We feed our stomachs with fruits and veggies. We fuel our muscles with protein. But how do we nourish our minds?
Naturally, you want to improve your brain as much as possible. After all, it is the powerhouse of practically every action we do. But how do you keep such a complex organ healthy? How do you actually nourish your mind?
As you might expect, there is no secret ingredient for nourishing your mind. Rather, it’s a complex recipe of many steps that all work together and complement each other. Let’s have a look at what science says to do to keep our brains healthy as we age.
- What does it mean to nourish your mind?
- Can you improve your brain function by nourishing it?
- 9 ways to nourish your mind through exercise
- 3 ways to nourish your mind through food & nutrition
- 13 ways to nourish your mind through mental fitness
- 1. Learn a new challenging skill
- 2. Learn a new language
- 3. Change up your habits
- 4. Keep learning new things
- 5. Stop multitasking in the wrong way
- 6. Listen to or play music
- 7. Read
- 8. Play some games
- 9. Draw or doodle
- 10. Surf the internet
- 11. Let yourself forget
- 12. Find a purpose
- 13. Adopt a growth mindset
- 3 ways to nourish your mind by being social
- 2 ways to nourish your mind through sleep
- 4 ways to nourish your mind with relaxation
- Wrapping up
What does it mean to nourish your mind?
Nourishing the mind can sound like a very nebulous concept — like high energy particle physics or letting go of the past.
So before we go any further, let’s take a moment to establish what exactly we are aiming for.
In other words, what does it mean to nourish your mind?
Based on the definitions by several recognized institutions, the British Medical Journal offers this 3-part definition of a healthy brain:
- Optimal brain integrity (overall size, gray matter density, etc.)
- Optimal mental and cognitive function (normal social behavior, movement control, interpretation of senses, etc.)
- Absence of brain diseases that impair normal functioning
Having this in mind will help guide us in determining what exactly we want to improve about the brain, and what benefits we can expect from doing so.
Can you improve your brain function by nourishing it?
Did you know that everything you do leaves its mark on your brain? Some experiences create new neurons and connections, while others trigger them to break down and die.
This happens in a process called neuroplasticity.
It can be daunting to realize that every decision, habit, and action shapes your brain in some way. But there’s also a very inspiring implication:
You can still improve your brain, at any age.
As the studies in this article show, it’s never too late to make your brain smarter, faster, and more protected from diseases like dementia.
Keep reading to find out how.
9 ways to nourish your mind through exercise
Among a wealth of other health benefits, exercising produces a protein called a brain-derived neurotrophic factor. This protein stimulates greater neural plasticity, or the ability of the brain to change and build new connections.
But if the idea of huffing and puffing at the gym doesn’t make you too excited, here’s something you’ll be very happy to hear.
Studies have shown that it doesn’t take a strenuous workout to get benefits from exercise. Rather, any movement helps to keep you sharp as you age. Even as little as walking for 2 minutes a day.
So there’s really no excuse — especially when you have so much to gain. Older adults with more active lifestyles are found to have overall healthier brains and a lower risk of dementia.
Practically any form of physical movement has benefits for the brain. So choose one that you enjoy enough that you can stick to it.
Here are 9 ideas that have been found to be particularly beneficial for the brain.
1. Aerobic exercise
Aerobic exercise is probably the most common type, so many studies have been done on its benefits for the brain.
It has been found to be one of the best forms of exercise to improve cognitive functioning, as it helps to reduce inflammation and stimulate the function and growth of neural cells.
Here are some specific benefits of aerobic exercise on brain health:
- Happier mood.
- Better executive function (mental processes that let us plan, pay attention, remember things, and juggle multiple tasks).
- Greater blood flow to the brain.
- A bigger hippocampus (involved in verbal memory and learning).
- Lower risk of dementia.
Swimming is technically a form of aerobic exercise. But it seems to give a unique boost to brain health.
Aside from the benefits of cardio listed above, swimming may give older adults an additional increase in mental speed and attention.
Another study was conducted with young land-based and swim-based athletes. Twenty minutes of moderate-intensity swimming increased cognitive function in both groups.
