‘I’m a Neuroscientist, and This Is How To Reboot Your Brain After a Year of Chronic Stress’

Photo: Getty Images / Maskot
While some of us are deliberately trying to forget the entirety of the last 12 months, there's no escaping the subtle and not-so-subtle effects of experiencing a year's worth of unprecedented chronic stress. "Being in a stress state over a long period of time starts putting pressure on the nervous system, because basically stress hijacks your critical thinking and puts you into reactionary thinking—fight or flight," says Patrick K. Porter, PhD, neuroscientist, author, and creator of BrainTap. "I call it 'survivor brain,' and we want to be in the 'thriving brain.'" After a year a chronic stress, what your brain needs is a reboot of sorts.

Experts In This Article

Survivor brain is causing us all sorts of problems, like anxiety, brain fog, lethargy, apathy, and memory issues, says Dean Sherzai, MD, PhD, behavioral neurologist, neuroscientist, and author of The 30-Day Alzheimer's Solution. "On top of that there's the emotional component, which is that your brain wants relief, your brain wants completion," he says. There are two types of stress: good and bad. Good stress has direction, it has a point at which it will be relieved (think: running a marathon or taking the SATs). Bad stress has no direction, or clear path forward and out. The pandemic has brought on plenty of the bad kind of stress.

While there appears to be light at the end of the tunnel, our brains are not simply going to return to their pre-pandemic state. For starters, the pandemic is not yet over, but even if we do succeed in significantly neutralizing the risk of COVID-19, some degree of hyper-vigilance may remain. After all, we now know (at least, in the United States) that our lives can be completely upended at any moment by a microscopic threat. And besides, after a year of being consistently amped up, amped up may be our brains' new default state.

All of which is to say that we may need to do a bit of work to help our brains level-set to the extent possible. Fortunately, this is not actually all that difficult to do, according to Dr. Sherzai. "There is no magic needed," he says. And in even more encouraging news, he says we can not only return our brains to a healthy state but improve upon or optimize their functioning in the process. In other words, we can make our brains perform better than they did before the whole mess of a year that was 2020.

How to 'reboot' your brain

1. Exercise daily

The bulk of Dr. Sherzai's recommendations to reboot your brain require time to take effect, but that's not true of one. "The technique that's very blunt, and it's got a direct physiological effect on mood and attention and the brain, is exercise," he says. "It's easy tension relief—a blunt cleansing of your psychology and physiology."

You don't have to commit to an hour at the gym, either. On the contrary, Dr. Sherzai says you can start with 10 minutes if that's what suits you best—you just need to do something strenuous enough to make you short of breath. Both Dr. Sherzai and Dr. Porter recommend getting your 10 (or 60) minutes of exercise in in the morning, if possible, but any exercise is better than none. And it should be done daily.

Dr. Porter offers one caveat to this recommendation, however. "You have to rest afterwards," he says. "You can't just be stressing out [your brain] by working out." Exercise, he explains, drives up your cortisol (the stress hormone) levels, so taking some time to calm then down after is a necessary part of re-balancing your brain.

Start with this 10-minute workout to renew your spirit:

2. Rethink your diet

"Bad food," says Dr. Sherzai, creates tension in the brain. To illustrate this point, he notes that saturated fat and excessive alcohol are triggers for migraines, and says that this effect isn't just present in minor brain ailments but in all brain ailments. "There's a reason they call it a 'food coma'—it's because the brain's been overwhelmed with glucose and therefore goes into a dormant state," he says. "So if you eat well, you're going to allow the brain to settle down and refocus, reframe, rebuild, and reorganize," he says.

As for what qualifies as "bad food," Dr. Sherzai offers a pretty extensive list. Sugar, fried foods (and all foods high in saturated fats), and animal products (even seafood and eggs!). You don't necessarily have to eliminate those foods forever, however; his book recommends a 30-day "reset" if you're not game for a permanent overhaul.

It might be easier to focus on the "good foods," too, of which there are also many. Dr. Sherzai has identified what he calls "the Neuro 9," which include leafy green vegetables, whole grains, seeds, beans, berries, nuts, crucifers, tea, and herbs and spices (hold the salt!). In general, he recommends thinking intuitively about your diet while avoiding processed foods and eating homemade meals whenever possible.

Here's what a dietitian wants you to know about intuitive eating:

3. Identify, categorize, and address your stressors

As mentioned above, Dr. Sherzai says there are good and bad stressors in your life, and that learning how to enhance the good stressors and eliminate the bad stressors is critical to improving the function of your brain.

First, he says, you need to identify all of the good stressors in your life, all of the bad stressors in your life, and then all of the stressors you just can't do anything about. To differentiate between the good and the bad, Dr. Sherzai recommends using the SMART framework. Within it, good stressors are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant (to your overall goals), and Time-Bound (SMART!).

Some examples of good stressors are learning a musical instrument; taking a course that may help you get a raise at work; running a marathon or mini marathon if you are a beginner; planning a wedding; learning a new language; learning a particular dance; leading a book club; writing a book; doing the family genealogy; building that patio or just that desk you always wanted; and volunteering. Dr. Sherzai doesn't just want you to identify these in your life; he also wants you to add more of them to your plate. Then, break them down into small goals you can achieve regularly to make your brain feel its best. 

