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Keeping your brain healthy in times of uncertainty

Mental health · Jan 24, 2022

The human brain craves certainty.1 Predictable patterns allow us to shape our routines and make decisions with confidence, while uncertainty may cause elevated levels of anxiety.

It’s been a long time living in the shadow of an invisible virus, and it isn’t over yet. New variants continue emerging to add to general feelings of uncertainty, and the true psychological impact of the pandemic may not be known for years. For many, this moment in time may be one of chronic stress. Some may be finding it hard to think clearly; we may feel like we’re in a fog and maybe we’re unable to focus in meetings, recall names or remember where we put the car keys. Should we be worried?

It’s a question that Dr. Vinay Bharadia, a Clinical Psychologist specializing in Neuropsychology with TELUS Health Care Centres, has been asked frequently in the last several months. “Patients tell me they can’t concentrate. They’re frustrated because their memory isn’t sharp. They feel anxious and worried that it’s an indication of something worse going on with their brain,” he says. 

While many things can detract from the brain’s performance, Dr. Bharadia believes that for most of us, this type of cognitive cloudiness is a normal reaction to the extraordinary circumstances we are currently living in.

By understanding how stress affects the brain, we can also understand things we can do to help manage it. In the same way we can improve our bodies through physical fitness, we can help to lift brain fog with targeted strategies and healthy brain habits.

How stress affects your brain

Stress is a normal part of life, and in some cases it can even be good for you. Being under some stress such as meeting a tight deadline can help you rise to daily challenges and motivate you to reach your goals. It can help you accomplish tasks more efficiently, and even boost your memory.

“Most people believe that the harder you push, the higher your performance level will be,” says Dr. Bharadia. “That isn’t always the case. According to the Yerkes-Dodson2 law, cognitive performance does increase with some physiological or mental stress - up to a point. When the level of stress becomes too high, performance actually decreases,” he says. The key is to maintain the right balance of ideal cognitive performance without debilitating feelings of stress or anxiety. “The problem with anxiety”, says Dr. Bharadia, “is that it’s often the experience of fear when there is nothing to be afraid of at that moment.” Often, it’s about something that happened in the past or something that might occur in the future. Living in the uncertain times of a pandemic may increase worries about what may happen next. 

“You may feel your palms get sweaty, your heart beats faster and your mind races,” Dr. Bharadia says when describing how anxiety can sometimes feel. “Blood is rushing from your head to your muscles.” This is the fight, flight or freeze response to stress. It’s activated by the limbic system, the part of your brain involved in more reactive, automatic, emotional responses, and can sabotage logical thought and cause increased anxiety. By bringing yourself back to the present and practicing mindfulness, you may be able to reduce stress.

How mindfulness can help

When anxiety has you in its grip, Dr. Bharadia says that mindfulness can help. Even just 5 minutes a day can make a difference. 

“When you’re anxious or having negative thoughts, stop resisting. Instead, find your breath, wherever it’s most obvious - in and out through the nose, or noticing the rising and falling of the belly as you breathe. When you find your breath, you begin to calm the body and the mind will follow. As you follow your breath, thoughts will undoubtedly enter the mind. These are fine. When you notice that you’ve gone down a train of thought, simply notice, say “that’s ok” and gently bring your attention back to your breath."

Experts say3 that mindfulness therapy creates brain changes. Mindfulness techniques may help increase basic attention, working memory, and executive functions such as problem solving and planning - all the things you are fighting when you are experiencing brain fog. Whether you are doing it for cognition or to boost your memory, you can actually create long-term change in your brain and enjoy emotional balance.

9 other ways to help keep your brain healthy

In addition to practicing mindfulness, Dr. Bharadia says there are several other things you can do to help keep your brain healthy:

  1. Be kind to yourself. Try not to fall into negative self-talk, and instead, treat yourself the way you would a friend. 

  2. Watch your media intake. “If you are anxious, make sure you are receiving your news from credible sources and monitor your media intake. Social media can make anxiety worse.”

  3. Set realistic goals. “Return to simple things, and make your goals 95% achievable. Go for a bike ride, but if a 10K is too long for you right now, just go around the block. If you accomplish this with ease, try a longer distance next time. If it’s not happening, make your goal smaller.”

  4. Exercise daily. Exercise can increase Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor4(BDNF), a protein associated with how well we age and learn, and other neurochemicals that help the brain change itself.