Researchers are still not sure why swimming, in particular, has these brain-enhancing benefits. However, it’s worth noting that swimming involves all the major muscle groups. This makes the heart work harder and increases blood flow throughout the body, including the brain.
3. Take a walk outside
If just reading about exercise makes you break out into a sweat, no worries. Walking counts too.
The more time research participants spent walking outdoors, the more they had increased gray matter leading to:
- Improved planning.
- Better regulation of actions.
- Better cognitive control.
- Lower risk of psychiatric disorders.
Even short walks gave great benefits. So even if you’ve only got 15 minutes in between Zoom meetings, it’s worth slipping outside to walk around the block.
Here's one of our articles that goes further to explain the mental benefits of walking.
4. Weight training
Though the brain isn’t technically a muscle, weight training still gives it a great workout. Gary Small, chair of psychiatry at Hackensack University Medical Center, explains:
When you lift weights, you’re really focused on form and performing specific moves, which in turn exercises the neural circuits in your brain.
Weight training also prevents shrinkage of the hippocampus. Moreover, it might be the best form of exercise for improving memory and other cognitive functions.
Yoga is another great exercise to increase brain power and nourish your mind.
A UCLA study had participants do 1 hour of meditative yoga once per week, as well as 12 minutes of at-home meditation.
They saw significant improvements in:
- Verbal memory (the ability to remember word lists).
- Visual-spatial memory (the ability to find and remember locations).
This might be surprising, as yoga is typically considered a very mild exercise. How can it have such a powerful effect?
Cathay Ciolek, president of the board of APTA Geriatrics, explains:
These types of changes occur when we practice unfamiliar movements, because when we learn new skills, we actually create new neural pathways.
6. Tai Chi
Want to try a less typical workout? Tai Chi might be a perfect choice.
It’s particularly great for brain health, as it combines physical movement with mental focus. Specifically, it might help improve:
- Cognitive ability among adults with dementia.
If the options above seem too bland for you, just put on your favorite song and break a move.
You’re not just having fun and burning calories, but also reducing the risk of dementia by 76% — twice as much as reading!
A review published in Current Alzheimer Research even found that dancing improved cognitive performance in people who already have dementia.
8. Do household chores
Though chores don’t really qualify as exercise, they might when it comes to brain health.
A study found that older adults who spend more time on household chores have a bigger brain, regardless of how many other exercises they do. This was seen in two areas in particular:
- The hippocampus (involved in memory and learning).
- The frontal lobe (involved in many aspects of cognition).
This might be because housework forces people to get on their feet and be less sedentary. Sometimes it can even be a form of low-intensity cardio. But the researchers also point out that housework requires planning and organization that promotes new neural connections.
If you struggle with staying active, this could be a great way to get started, “since household chores are a natural and often necessary aspect of many people’s daily lives, and therefore appear more attainable.”
9. Spend time in nature
Perhaps the greatest way to nourish your brain with movement is to do it outside.
Walking and spending time in nature, particularly in forests, helps with over a dozen aspects of health and wellbeing, which we've discussed in this article.
But if you don’t have the option to stroll around a forest, including nature in your environment can still provide many of the same benefits:
- Set up your workstation to have a view of nature.
- Put plants in your home.
- Put up paintings of natural scenery.
- Set a natural scene as your phone screensaver.
- Surround yourself with the color green (products, clothes, interior design, etc.)
3 ways to nourish your mind through food & nutrition
You’ve probably heard that “you are what you eat”. Well, your brain would agree.
Food is a crucial part of nourishing your brain — rather literally. Here are 3 essential tips to include in your eating habits.
1. Eat foods that are good for your brain (and avoid the bad ones)
When you feel tired or down, you might automatically reach for your favorite candy bar or bag of chips. And it’s true that sugar does have a role in brain function, especially if energy is needed quickly.
But studies confirm that nothing beats a balanced, nutritional meal.
Virtually any natural food, like fruits and veggies, is good for our brain. So keep a balanced diet to get a variety of nutrients. This article will help you decide what is good and what isn't.
It can be a little overwhelming to manage your diet with a long list of foods to include and avoid. So focus on making one change at a time — a great way to start is to replace processed snacks with wholesome ones like fruits or nuts, and swap pop drinks for water or tea.
