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7 brain health hacks to strengthen memory, improve mood, and feel less stressed

January 7, 2023, 1:00 PM UTC
Going outdoors for a brisk walk can help break the stress cycle.
d3sign—Getty Images

We can take care of our brains like we do the rest of our body in order to help us think logically and strengthen our emotional processing throughout the day. 

Daily habits keep our brains healthy, and as the New Year kicks into full swing, it’s a great time to think about small ways to incorporate new tools into your routine. 

Research shows that taking breaks, practicing gratitude, and trying something new can support brain health. Here are some ways to strengthen your brain this year and take care of yourself: 

Limit multitasking

When we multitask, we subconsciously tell our brains that “some things are not worth remembering,” Dr. Marc Milstein, author of the book The Age-Proof Brain: New Strategies to Improve Memory, Protect Immunity, and Fight Off Dementia, previously told Fortune

The seconds we spend constantly oscillating from task to task prevent certain pieces of information from going from our short-term to long-term memory. 

Try the pomodoro method, where you strategically alternate between tasks and breaks. If you focus on a single task for 25 minutes, you’ll be more productive and retain more information. 

“People are surprised how much more they remember when they just slow down a bit in a world where we are forced to multitask and move to the next,” says Milstein. 

Find moments of joy 

Last year, I tried the UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center’s Big Joy Project, which consists of doing seven days of seven micro-acts of joy to reduce overwhelm and instill happiness. 

While bits of stress can be healthy, chronic stress can harm the brain, affecting thinking, memory, and mood. Small acts of joy can disrupt this stress cycle. 

I listened to a short meditation, completed an act of kindness, started a gratitude practice, and reached out to a friend. 

While small acts of joy aren’t meant to fix underlying mental health conditions, they did take me out of an elevated state of alert and allowed me to feel more grateful—which many experts tout as a way to improve mood and anxiety. 

Go for a brisk walk 

When we feel stressed or burned out, our brains can slide down a worry cycle that can feel debilitating and impossible to break. Researchers discovered that stressful events are associated with an increased risk for mental and physical illness. 

“More worry creates more discomfort, which leads to more avoidance. People get trapped in a cycle of trying to avoid uncertainty or discomfort, which feels good in the short term but makes anxiety worse,” Lynn Lyons, psychotherapist and author of The Anxiety Audit, previously told Fortune

Quick physical activity breaks can help break the cycle and interrupt stressful thought patterns. Try going on a walk when you feel you’re spiraling. Dr. Thomas Frieden, former director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), says walking as a form of exercise can improve both physical and mental health, even calling it “the closest thing we have to a wonder drug.” 

Pick up a hobby

Trying something new can stimulate the brain by releasing dopamine, or the feel-good hormone. Research has shown a new hobby can also improve mental health, and in many instances, keep us connected to a community and give a feeling of belonging. 

Branching out beyond the normal routine can instill confidence in us and help us get out of a rut, by allowing our brain to make new connections and memories.

I tried rock climbing this year even though I am afraid of heights, and I found that I had no choice but to focus on getting to the next boulder, which helped me practice being present and mindful. 

Overcoming new challenges through activities and staying mentally active at any age can strengthen the brain’s cognitive abilities and help lessen the risk of Alzheimer’s and dementia. Puzzling, for example, can help our memory and problem-solving skills. 

Don’t feel you have to spend copious amounts of money on music lessons or commit to a multi-hour boxing class each week. Start small, and even think about some of the activities you enjoyed when you were younger. How can you re-incorporate those into your week? 

Practice choice reduction 

It’s estimated that adults make roughly 35,000 decisions a day—and many are made subconsciously. Battling choices throughout the day takes brain power and can cause decision fatigue, ultimately depleting us. 

When faced with an abundance of choice, our brains get overwhelmed and cannot make decisions as easily or efficiently. To alleviate the brain’s range of options, practice choice reduction. Put out your clothes for work the night before along with your packed lunch, and set a to-do list so you don’t need to feel overwhelmed about what to do when you’re in a rush. Save brain energy for the choices that matter most. 

Use self-affirmations, (they don’t need to be the cheesy kind)

Self-affirmations have scientific backing—they can improve confidence and self-esteem. Start by assessing your values and thinking about ways you have affirmed those values, experts say. 

“This is about really upholding the values that you care about and to think about why they’re important to you,” Dr. David Creswell, a professor of neuroscience and psychology at Carnegie Mellon University and researcher in self-affirmations, previously told Fortune. For example, if maintaining strong connections with people fulfills you, reflect each day on a time you felt close to someone as a way to affirm that value. 

Creswell says that practicing value-based affirmations can help activate the brain’s reward system, which makes us feel pleasure and encourages us to continue to uphold the values that make us feel happy. 

Venture to your favorite store 

Retail therapy, or browsing in your favorite store, can actually improve your mood. It can be another way to break the stress cycle, and calm yourself down. 

“Whether you’re adding items to your shopping cart online or visiting your favorite boutique for a few hours, you do get a psychological and emotional boost. Even window shopping or online browsing can bring brain-fueled happiness. But again, you want to make sure it doesn’t get out of hand,” says Dr. Scott Bea, a clinical psychologist in an interview with Cleveland Clinic

It’s no surprise convenience stores have aisles detected to self-care for the anxious shoppers who linger for a distraction—and maybe will leave with a few face masks and scented candles (in moderation, of course). 

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