When we sleep, our brains stay busy and it is during the time we are sleeping, our brains are working to clear toxins and undergo key processes. Not getting sufficient sleep can lead to memory problems, low mood and being less cognitively alert.  So, even if self isolating at home, ensuring you get a good 7-8 hours sleep a night is important.

Nutrition… continuing to eat well (and I don’t mean ‘health foods’!).  Ensuring we continue to eat good meals and regular snacks and maintain meals throughout the day… and yes, if you are recovering from an eating disorder then you know this is not just important but crucial!!  Maintaining our blood sugar levels and nutrition will help our brain and our moods and will also help to ensure our immune systems are as strong as they can be, should they need to fight off pesky viruses!

Adequate daylight…  The sun and daylight are key to maintaining our circadian rhythm which allows our brain to know when to wake and when to sleep and the sun is also key in helping our bodies to develop vitamin D, which has many important roles.  So, even if we are self isolating at home, open the curtains, look out the window, get into the garden or onto a balcony if you have one and when possible aim to see daylight!

External Factors:

Social isolation during these weeks of ‘lockdown’ could become an even bigger problem than it already is for so many.  We know that social isolation and loneliness has terrible consequences on our mental and physical health (see earlier post on loneliness).  Therefore, it is going to be important that we all do what we can to ensure that self isolating does not lead to a complete break down in social connection, with even more negative effects on our brain health.  We will have to find ways to connect to others in more imaginative ways at this time.  Connecting with people we might usually meet up with in person using online means – video conferencing, FaceTime, Skype, whatstapp etc… is one way.

Perhaps too, we should look to the Italian communities for inspiration when they all opened their windows and balcony doors to join together in song and meaningful human connection!

Supporting Others – Offering support to others at this time is another positive way to help us feel good.  Being able to provide a service or support, however small, to another can be rewarding to both sides and help to feel connected and less alone.

Routine and a sense of purpose – In terms of how we spend our days, it is important to keep a form of routine and give each day a sense of purpose.  Our brains like routine, we feel safe when we know what we are doing and when (as long as that routine is not too rigid!!).  And having tasks, even small ones, can help us feel as if we have been productive in our day.  Those tasks don’t have to be anything meaningful or mentally intense though… perhaps it is watching a film, binge watching something on Netflix, doing crafts, baking a cake, reading a novel… just finding ways to fill the time and structure the day.

Keep the brain active – Taking on a new hobby or learning a new skill could help our brain health at this time too.  This might help us focus on something different, gain a sense of accomplishment and keep the grey cells working… And for those in eating disorder recovery, as I have written about before, this time can be a perfect opportunity to set the brain to the full time and intense task of rewiring in recovery!!

Our environment and the way that might affect our brain health is another consideration at this time.  While stuck inside, consider aspects of the home (our immediate environment for the foreseeable future) and how tidy or untidy it is and if this is having an affect on your mental health.  Would a quick clean and tidy up make you feel more settled or perhaps you are the opposite and need to stop keeping everything quite so pristine and allow a bit more homeliness for a while?

Psychological Factors:

Mindsets – These are key to our brain health when it comes to psychological factors.  Trying to recognise if you are falling into particular negative or unhelpful mindsets and thought patterns or beliefs in order to change them might be necessary to ensure optimal brain health during this pandemic.

For example, are you prone to a catastrophising mindset?  Are you full of doom and gloom of the way this virus is going to play out, feeling it is the end of humanity as we know it, that our societies, economies and governments are all doomed?  Well, perhaps you are right but I certainly hope not and is keeping that negative outlook helping you feel good at this time?  Can you attempt to recognise when you are starting to follow a catastrophising, ‘we are all doomed’ thought and instead turn it into something a little more positive?

The other mindset we are seeing a lot at the current time is the scarcity mindset, causing our shops to run out of food.  If you are getting urges to go to the shops and buy produce that you already have at home, identify that scarcity mindset setting in and try to stop it.  We are in a world still of abundance and we will still be able to get something to eat and drink, so instead of putting added stress on your poor brain by following the masses to queue up for toilet rolls, recognise that the scarcity and the need to hoard is not real.

Avoid internal pressure – try not to put unnecessary pressure on yourself at this time of added stress in the world.  If you do have a job that you are still required to fulfil, either from home or outside the house, try to not put additional pressure on yourself to be working at 120%, if that is something you have a tendency to do.  Even if you don’t have a job, perhaps you still have a tendency to ensure you keep purposeful in other ways, not letting yourself rest and putting constant pressure on yourself, affecting your stress levels and emotions.  Ensuring we keep taking time out, to de-stress and rest is important as it ultimately impacts our brain and body chemistry.

Be calm – taking time to be calm during the day.. through meditation, mindfulness or even having a nap will help the brain release stress.  A brain that is running on stress hormones (cortisol) will ultimately suffer and shrink, so release the stress regularly!

Emotions – all sorts of emotions could be triggered in these strange times we are in… and when it comes to brain health and maintaining it to the optimal point we can, not ignoring emotions is important.  So whether feeling happy, sad, facing difficult memories or dealing with any other emotions right now, resist ignoring them.  Instead sit with them, process, them, laugh, cry and definitely talk about them….  All our emotions are valid but it is when we ignore them that our brain health can suffer.

Overall, looking after our brain health is key at all times but particularly so at this time of coronavirus pandemic!

When addressing brain health, it is always worth considering the three umbrella factors that can impact on it and there are certainly many things we can be doing at this time to keep our brains as happy as they can be!

And finally and perhaps most importantly – it can be tempting when the times we are in are this bizarre, to keep watching the news and to keep talking about the virus and this situation but obsessing over it and over absorbing it will not be beneficial to our stress and mental health levels.

Take coronavirus breaks!  Switch off the news, close the paper and news apps, turn off social media and find other things to talk to friends and family about.

These coronavirus days will pass and the world will continue.  In the meantime, keep your brain healthy!

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