Wherever you are, these are tricky times as we live through a pandemic and the things it brings with it; lockdowns, social isolation, closed state and international borders, uncertainty. In the clinic I am seeing lots of patients struggle with their mental health; for many anxiety and stress levels are high, some are feeling low and bleak about the future and for many sleep is harder to come by as the brain churns through all the things happening in the world.
If you are struggling, if you don’t feel quite like yourself (this is something patient’s often say to me in the clinic – “I feel like the old me has disappeared”) then it’s worth speaking to someone; your GP, psychologist if you have one, a friend.
I want to share with you some practical ways you can look after your brain in these tricky times – with the veto that if you are struggling, if you are not quite “you” that you will speak to someone, please.
1. Move more- if you can
Yes, it’s great for your physical health – for reducing risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and certain cancers (like bowel and breast cancer) but it’s also GREAT for the brain. At the moment a whole heap of my patients are leaving the consulting room with a life script for physical activity because we know that exercise medicates the brain.
Research has shown than even an hour a week of exercise can help protect against depression. Exercise is great for managing stress and has evidence for reducing symptoms in depression and anxiety.
For my patients who are struggling with sleep I prescribe some form of daily exercise (be it a walk or squat session) in sunlight because physical activity in sunlight can help improve night-time sleep quality.
If you are feeling more stressed and anxious right now (and trust me, you are not alone) exercise may help burn off excess cortisol (the hormone that makes you feel restless and fidgety) and you just might notice a reduction in your symptoms!
2. Drink less caffeine and alcohol – even though it’s so incredibly tempting to do the opposite
If you are feeling stressed or anxious caffeine can exacerbate these symptoms. If the mind is racing and you are feeling a bit on edge, then those extra cups of tea and coffee may be making your symptoms worse.
Alcohol is one of those things that might make you feel better temporarily (stressed day at work, red wine at night helps right?) but we know that alcohol can negatively impact mood and sleep quality. Whilst it is very tempting in these stressful uncertain times to pour a wine – it might be worth finding another way to wind down!
3. Sleep is great for the brain!
Particularly in lockdown (and millions of us are in the thick of it right now) it can be easy to stay up late binging awesome TV shows and sleep in a little later. Keeping to a routine, however and a regular bed and wake time can do wonders for your sleep and hence, mood. Sleep, the brain and mood are closely linked – getting enough sleep can help the mood.
If you are struggling with sleep here are some of the (seriously) simple sleep hygiene measures I prescribe lots of my patients:
Avoid caffeine after 2PM
Avoid any screens in the 1 hour before bed; yes, this includes phones, computers, and TV; the blue light in these devices blocks the production of the sleep hormone called melatonin
Engage in a wind down ritual 1 hour before bed – do the same thing every night before bed be it a warm shower and reading a book or mindful colouring in; prepare the body for sleep!
I hope these practical tips are helpful. And remember if you’re struggling, overwhelmed or just need someone to talk to; your GP is always there.