2. Keep your gut healthy
We’ve been talking about nourishing your brain, but what about your “second brain” — the gut?
Research has shown that the gut and the brain have two-way communication. The brain affects gut function and vice versa. Gut bacteria can also create important neurotransmitters.
So keeping your brain healthy also means keeping your gut healthy.
A study suggests one good way to do that is consuming probiotics. Participants who took probiotic supplements had better mental flexibility and stress scores after 12 weeks.
3. Drink enough water
The human body is made of 60-80% water. And the brain? 73% water.
So you can imagine how important staying hydrated is for nourishing your brain.
So far, studies haven’t shown significant impairment to cognitive function unless dehydration was severe.
But not drinking enough water has a huge impact on your mental state and mood, which can affect practically any form of mental performance.
So even if it’s just to boost your mood, drink the recommended 4-6 cups of water per day to improve your brain skills.
13 ways to nourish your mind through mental fitness
As we’ve already seen, food and fitness both have an enormous impact on brain health.
But now we get to the most intuitive tips: improving brain function through exercising your brain.
Here are 13 fun and effective ways to do this.
1. Learn a new challenging skill
Learning nearly any skill is an excellent way to nourish your mind and keep your brain healthy.
The one key? It must be challenging for you.
This was shown through a study where participants were assigned to different activities. Some learned quilting, others digital photography. Those in the control groups did activities that were fun but not mentally challenging, like watching movies or playing easy games.
They each spent 15 hours per week for 3 months on these tasks.
Afterward, they were tested on their memory. Only the participants who learned a challenging skill showed improvements — and they maintained them when retested a year later.
The study also showed that learning new skills is much better than practicing “brain games”. The latter can improve certain brain functions, but a new skill strengthens entire brain networks.
What kind of skill should you choose?
The study author points out that the more difficult the skill is to learn, the greater improvement you’ll see in brain function. But she also says that what’s “challenging” can be subjective:
Quilting may not seem like a mentally challenging task. But if you're a novice and you're cutting out all these abstract shapes, it's a very demanding and complex task.
So you can have your pick of anything that’s new to you and complex. Most importantly, pick something you can stick to. Harvard-affiliated researcher John N. Morris explains:
You can't improve memory if you don't work at it. The more time you devote to engaging your brain, the more it benefits.
But he also says that you don’t have to aim to make huge improvements:
It is the constant repetition of working to improve, and not the quest for mastery, that can have the greatest impact.
Here are some more ideas from similar studies to get you started:
- Digital photography and photoshop.
- Painting and other art forms.
- Learning a musical instrument.
- Doing expressive or autobiographical writing.
- Learning a language.
Alternative: Make an existing hobby more challenging
If you’re not up for trying a new hobby, Dr. Morris suggests raising the bar for an existing one. For example, if you’re a casual golfer, you can aim to shoot a better score or lower your handicap.
As he says, "you don't have the challenge of learning something new, but rather the challenge of increasing your skill set and knowledge.”
2. Learn a new language
Learning a new language technically falls under learning a new skill. But it is so good for the brain, that it warrants its own section.
Studies have shown this has great benefits across a wide range of scopes:
- Babies exposed to 2 languages from birth have better cognitive control abilities.
- Young adults who are bilingual have better attention and concentration.
- Adults who learn a new language have higher than expected intelligence in later life.
More specifically, these studies show learning a new language helps you improve your ability to:
- Ignore distractions to stay focused.
- Switch attention from one task to another.
- Hold information in mind.
- Increase your overall intelligence.
- Buffer your brain against aging.
One thing is clear: no matter your age, a language course or private lessons are a great investment for your brain.
But if you don’t have the time or money for that, even using a language learning app like Duolingo has been proven to have great cognitive benefits.
Whatever approach you choose, make it a regular commitment. In one of the studies above, participants saw results after 4 months of studying 30 minutes per day, 5 days per week.
3. Change up your habits
Take a moment to think about your daily routine. How long have you been doing things the exact same way?
Keeping steady habits has great benefits for improving productivity and organization. But if your goal is to nourish your mind, you might like to shake things up a little.
