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5 habits that hurt your brain & bonus tips for better mental health!

tips for better mental health

“Our brain is like a neural parliament,” says Dr David Eagleman, a brain scientist, further adding that our brains are constantly making decisions about countless aspects of our life like diet, career, relationships, work, etc. Needless to say, these aspects form the foundation of our existence, and making the ‘right’ decisions would definitely be beneficial for us in the long run – regardless of age. 

Thus, it is crucial for us to ensure that this 3kg Neural parliament that we carry every day in our heads functions well.

5 habits to help keep your brain healthy

Courtesy of thriving in a world driven by information and the digital tools used to wield it, it is imperative that we know what the “dos” of which habits to follow to retain a healthy brain are. Some of them are:

  • Keep stress in check: Your go-to stress soothers like gardening, sports, daily walking, and relaxing with a magazine may keep your brain healthy down the road. Long-term stress can cause unnecessary spikes in the levels of Cortisol - the stress hormone, which causes higher wear and tear in the short-term memory regions of the brain
  • Cut back on sugar intake: Diets rich in sugar and other simple carbs could drain your brain (Charité University Medical Centre study). Studies have found that even among healthy people without diabetes or glucose intolerance, those with lower blood sugar levels, as measured through blood tests, performed better on tests which measured the number of words participants were able to memorize after a gap of 30 minutes.
  • Learn an instrument: Learning to play an instrument is like going to the gym, but for your brain. No matter how daunting a task it may seem, the great news is - you don’t have to be an experienced or skilled musician to reap the rewards for your brain health. It changes brain waves in a way that boosts your listening and hearing skills over a short period of time and this change in brain activity may help you retain listening skills and ward off age-related cognitive declines.
  • Do your chores: Everyday habits like weeding your window garden, or de-cluttering your bedroom might seem like little more than tasks to tick off your to-do list. But studies in "Gerontology" have found that older adults who do these active chores have more grey matter— the part of the brain linked to memory, emotions, speech, decision-making and self-control. The higher the grey matter, the better the cognitive function. 
  • Doodle or colour: Recent research shows doodling and colouring increase blood flow to the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain involved in problem-solving, logic, attention and memory—and keeping. People who doodle report feeling more creative, full of ideas, and more capable of solving problems.

habits to keep your brain healthy 5 habits for a healthy brain

6 habits that may potentially hurt your brain

The key to brain health is balance. And to balance the scales, let’s also take a quick dive into the “don’ts” to add a protective layer of awareness for when we may momentarily deviate from doing what is best for us. 

  • Dodging exercise - Exercise propels our body to not just function better, but also triggers the release of a life-altering chemical called endorphins, which not only reduces physiological pain but also accelerates one’s positive emotions. It reduces the probability of anxiety, depression, and numerous other ailments. 15 minutes of exercise a day is a good start to kick-start our day.
  • Dismissing your sleep needs - Our quality of sleep is directly correlated with our overall well-being. Think of a plant slowly withering away due to a lack of water and sunlight over a period of time.  That’s what happens with our brain if we consistently fail to prioritize our sleep. Sleep tends to act as our mental 'reset' button without which our minds are rendered unready to take on a brand-new day. So, the next time we click the "next episode" button on Netflix, let us take a moment to think about our sleep-deprived brains.
  • Ignoring "me time" - Try not to make your 'me time' a crime. It is simply good for us, and the best part is that it doesn’t cost a dime! Allocating time for ourselves can do monumental wonders to our well-being. Spending 'me time' kindles our ability to reflect on our experiences, while mentally mapping new routes for us to explore in the future. Fostering new habits and hobbies cements a healthy and mindful lifestyle, as long as we don't forget that consistency is key!
  • Excessive social media - While social media is resourceful for staying connected with people, it can also be the very medium that may cause one to feel isolated. It often leads us into rabbit holes of information that are too overwhelming to comprehend.

Excessive exposure to social media disrupts our brain’s natural reward system functioning. It also rewires us to focus on instant gratification as opposed to our mind’s natural tendency to focus on long-term rewards and happiness. We must remind ourselves to replace social media time with more physical tasks or hobbies. It is now possible to set screen time limits, a feature available in every smartphone now.

  • Constantly comparing yourself with others - Living in a highly competitive world, we are often reminded how important it is to constantly push ourselves to strive and achieve more - both professionally and personally. A major contributor to the stress caused by these expectations is the obscure comparisons we make with others - often rendering us blind to our innate strengths which make us stand out from the herd. Comparisons, however, do hold significance in propelling ourselves further. Thus, compare yourself to what you were yesterday, rather than comparing yourself with someone else today. 
  • Procrastinating - I’m sure we all saw this coming. Procrastination is the most common ‘self-constructed’ barrier to any productive or meaningful work. Whether it is delaying your long-due assignment, or buying a carton of milk from the supermarket – procrastination knows how to seep into all!

In one study, 88% of those surveyed said they procrastinate for at least one 1 hour daily.  Now, before we paint procrastination as the villain, let us also remember that procrastinating over simple tasks is alright, as we can snap out of it and get it done. However, procrastinating over complex tasks such as studying for an entrance exam, or cooking a three-course continental dinner could, and should, ideally be avoided, as our brains need to start prepping as soon as possible.

habits that may hurt your brain Habits that can hurt your brain

Bonus tips!

Setting expectations before you start:

While we covered some of the Don’ts of specific habits that are bound to derail you off your goals, here are a few additional pointers to pin under the ‘important’ section to help you practically put everything into use.

1. Don’t be too hard on yourself, you’re only human!

2. Focus on improving little by little, while not compromising on consistency and discipline 

3. Be sure to involve your friends and family when working on goals, to support you, while holding you accountable for any inconsistencies. 

4. Failure is a part of this journey, so remember to pick yourself up and start again, as refusing to give up will strengthen you to build better habits for holistic growth.

5. It's all right to take support. Look for opportunities to connect with your close ones and especially experts like counsellors or any mental health professionals to explore ways in which you can take proactive measures to take care of yourself. 

6. Have fun! Self-improvement is a long journey. Regardless of how rocky and narrow the roads of the journey are, there are always opportunities to have fun and enjoy the ride!

In closing

Brain health is no different from your body's health. We take so many mini-steps to keep our body healthy, like drinking water, eating a balanced diet etc. Similarly, the way we use our brains every day and the habits we form to use our brains matter a lot. 

Small tweaks like the ones quoted here and others can definitely help ward off cognitive decline, boost creativity, and keep conditions like depression at bay.

About the author

Shankul Varada is a Counselling Psychologist at Silver Oak Health. He works primarily with adults and adolescents. He follows a solution-focused approach to therapy, with an emphasis on building one's abilities and creativity. Shankul enjoys long-distance cycling and writing. He maintains a blog on mental health and spends time popularising the importance of mental health through his writing and art.

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Shankul Varada

Senior - Psychological Wellness Coach, Silver Oak Health

Shankul Varada is a Counselling Psychologist at Silver Oak Health. He works primarily with adults and adolescents. He follows a solution-focused approach to therapy, with an emphasis on building one's abilities and creativity. Shankul enjoys long-distance cycling and writing. He maintains a blog on mental health and spends time popularising the importance of mental health through his writing and art.