Many of us are stuck at home right now, and all our usual activities are either cancelled or forbidden. So, how do we make the best of a difficult situation? How do we turn our stress and anxiety into productivity?
When we focus on ways to build our brain instead of panicking about current events or what we just heard on the news, we actually increase our cognitive resilience and ability to cope. Just like working out strengthens our body, preparing us for physical action, working out our “thinking muscle” prepares the mind for what may come, including scary, stressful situations at home or in our community. As we think deeply and build good, healthy memories, we are essentially buttressing the brain, so that when we do face challenges, we are more prepared to deal with them and not let them upset our inner peace and happiness.
Indeed, deep thinking and learnings is important because every morning we wake up with a bunch of new nerve cells (this is called neurogenesis) that are ready to be used. When we are curious and feel the drive to learn and think deeply about what interests us, or have important and stimulating conversations with the people in our lives, we build these new nerve cells into our brain, strengthening the overall health of the brain and improving our mood and clarity. When we don’t use these brain cells correctly through lazy thinking and isolation, however, they can become toxic waste in the brain, which will affect our ability to think well and our mood.
Deep thinking and learning also stimulates our imagination and helps us see multiple possibilities in any given situation—even during a global pandemic! Instead of fearing uncertainty, we can get excited and happy about the future because we are not locked into plans that might not go as, well, planned. This helps reduce fear of the unknown, giving us the self-confidence to keep learning when faced with a challenge: we don’t fear not knowing something because we can learn. We don’t stop ourselves from moving forward; we don’t get trapped in a box and let the circumstances of life define our happiness. We begin to realize that, when it comes to our life, there is no “box”.
So, every day, choose to be curious. Think of ways you can challenge your brain:
1. Make a list of books you have been meaning to read, and schedule in time to read them! If you are not a big reader, or if you list is really long, you may be interested in the app Blinkist, which teaches you key ideas from thousands of bestselling non-fiction books in a short period of time (for free week see https://blinkist.com/drleaf). Audiobooks are also great if you are not a big reader, if you are doing things around the house or exercising. I love Audible, which also offers original audiobooks like Caffeine by Michael Pollan, which I just listened to and highly recommend!
2. Start a virtual book club! You don’t have to meet in person to enjoy books together; just schedule a Zoom/Facetime/Skype/video call to discuss the book you are reading!
3. Listen to podcasts. Some of my favorite ones to listen to are:
- The Daily
- The Intelligence
- The Dream
- Post Reports
- Stuff You Should Know
- History Extra Podcast
- NPR Life Kit
- The New Yorker Radio Hour
- Beyond Today
- The TED Interview
- Mad in America
- TED Radio Hour.
However, make sure you don’t listen to too many news podcasts, which can be quite stressful during this period!
4. Take online courses. Many of these are free, such as those offered by Future Learn and Coursera, and are based on courses offered at Ivy League universities. YouTube also has a great selecting of lectures and courses, so check them out!
5. Make thinker moments a priority. “Thinker moments”, when you take time to switch off to the external and switch on to the internal and just let your mind wander and daydream, give the brain a rest and allow it to reboot and heal, which increases your clarity of mind and ability to problem-solve when face with a tough situation (which we all need right now!) So, be intentional about creating “thinker” breaks throughout your day by taking a few moments every day, or when you are feeling stressed out, to switch off and just daydream or meditate. For more information on thinker moments and how to make them a part of your daily routine, see my book, Think, Learn, Succeed.
6. Learn a new language! There are many great online programs available, such as Rosetta Stone and Berlitz, as well as language learning apps like Duolingo, which are fun to use and often free to download.
7. Take up a new hobby like painting, cooking, building furniture, playing with Lego blocks, dancing, playing a musical instrument, knitting or drawing. Creativity can have real, positive effects on the physical health of the brain and on our overall mental health, and has the potential to heal damage from toxic thinking and toxic lifestyles. This, in turn, can improve both our physical and mental health by giving us a deeper perspective and reducing feelings of depression and anxiety. Make time to do what you enjoy doing, and watch your brain health improve!
8. Spring clean! A clean, orderly environment does wonders for our mental health, and can help you feel less oppressed by your surroundings if you are spending a lot of time indoors.
9. Start a vegetable garden, if you have the space! Not only will this save you from stressful grocery runs in the future, but it is also incredibly therapeutic! Don’t know where to start? Square foot gardening is a great place to start if you have never had a vegetable garden before; it requires little space and can be set up on almost any surface. You can also use this method of gardening for small herb gardens, container gardens or wall gardens! Thankfully, many hardware stores are open even if where you live is under shut down, and you can also order supplies online through distributors like Amazon and Home Depot.
10. Join online exercise classes, find free exercise videos on YouTube, go for a walk/run/bike ride outside if possible, or just move around your house and apartment in fun and interesting ways, like dancing up and down the stairs or crawling from room to room. I cannot say this enough: exercise does wonders for our mental and physical health, and can dramatically improve our mood and help us deal with stressful situations. For more on the mental and physical benefits of exercise see my recent blog and podcast.
11. Explore the world through your computer! Yes, many of us are stuck at home and can’t travel anywhere, we can still explore the wonders of earth through our computer with Google Earth!
12. Watch enriching TV programs like documentaries (we love National Geographic!) and The Great Courses (which are now available on Amazon Prime Video and as audiobooks on Audible).
13. Watch your favorite TV show or movie, but take notes! Think of the way the music matches the scene, or the development of a character, or the use of narrative time. How do these stories draw us in and keep us hooked? How do they reflect reality? Is there a deeper message here? You can even start a video chat club that, like a book club, watches movies or TV shows and discusses their significance together.
If you are at home with children, a lot of these suggestions work for them as well, so make it a family affair!
For more information on building the brain and how it can boost your mental health, see my book Think, Learn, Succeed.