But we’re often so set in our ways, the hardest part of this exercise can be coming up with ideas. Here are some to get you started:
- Change the order of your morning routine or shower routine.
- Make breakfast using only one hand.
- Eat with your non-dominant hand.
- Take a different route to work.
- Stand while you’re working (this may increase productivity too).
- Set times where you don’t use any electronics or social media.
- Try a new place for lunch.
- Exercise in a new environment (try a new gym, change rooms at home, or go to a different park).
- Rearrange your furniture or storage at home.
4. Keep learning new things
You may have heard that learning is a lifelong process. And it seems nature intended it that way — as Keith Rowe put it, “when you stop learning, you start dying.”
Learning creates new neural connections in the brain, no matter your age. But if you stop, those connections begin to break apart and your cognitive performance suffers.
So you can think of knowledge like apples: a morsel a day keeps dementia away.
A study even found that an academic background can help slow down brain degeneration in old age. But obviously, you don’t necessarily need to get a degree. The study authors suggest many other ways to continue learning:
- Have thought-provoking conversations.
- Watch intelligent, educational TV shows.
- Enroll in a course.
- Read about interesting topics.
- Keep up with current events and the latest news in science and medicine.
5. Stop multitasking in the wrong way
In a world where productivity is put on a pedestal, multitasking can seem like a requirement. Add to this the fact that we’re surrounded by phones and computers, and it seems almost impossible not to do it.
But you might give it a shot after you hear this.
In fact, multitasking is not just counterproductive. It is also literally causing damage to your brain.
This is especially true for “media multitasking”. This means using several devices or consuming different types of content at once. For example, listening to music while watching the ball game, or sending an email while talking to someone on the phone.
In terms of our cognitive functioning, media multitasking hinders our ability to:
- Pay attention.
- Recall information.
- Organize thoughts.
- Switch from one task to another.
- Cope with emotional problems.
So is there any reason why you’d want to multitask? Well, there might still be one.
Multitasking can be beneficial during creative problem solving, as it helps reduce your fixation on a problem.
6. Listen to or play music
If you’re too tired to actively work your brain, try putting on some great beats instead.
Though it doesn’t require much effort, research has shown that music stimulates the brain like almost nothing else. In particular, it:
- Reduces anxiety.
- Lowers blood pressure.
- Reduces pain perception.
- Improves sleep quality.
- Lifts your mood.
- Boosts mental alertness.
- Improves memory.
But how can Mozart or Rihanna possibly do all that to your brain? Johns Hopkins researchers explain:
Music is structural, mathematical, and architectural. It’s based on relationships between one note and the next. You may not be aware of it, but your brain has to do a lot of computing to make sense of it.
In fact, listening to music can have the same positive impact on wellbeing as exercising or losing weight. (Though of course, this doesn’t mean you can replace your entire fitness routine with music!)
When it comes to nourishing the mind, reading is one of the first ideas that often pops into mind.
And for good reason. Studies have shown that reading helps protect memory and thinking skills, especially as you get older. The authors suggest that reading every day can slow down the effects of aging on the brain, keeping it healthy and functioning for longer.
So it’s time to dust off your bookshelves or pull out your ereader. Even newspapers, magazines, and web articles can do the trick.
If you want to read more about nourishing your brain, here are some great options:
- Keep Sharp: Build a Better Brain at Any Age
- Noise: A Flaw in Human Judgment
- Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know
8. Play some games
You’ve surely heard “work hard, play hard.” As it turns out, both parts of this adage are great for your brain.
But not all games are like the others.
Here are the 4 best types to improve your brain function.
1. Puzzle and number games
As the hallmark for training your brain, puzzle games are the first type that helps sharpen your mind.
- Jigsaw puzzles.
- Number puzzles like Sudoku.
2. Board games and card games
Board and card games are also great for the brain, including chess and checkers. These work to enhance the brain’s processing speed and memory. They may also help lower the risk of dementia.
3. Brain training apps
Prefer to play on your phone? No problem — many apps are created specifically to train your brain.
A group of researchers has made 3 apps that have been proven to work through a series of studies:
- Gwakkamolé — trains inhibitory control (controlling your attention, behavior, thoughts, and emotions).
