Maintain social connection in a physically distanced world.
My motto “connection for protection” has taken on a whole new meaning. We may not be able to kiss and hug whomever we want, but we can certainly maintain and even create new enriching interpersonal relationships, and we should make that a priority. The pandemic has caused widespread emotional distress and increased risk for psychiatric illness, though we don’t know yet if conditions like depression from COVID-19 are happening directly from the infection or if there are other things going on psychologically from the illness to complicate this evolving picture. What we do know is that prolonged social isolation leads to memory loss, and that loneliness is a risk factor for cognitive decline, dementia and even death. It becomes all the more imperative to fight back against loneliness and remain socially engaged.
Tip: When asking about someone’s well-being, probe more deeply and refuse to accept a generic “I’m doing fine.” Another tip, from my own life: Ask for guidance from people such as your parents. It lets them feel a degree of usefulness that can activate the mind. When you can, participate in virtual chats with friends and family. And when you can see people in person, focus on eye contact; it’s more important than ever to ease the stress of masked faces. Plus, University of Chicago loneliness researcher Stephanie Cacioppo told me that the eyes, in particular, reflect more authentic emotion.
Eat for resiliency.
There are no such things as immune boosters or superfoods, but there’s lots of data behind the advantages of a Mediterranean-style diet rooted in fresh fruits and vegetables; whole grains; lean proteins, including seafood; healthy fats; and nuts and seeds. People who follow anti-inflammatory diets such as the Mediterranean regimen may additionally gain beneficial effects against infection itself.
Tip: Processed and sugary foods tend to raise inflammation levels. Try swapping out one processed, pro-inflammatory meal a day for minimally processed fare grounded in whole, fresh foods.
Move more. Exercise remains key to mental sharpness and a healthy immune system.
Exercise can counteract the negative effects of isolation and confinement stress on immune function. We also know now that exercise improves immune responses to infections and could even help to develop better immunity with the aid of a vaccine. All of this ultimately helps protect the brain and its vulnerability in the face of infection.
Tip: Access to exercise is better than it ever was pre-pandemic, thanks to a surge in online programming. Find a corner in a room, log on to a virtual class, and get moving — no membership required. And remember, being outside is far safer than being inside, where the virus can linger longer, so find new, less crowded routes and quieter times of day to enjoy a brisk walk, run or bike ride.
Boost immunity through sound sleep.
Our sleeping habits have changed throughout the pandemic because of shifts in our routines. But now is not the time to lose sleep. It’s your (free) secret weapon to refresh and replenish tissues and cells — among them, those of the brain and immune system. It also rinses away waste and debris in the brain that can otherwise foment disease, and it strengthens your memories. After a good night’s sleep, you wake up with a smarter body and a sharper mind, better able to deal with the day’s stressors.
Tip: I used to take at least 30 minutes to wind down before bedtime, but these days I’ve bumped up relaxing presleep activities (no more screens) to at least an hour. Harvard University psychologist and dream researcher Deirdre Barrett says it’s helpful to keep a dream journal as we go through this pandemic. “You’ll notice patterns in your dreams over time that you might not get just from thinking about each individual dream,” she told me. Try to prevent anxiety-ridden COVID-19 dreams by actively planning out what you want to dream about before you fall asleep.
Ward off anxiety and fears by learning something new, to distract from the negative news.
Distance learning is not just for kids! For less than the cost of a pizza a month, you can be a student of dance taught by Misty Copeland, of writing taught by David Sedaris or of tennis taught by Serena Williams. Finding this sort of purpose-driven activity activates the brain in protective ways.
Tip: You can up the challenge of learning something new by teaching a class yourself. Some educational platforms allow anyone — no teaching degree or formal credentials required — to share their expertise and interests with the world, anything from sign language to survival skills to the stock market.
Neurosurgeon Sanjay Gupta is CNN’s chief medical correspondent. His new book Keep Sharp: Build a Better Brain at Any Age, will be in bookstores on January 5.