Well, and limit your exposure to toxins like cigarettes and alcohol. But maintaining mental fitness is often off our radar. We go to medical doctors for checkups and tests, but we’re often reluctant to make time to review and change elements in our lives to maintain our mental health. “The mind is a miraculous and delicate thing,” says Rodger Goddard, Ph.D., chief psychologist at Trinitas Regional Medical Center. “It needs our care, protection and nurturance to continue growing throughout our lives.” Fortunately, preserving and enhancing your mental health requires only a few key lifestyle changes and simple strategies. At the top of the list? Managing stress. Stress causes surges in hormones that can damage your body— and your mind. “Stress increases the cortisol level in our brains, causing the destruction of neurons,” says Patricia Neary-Ludmer, Ph.D., a psychologist and director of Trinitas Regional Medical Center’s Family Resource Center in Cranford.
The fight-or-flight surge of adrenaline that occurs when you’re stressed can cause other damage to your brain, too. “When the lower reptilian brain is aroused by excessive stress or anger, higher brain functions tend to decrease or shut down,” Goddard points out. “Stress, anxiety and depression have been shown to decrease intelligence and cognitive skills.” There are a number of lifestyle tweaks that can improve mental acuity and fight off stress, depression and other mental-health issues. Here are some of the most effective:
Eat Smart You already know a healthy diet is essential for improving your overall physical health—but eating the right foods can improve your mental health, too. Fatty foods, especially those with saturated fats, can clog arteries and inhibit blood flow to your brain, explains Neary-Ludmer. To boost your brainpower, “eat foods like fish and nuts, which are commonly referred to as brain foods.” To further boost your brainpower, consider supplementing your diet with antioxidants and vitamins. “Studies show that diets rich in antioxidants—vitamins C, E, B and beta carotene—can help us to maintain good memory and thinking skills,” Goddard says.
Challenge Your Brain Just as your body needs regular strength and cardio training to keep it in optimal shape, your brain needs a good workout to preserve its prowess. Puzzles, animated discussions and memorization exercises can help improve your mental acuity. Goddard suggests asking yourself questions to strengthen your mind. “In particular trying to discover the causes of events and asking ourselves ‘why’ questions can strengthen our mental muscle.” Neary-Ludmer recommends challenging your brain by learning a new language, or even simply trying to write with your non-dominant hand. The payoff in mental prowess will be rich. “The more we exercise our brain and keep it active, the sharper our minds will be,” Goddard says. “Mental dullness and passivity can erode mental sharpness.”
Get a Good Workout Exercise isn’t just good for building muscles—it helps build mental acuity, too. “Exercise will increase blood flow to the brain, carrying oxygen and nutrients,” Neary-Ludmer says. A good workout plays a key role in ensuring good mental health. “Physical exercise has been shown to increase brain chemicals that improve memory, reaction speed and creativity,” Goddard adds.
Meditate You don’t have to do a full-on “just say ohm” yoga retreat—but taking a few minutes each day to clear your mind, breathe deeply and relax can have benefits beyond simple stress relief. “Meditation has been shown to increase mental focus, awareness and some thinking skills,” Goddard says.
See the Glass as Half Full Look for ways to increase the amount of fun in your life—whether it’s listening to upbeat music, limiting the amount of time you spend with negative people, or adjusting your own attitude to accentuate the positive. “Studies have shown that thinking positive, loving and caring thoughts can improve neural connections in the brain,” Goddard says.
Get a Good Night’s Sleep You’ve likely heard (and heard again) that a good night’s sleep—about eight hours a night—is essential for good physical health. But it’s also important for keeping your brain at peak performance. “Good sleep habits have been shown to improve brain functioning and mental agility,” Goddard says. Do your best to ensure you get the right amount of rest every night.
Be Wary of Multi-tasking It may feel like your brain’s firing on all cylinders—and that you’re accomplishing more—by multi-tasking, but the jury’s still out as to whether multitasking is harmful or helpful to your mental health. “It is still unclear whether the multi-tasking demands of our modern world enhance or deteriorate mental sharpness,” Goddard says. “At least for some people, excessive multi-tasking may lead to being more scattered, unfocused and having decreased concentration and memorization skills.” If it seems like your ability to focus has diminished, consider trying to limit the amount of multi-tasking you do.
Break Out of Your Routine “It is easy for all of us to fall into ruts and experience our stress and problems as unchangeable,” Goddard says. But thinking outside the box—and moving outside your comfort zone—gives your brain the kind of kick-start you need to stay sharp. “Traveling, journaling and using personal or spiritual retreats can help us to reflect on our lives and chart new goals.” A quick getaway or a new class can be all you need to break out of the rut—and get on the road to a sharper mind. EDGE
Editor’s Note: Lisa Milbrand is a New Jersey-based writer whose articles on health and relationships appear in Parents, Arthritis Today and Modern Bride. Her blog themamahood.com celebrates the life of a working mother.