- CrushStations — trains working memory (remembering information you learn on a daily basis).
- All You Can ET — trains cognitive flexibility (switching between two different tasks, or thinking about multiple things simultaneously).
4. Video games
Here’s great news for any gamers reading this. Research has shown video games can give these benefits:
- Increased gray matter.
- Strengthened networking within the brain.
- Improved hand-eye motor coordination.
- Improved memory.
- Improved problem-solving and decision-making.
But before you hunker down for a weekend glued to your console, remember that moderation is key in anything you do — and Link can stay frozen mid-swing for as long as you need.
In fact, length of play doesn’t seem to be all that important for nourishing your brain. Rather, it’s the players' enjoyment that leads to better mental wellbeing. And those who feel pressured to play see the opposite effect.
9. Draw or doodle
If you tend to doodle while bored in a class or meeting, you’ll be happy to hear that also nourishes your mind.
A study found that drawing, coloring, and doodling all activate the prefrontal cortex. This is where higher-level thinking happens, including:
- Impulse control.
Participants also felt they improved in problem solving and having good ideas.
This one is very easy to do: just grab a pen and paper and let your imagination roam free!
10. Surf the internet
Addicted to surfing the web? A UCLA study shows it’s actually not a bad way to spend your free time.
Participants either did a book reading task or surfed the Internet. Both activities showed significant brain activity in regions controlling:
- Visual abilities.
But in addition, searching the Internet showed brain activity in areas that control:
- Decision making.
- Complex reasoning.
Surprised? There’s a very logical explanation:
Compared with simple reading, the Internet's wealth of choices requires that people make decisions about what to click on in order to pursue more information, an activity that engages important cognitive circuits in the brain.
There is only one catch — this extra pair of benefits only applies if the participants are experienced in surfing the web. This is because new internet users don’t yet know the strategies to fully engage in the activity. But with a bit more time and practice, anyone can get these benefits.
11. Let yourself forget
Did you know your brain has entire mechanisms that promote memory loss? But don’t freak out — this is actually very good for your brain.
As researchers at the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research explain, the goal of memory is not actually to remember as much as possible for as long as possible. Rather, it’s to only hold onto valuable information that helps you make intelligent decisions.
This also means you have to let yourself forget irrelevant and outdated details. For example, there’s no point in remembering an old procedure at work after the rules have changed.
This is what helps you adapt to new situations and the ever-changing environment around you.
12. Find a purpose
Have you found your purpose in life? If not, it might be high time to start looking for one.
Aside from enhancing your wellbeing, having a sense of purpose can reduce the effects of dementia. In fact, a review of studies showed it is more effective for brain health than many other positive psychology concepts.
The researchers speculate that this might be because having purpose inspires you to take better care of yourself. So in essence, you get a happier life — and a healthier brain to boot.
If you struggle to find your purpose, try pondering these questions:
- What fills you with the most joy? Think back on your last week or month and identify experiences that jump out to you as the most satisfying.
- What are the core values that you want to live by? (health, honesty, courage, self-development, nature, etc.)
- If you had 2 months of free time and money was not a problem, what would you want to spend this time on? Consider why you would want to dedicate your time to this.
13. Adopt a growth mindset
You might have noticed that many of the above tips to nourish your mind involve getting out of your comfort zone:
- Learning new skills.
- Practicing challenging activities.
- Changing up your habits.
Some people might jump at the chance to stretch their boundaries in these ways. Others might find it a bit daunting. But if you want to improve your brain, it’s imperative that you open yourself up to these experiences.
The growth mindset can help you do that.
This is an approach to life and learning coined by Dr. Carol Dweck. It’s centered around the belief that you can get better at anything with motivation and practice. This allows you to view mistakes as opportunities to learn rather than an evaluation of poor performance.
You can therefore approach new experiences without being held back by fear of failure.
You can learn more about the growth mindset by reading our article about it.
When you’re ready to put it into practice, here are some ways to cultivate a growth mindset:
- Acknowledge and embrace your imperfections and weaknesses.
- Try different learning tactics.
- Focus on the process rather than the end result.
- Notice your actions and effort rather than fixed “traits” or “talent”.