  5. Learn something new. A new skill can help create new neural pathways5 in the brain in a positive way. Challenging your brain in this way may also serve as a protective factor against degenerative disorders such as dementia. 

  6. Limit your alcohol intake. Alcohol is a known depressant that can cause feelings of anxiety.6

  7. Connect with friends and family. Social connection can help improve mental health.7 

  8. Do something nice for someone else. Small acts of kindness can facilitate positive feelings which may help calm anxiety.8

  9. Get the support you need. Find out how the mental health team at TELUS Health Care Centres can help.

Dr. Bharadia’s advice is to take things one step at a time. “Overall, you need to be patient and gentle with yourself. Recognize that you may fail, you may overdo it, there will be push-back from your mind and your body, but that’s okay.”

In these uncertain times, practicing mindfulness can be a great first step.

“Mindfulness helps us sit with uncertainty,” he explains. “It allows you to watch your experience, using your breath as an anchor. With that grounding, you may be able to shift from uncertainty to moving toward who you want to be at any given moment. This may help you feel better equipped to navigate these uncertain times.”

Support is available

Dr. Bharadia is one of many dedicated mental health professionals working on the TELUS Health team for the TELUS Health Care Centres, where psychology and counseling services are available both in-person and virtually in British Columbia and Alberta. Mental health counseling is also available virtually through TELUS Health MyCare in Alberta, BC, Ontario, Saskatchewan, and Quebec. Additionally TELUS Health Virtual Care, our virtual care service offered by employers for employees, offers mental health support and primary care, and may be available to you through your employer.


References 

1. Morriss, J., Gell, M., & Reekum, C. M. van. (2018, December 11). The uncertain brain: A co-ordinate based meta-analysis of the neural signatures supporting uncertainty during different contexts. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews. Retrieved January 20, 2022, from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0149763418305554 

2. Wikimedia Foundation. (2021, October 6). Yerkes–Dodson Law. Wikipedia. Retrieved January 20, 2022, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yerkes%E2%80%93Dodson_law#/media/File:HebbianYerkesDodson.svg

3. Young, K. S., Velden, A. M. van der, Craske, M. G., Pallesen, K. J., Fjorback, L., Roepstorff, A., & Parsons, C. E. (2017, August 7). The impact of mindfulness-based interventions on brain activity: A systematic review of Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging Studies. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews. Retrieved January 20, 2022, from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0149763417301719

4. Gomutbutra, P., Yingchankul, N., Chattipakorn, N., Chattipakorn, S., & Srisurapanont, M. (2020, September 15). The effect of mindfulness-based intervention on brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF): A systematic review and meta-analysis of controlled trials. Frontiers. Retrieved January 20, 2022, from https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2020.02209/full?utm_source=F-AAE&utm_medium=EMLF&utm_campaign=MRK_1437459_69_Psycho_20200922_arts_A

5. Oby, E. R., Golub, M. D., Hennig, J. A., Degenhart, A. D., Tyler-Kabara, E. C., Yu, B. M., Chase, S. M., & Batista, A. P. (2019, July 23). New neural activity patterns emerge with long-term learning. PNAS. Retrieved January 20, 2022, from https://www.pnas.org/content/116/30/15210#sec-3

6. Lai, H. M. X., Cleary, M., Sitharthan, T., & Hunt, G. E. (2015, May 28). Prevalence of comorbid substance use, anxiety and mood disorders in epidemiological surveys, 1990–2014: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Drug and Alcohol Dependence. Retrieved January 20, 2022, from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0376871615002811

7. Henssler, J., Stock, F., van Bohemen, J., Walter, H., Heinz, A., & Brandt, L. (2020, October 6). Mental health effects of infection containment strategies: Quarantine and isolation-A systematic review and meta-analysis - European archives of Psychiatry and Clinical Neuroscience. SpringerLink. Retrieved January 20, 2022, from https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00406-020-01196-x 

8. Nelson-Coffey, S. K., Bohlmeijer, E. T., & Schotanus-Dijkstra, M. (2021, October 14). Practicing other-focused kindness and self-focused kindness among those at risk for mental illness: Results of a randomized controlled trial. Frontiers in psychology. Retrieved January 20, 2022, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8551549/

Authored by:
Mental Health team
TELUS Health Care Centres

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