(Standard disclaimer: I’m not a doctor, so nothing here is genuine medical advice. See your doctor for that. I’m just a person with a brain who’s learned just how fragile it can be and how seemingly small things can affect it in big (and unexpected) ways.)
While we’re all guilty of feeding our brains a lot of garbage, it’s gotten worse since Covid entered our world. (At least is has for me and many people I know. I know this is a sweeping generalization, but I suspect my small sample size isn’t alone, so, yeah. I’m going out on a limb.) With school and jobs in disarray, social opportunities in the toilet, and depression/anxiety driving people to hide out, it’s becoming easier and easier to just fall into the garbage trap of watching TV nonstop, or surfing social media to no point. Don’t forget all that “comfort food,” either. Twinkies may make reality less scary, but they don’t help your brain. (I know, I’ve tried.)
There are plenty of things we can do to keep our brains healthy during this crisis, but motivation can be hard to come by these days. It’s hard to overcome fear and entropy to read that book, or learn that skill. But you have to, otherwise you’ll come out on the other side with a compromised and broken brain, and that’s if you manage not to get Covid, which can cause cognitive effects on its own.
So here’s my advice: During this crisis, try not to poison your brain with crap. Your brain works hard for you and it deserves to be treated accordingly. Where will you be when it gives up on you? Will you be able to work? To make decisions? To think critically? How will you remember important things? What happens to your creativity and problem solving abilities? Without a healthy brain, the rest of you is in big trouble. While you can neglect it for a little while, months (years) of nonstop trash will leave it weak and sick. And leave you with problems Netflix can’t begin to solve.
Unfortunately, most of us serve up loads of crap to our brains in good times. And it’s worse now that we’re living in an alternate reality. We don’t provide our brains with quality anything. Unhealthy food, lowest-common-denominator entertainment, mind-numbing work, toxic relationships, social media… Crap comes in many forms and it’s all around us. The sad thing is, most of us don’t realize what the day to day does to our brain until we start noticing some malfunctioning.
Sure, you can’t always eliminate every form of brain poison. Sometimes you have no choice but to keep that job, or deal with that family member who always drags you down. But there are plenty of things you can control and the more poison you can keep out of your brain, the better. Now that we’re all home more and have some time to reflect, use it to reduce, rather than increase, the poisons your brain is exposed to.
With that in mind, here are some brain poisons to avoid. (Aside from the obvious stuff like not huffing paint or gas fumes, eating mercury, or banging your head on a wall. I’m going to assume you know to avoid things like that. If you don’t you need more help than I can provide, so see a doctor.)
TV. Not all TV is terrible. There are some educational shows out there, and there’s nothing wrong with watching trash now and then to destress and zone out. But for many of us, trash is the default and we watch way to much of it. We may start out with good intentions of watching that new documentary or class on PBS, but instead we end up watching reality TV or reruns. For hours. Try to avoid that time suck and find something more valuable to do with your time.
The news. Yeah, I could lump the news under TV, but news is its own special kind of hell. You don’t have to watch hours of the stuff to be informed. Hit the headlines online on a reliable, unbiased website and then let it go. Most news is nothing but garbage designed to whip you into a frenzy so you stay tuned in. Constant stress isn’t good and the news is very good at jacking your stress hormones sky high and keeping them there.
Cruddy food and drinks. I like comfort food as much as the next person. Yum! But I try not to give in to my urges often. Bad food makes me fat, doesn’t feed my brain, and makes me slow and unhappy. The hit provided by mac and cheese is great, but it doesn’t last.
Drugs. Don’t do drugs. ‘Nuff said. Just remember the egg in a skillet ad and know that the egg is your brain on drugs. That’s all you need to know.
Social media. Ugh. I hate social media with a passion. If you’ve read my work long enough, you know this is deep-rooted hatred. Sure, there are some benefits like quick access to information and staying in touch with family or customers, but once you get beyond that, you’re into garbage territory. The level of drama reminds me of high school on steroids, and the amount of misinformation out there is appalling. Stay off of it unless you have a legitimate need to use it for work or family reasons.
Multitasking. You think you’re being productive, but you’re really overtaxing your brain. Brains are designed to focus on one thing at a time and constantly switching back and forth results in neither task receiving your full attention. (Or best work.) Too much multitasking can cause problems with attention and focus. Pick a project, work on it without distraction and move on to the next. It also helps to turn off the phone and other alerts that can draw your attention away from the main task.
Extreme busyness. Our culture glorifies busyness to the point that it’s unhealthy. Doing more isn’t always better. Sometimes you need to say no, slow down, and take on fewer things. Otherwise you end up exhausted, stressed, and miserable, none of which is good for your brain. It’s okay to take time off, to say no, and to do things for yourself.
Sloth. Just don’t take it too far. Doing too much nothing is just as bad as doing too much everything. Sloth rots your brain by not challenging it. Use it or lose it, as the saying goes.
Exhaustion. Your brain needs sleep. You don’t need to work until all hours, or stay up all night texting friends and bingeing TV. Go to sleep and make it quality sleep by turning off your phone, TV, and anything else that might interrupt your zzz’s.
Refusing to learn. Wallowing in stupidity and ignorance is not a recipe for brain health. Just because school is finished doesn’t mean the learning is over. You should always be learning new skills, questioning things, and examining ideas through other perspectives. Entrenching yourself in “the way things have always been” isn’t healthy. Get out there and learn about the world and challenge your beliefs and perspective.
The internet. We’ve pretty much covered this, but the internet is mostly garbage. Yeah, it can help you get a lot done, but it’s also a giant cesspool of trash and misery. Do what you need to do online and then get off. Don’t linger clicking on clickbait stories, trashy gossip, and cruelty in all its forms. Practice good internet hygiene by avoiding the sewers of the net and getting offline when you start to feel your blood pressure rise.
Stress. Sometimes life get stressful and there’s nothing you can do about it. But you need to control it to the extent that you can. And if you can’t control it, you need to find good coping mechanisms. Otherwise you’re going to end up sick with a brain that has simply shut down due to overload.
Miserable employment. Sometimes you have no choice but to stick out the horrible job with the bullying boss and toxic coworkers. Been there, and you have my sympathy if this is you. But make it a priority to get out of the situation ASAP. It’s not healthy to spend decades in such a place. Make whatever sacrifices you need to to remove yourself from the situation.
Toxic relationships. As with toxic work, toxic relationships can wreck your brain, leaving you damaged for years. Dump the abusers, the people who make you feel terrible, the ones who trade in misery and want everyone to join them. Get rid of the people who manipulate you and your emotions. And yes, this sometimes means family has to go.
Your brain will thank you for keeping these poisons out of your life.
(Image by Arek Socha)