- Learn to embrace feedback.
- Keep track of your progress and the lessons you’ve learned.
How do you think your life would look without any other people in it?
Aside from being terribly lonely (not to mention boring), it would be a huge loss for your brain.
Here are 3 key ways your brain is nourished by social interactions.
Building connections with others is not just an integral part of our lives and happiness. It also has amazing benefits for the brain.
Even basic interactions with others keep our brains stimulated as they search for thoughts and a way to organize them into communication. That might explain why people who feel less lonely also have less cognitive decline as they age.
Other studies even suggest that an active social lifestyle is a key to warding off dementia.
And the best part?
You can easily combine being social with many other ways to nourish your mind. Here are just a few ideas:
- Join a group fitness class where the other participants can help you stay motivated too.
- Find a tandem partner to help you practice a new language.
- Join a book club to discuss your favorite books with others.
- Sign up for a class to learn a new hobby.
- Join a choir or a musical group.
- Get together with friends to play challenging games.
2. Surround yourself with good listeners
Is there someone in your life you can always count on to listen?
This person might be doing you a much bigger service than you think.
As it turns out, having good listeners in your life can help support cognitive function and prevent problems like dementia. More specifically, it improves “global cognition”, which includes:
- Visual and spatial reasoning.
In addition, being listened to improves cognitive resilience, which is what keeps your brain healthy and functioning well as it ages.
These benefits were specific to good listeners over other types of social support (providing advice, affection, emotional support, trust, or social contact).
If you're wondering whether you're a good listener yourself, here's our article on how to be one.
3. Give to others
It’s pretty well known by now that giving makes you happy. But did you know that being generous can also nourish your mind?
When you give to others, you have decreased activity in the amygdala. This is the part of the brain where too much activity is linked with anxiety, phobias, and post-traumatic stress disorder.
However, there is one distinction to keep in mind: giving only has these brain benefits when it is targeted to a specific person. When study participants gave to a charity in general, they showed no change in brain activity.
Here are some ideas for how you can give to others:
- Help a family member, flatmate, or friend with housework during a stressful day.
- Mow your neighbor’s lawn, rake their leaves, or shovel their driveway.
- Support a friend who’s working on a life change.
- Give someone an honest compliment.
- Check-in with a friend you haven’t seen in a while.
2 ways to nourish your mind through sleep
The next time you consider staying up late to watch one more episode on Netflix, you might want to think twice.
As you’re about to discover, sleep is an incredibly important aspect of nourishing your mind and keeping a healthy brain.
1. Get quality sleep
If you want to nourish your mind, you’re probably excited to pack as much new information and ideas into it as possible.
But don’t forget the other half of the equation — rest!
Without sleep, the brain cannot function properly. It doesn’t have time to recuperate, and as a result, neurons become overworked and performance plummets.
Even pulling a single all-nighter has a myriad of short-term implications, from drowsiness and bad mood to slower thinking and impaired judgment.
And it gets even worse if sleep problems are chronic or long-term, most notably with higher risk of cognitive impairment and dementia.
Thankfully, the solution is simple, free, and exceedingly pleasant — get regular quality sleep.
This means sleeping within the recommended number of hours (remember too much sleep is also bad!) and not being woken up throughout the night.
Your brain will thank you with:
- Better memory.
- Enhanced creativity.
- Enhanced cognitive performance.
- Lower risk of dementia.
2. Take a nap
Of course, there is no substitute for regular quality sleep at night.
But taking a nap when you need one also improves brain function and memory in particular.
One study showed that people remember new information much better if they take a nap after learning it. This is because napping pushes memories from the hippocampus to the cortex, where they can be stored more permanently.
4 ways to nourish your mind with relaxation
If you’ve ever had someone tell you “just relax!”, you’ll know how maddeningly difficult this can be to do on request.
But chronic stress can be very harmful to our brains. So it’s important for us to carve out time to wind down.
Thankfully, there are a few specific and easy ways that can help you reduce stress and relax.
Keep reading to find out our final 4 tips to nourish your mind.
1. Practice gratitude
We all say “thank you” on a daily basis, but how often do you actually mean it?
