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5 ways to keep your brain sharp during the holidays

Eat a nutritional breakfast, and be selective about who you spend time with over the holidays.

5 ways to keep your brain sharp during the holidays
[Photo: Heather Schwartz/Unsplash]

As a neuroscientist, I’m often asked to recommend quick ways to boost brain function, particularly at this time of the year. It’s a happy time, but I also see many friends and clients struggle, mainly because they’re burning the candle at both ends.

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Most of us make too many social commitments during the holidays, and we give ourselves a well-deserved break from our usual rules on diet, exercise, and drinking. This is fine up to a point, but then we expect our brains to pick up the slack, and when we can’t bounce back right away, we get frustrated.

The good news is there are measures that we can take to keep our brain in a not-so-depleted shape. This December, avoid the trap by introducing some “holiday-proofing” measures. Here are five ways to ensure your mood and cognitive function stay in peak condition:

Focus on the positive

It’s common to feel resentment when holiday demands mount up, particularly if you have to tiptoe around tricky family expectations and feel the pressure to spend a fortune on gifts. But you can avoid simmering negativity by keeping a gratitude diary during December.

Research shows that your brain can change significantly when you routinely write down three things that you’re grateful for. A study on young adults found that those who kept gratitude journals showed increases in determination, attention, enthusiasm, and energy. A separate study published in 2013 discovered that patients with chronic pain who reported feeling higher levels of gratitude had less depression and anxiety and slept better.

Forgive yourself

It’s easy for guilt to creep in at this time of year. Perhaps you had a big night out, and you felt terrible the next day. Your first instinct might be to text your friends and go on a self-loathing rant. But that’s not going to help you.

I often use a forgiveness ritual with my clients that I personally found helpful and cathartic. I ask them to repeat the following phrases until they feel true: Thank you, I’m sorry, I love you, I forgive you, I release you.

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It’s a powerful way to release morning-after shame. It might not come naturally to you, but if you keep repeating this practice, you might find that forgiving yourself becomes more intuitive. Forgiveness is a skill. To get better at it, you need to keep practicing.

Edit your friendships

Christmas can cast your relationships in the spotlight just like birthdays and anniversaries. You may reconnect with people you haven’t seen much of over the preceding year, and while you find that some of those interactions will be invigorating, you might find some mentally taxing. This is a good time to remind yourself that you are in charge of your friendships. It’s up to you to decide how much effort you want to put into your friendships.

Research on social networks shows that happiness is contagious. So ask yourself, does this relationship nourish me and serve me? If the answer is no, you might want to decide to invest in others that do lift you up.

Eat a nutritious breakfast

You’ll probably find that holiday parties can throw off your usual eating routine, which means that you need to put extra effort into what you eat at the beginning of your day.

Late-night celebrations might cause you to skip dinner, or find your usual mealtimes out of sync. For breakfast, consider filling up on antioxidant-rich berries. In a 2017 trial, participants who ate a cup of blueberries (freeze-dried or fresh) showed significantly fewer errors in tests of learning after 90 days than those who received a placebo or didn’t change their diets. Add some low GI grains, and try to fit in some lean protein from fish, eggs, or meat to keep you satiated.

Remember to breathe

When all is said and done, the holiday period may not be as bad as we think it could be. After all, it is a happy time that you should enjoy. Following the tips above will put you in a good state of mind, but it’s important to remember that at times, things will go wrong.

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If something does not go according to plan, take a deep breath and step back. Then take 10 deep breaths. Oxygen is a resource for the brain–and focusing on your breath can help you press the pause button. That’s something we can all use a little more of, no matter what time of the year it is.


Dr. Tara Swart is a neuroscientist, leadership coach, author, and medical doctor. Follow her on Twitter at @TaraSwart. She is the author of the upcoming book, The Source: Open Your Mind, Change Your Life.

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