Pausing to consciously tap into gratitude is a powerful way to reduce stress.
There are many ways to practice gratitude.
If you’re going for long-term benefits, try a daily practice of writing down 3 good things that happened and their causes. This leads to a gradual and consistent improvement in happiness over several months of practice.
But there are many other methods. The key to seeing results is to stick to it long-term. Here are more options:
- Write down things you are grateful for, even on your phone.
- Think of as many things as you can that you're grateful for in 1 minute (or more).
- Pick 1 thing you're grateful for and visualize it for 1 minute (or more), focusing on feelings of gratitude.
- Say to a friend or partner what you appreciate about them.
- Text a friend that you appreciate their friendship.
2. Practice deep breathing
Want a way to nourish your mind that’s completely free and that you can do literally anytime? It’s as easy as taking a deep breath.
You’ve probably heard someone tell you to do this in a stressful situation. Neuropsychologist Kristoffer Rhoads explains why:
When you’re stressed or anxious, your breathing tends to be irregular and shallow. Your chest cavity can only expand and contract so much, which makes it hard to get more air in.
Deep breathing helps reverse this process, toning the stress response down through the breath.
As a result, this:
- Calms your nerves.
- Reduces stress and anxiety.
- Improves your attention span.
- Lowers pain levels.
If you want to sit down for a deep breathing session, Rhoads suggests first activating the stress response. Though it might sound counterproductive, this helps engage the sympathetic nervous system to make the breathing exercise more effective.
Imagine an extremely stressful situation and notice the physical response in your body. You might feel your heart beating faster, your chest tightening, and your breathing becoming more shallow.
Then, follow these steps to engage in deep breathing:
- Turn your attention to your breath.
- Breath from your stomach, pushing it out when you inhale and exhale all the way.
- Take longer breaths, counting to at least 3 for each inhalation and exhalation.
Focusing on the length and feel of your breath may also provide some extra mental benefits.
This exercise might feel a little uncomfortable at first. But soon, you will notice your body starting to relax.
3. Be mindful
Be honest: how much of your day were you actually present today? Or did you spend most of your time thinking about dinner, your next vacation, or your neighbor’s annoying dog?
A review of over 20 studies suggests that mindfulness could have amazing benefits for not one, but 8 different brain areas. This includes improvements in:
- Emotion regulation.
You can practice it at any point throughout your day: just bring your focus to the present moment and what you are doing.
If you struggle with this, set the intention to journal about your day before going to bed. This will make you notice and remember the details around you more. Alternatively, you can imagine you need to recount what you’re experiencing to a friend later.
And of course, there are many meditations targeted towards mindfulness too. You can find many examples on YouTube, podcasts, or apps such as Aura or Bloom.
4. Take some downtime
After a long list of choices, changes, and challenges to train your brain, you’ll be very happy to hear this final tip.
To nourish your mind, it’s very important to have some downtime.
Research has confirmed that taking breaks:
- Improves your mood.
- Boosts your performance.
- Increases your ability to concentrate and pay attention.
- Reduces the likelihood of burnout and health problems from chronic stress.
But we also need to define what this practice means. In the true sense of the word, downtime means not making your brain process any information — at all. This means letting your mind wander and focusing attention inward rather than on the external world.
So downtime does not include:
- Going to a museum.
- Doing a puzzle.
- Reading a book.
- Catching up with a friend.
- Scrolling through social media.
- Watching TV.
- Playing games on your phone
These activities are all fun and many can be good for the brain in their own way.
These activities all require processing information — and part of the reason we need more downtime is that we’re doing way too much processing already.
So what counts as downtime? Anything that lets your mind meander:
- Sit and stare into space
- Do a mindless task, like vacuuming or weeding.
- Take a walk in nature.
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If you’ve read this article, you’ve already done one thing today to nourish your mind. You’re also now armed with over 30 great tips to work into your daily life. From morning walks in the forest to evening crossword puzzles, there is something for any brain’s tastes. Though there are a lot of health practices to bite into, remember that nourishing your mind comes from cultivating balance — and that includes savoring the occasional dessert.
Do you feel like you've got a nourished mind? What's your favorite tip from this article? I'd love to hear from you in the comments below!