Next, he says, you'll want to identify your bad stressors. You'll know they're bad because they don't fit into the SMART framework—they don’t serve your purpose, which is the R (relevant) and they don’t have clear timelines for achievement/success, which is the T (time-bound). "Then, start picking them off, one at a time," he says. "See how you can delegate, reduce, and/or eliminate them. They should be small enough that they're achievable—if you're not achieving [this reduction or elimination of bad stressors], either they're not under your control completely or you're not breaking them down into small enough pieces to be manageable and maneuverable."

Dr. Sherzai offers an example to help you visualize what eradicating or reducing bad stressors might look like. If you hate your commute to work, for example, that is specific and measurable, which means you can work towards changing it by trying to work one day per week from home or carpooling with someone. "At home, the stress of not knowing what to make for dinner, or more everyday stress of figuring out the next meal, can be changed to [a feeling] of accomplishment by instituting batch cooking once a week in which you plan and make most of the week's meals," he says. "In this one act you reduce bad stress, increase the good stress of thinking about several meals in an organized way, (and also significantly increase the likelihood that you will be eating healthy)."

And then there are the stressors over which you have no control, which need to be dealt with in their own way. "This is a very important aspect of stress management, because we will all have activities that we just can’t get rid of or delegate, and if not addressed they can be micro sources of anxiety and stress," Dr. Sherzai says. "They can become very toxic over time."

Your first step to dealing with these is to have made a plan of attack regarding the good and bad stressors you can control. Once you've created this strategy, you can use it to reframe the things you can't control as potentially serving the greater picture. For example, if you have a long commute and you can't do anything about it, but the commute is to a job that's on the ladder to your dream job, it's serving the greater purpose you've outlined for yourself. "Where the stress is not at all connected to or serving the bigger plan, then you have to start developing a longer plan of eliminating or delegating it over time, and just accepting it for now," he says.

4. Employ breathing techniques

Both neuroscientists recommend breathing techniques to help relieve stress, which can help to reboot your brain not just in the moment you're practicing the techniques but more globally, too. "When you're breathing in, it triggers the sympathetic system, which is your fight or flight, but when you breathe out you trigger your parasympathetic, or your rest relax digest—again, you can call it the thriving and the surviving brain," says Dr. Porter. "And so when you're breathing out, you're basically training your brain to disengage from the sympathetic and turn on the parasympathetic." With regular practice, this becomes quicker and more effective over time.

Dr. Porter likes a technique called box breathing, where you breathe in to the count of four, hold that breath for a count of four, breathe out to the count of four, and then hold the exhale for a count of four, and then repeat the cycle for two, three, or four minutes. "That will shift your brain function," he says.

This experience includes a form of box breathing, yoga, and "good stress" in the form of an ice bath:

5. Keep a journal

Some coping mechanisms show up again and again in professional recommendations, and journaling is among them. "If you can write it down, that's another way to disassociate—you get it out of your head on the paper," says Dr. Porter. "It's very cathartic—people will get a release of stress doing that."

Journaling can be about anything—stream of consciousness is most typical—but Dr. Porter recommends a type specifically designed to help reduce chronic stress. Much stress, he posits, is created by uncertainty; humans are not fond of the unpredictable. To eliminate some of the negative emotions created by uncertainty, he recommends creating a future gratitude journal, wherein you journal about what you would like to have happen. "The best way to predict the future is to create it," he says. "[This type of journaling] will build into your mind the thought of something positive, and you'll start creating those kinds of experiences for yourself."

6. Connect with others

Of course, talking to someone can help—whether that's a friend or a professional. "We all need community," says Porter. Our brains are wired for it. And some people may be stuck to the point where they need an expert's help "to see them through the woods and get them back on the path."

7. Reframe the "worst year ever"

Dr. Sherzai doesn't want to detract from the fact that the past year has been awful in countless ways; however, he does point out that it was hardly the worst year in human history, and it can be helpful to reframe what we've been through with some perspective. He says he's aware that this is an uncomfortable point to make, but he (delicately) makes it because humans tend to be "cognitive misers" who choose to dramatize things in a way that centers themselves in the narrative. Such hyperbolic thinking isn't necessarily productive.

The past year is actually providing you with an opportunity to reboot your brain that may not otherwise exist, says Dr. Sherzai. "We can choose to take the situation we're in, and where we are as far as our knowledge of the brain, and psychology of the brain, to completely reframe that narrative, and start rebuilding the brain at a level that has never been achieved before," he says. "That can only be achieved under these kind of stress states, because the natural state of human beings is to settle to the status quo, to where we feel it's comfortable, and it's in accepting the discomfort and being pushed out of the norm—and understanding where we are with the technology and knowledge of the brain—that we can truly achieve optimal capacity of the brain." 

In other words, a year of chronic stress rather rudely disrupted the status quo, making things uncomfortable in ways that will ultimately benefit your efforts to reboot your brain. In fact, he says, we can look at this awful pandemic period as an opportunity to learn and "survive better" in the future, as the strategies he outlines can be used to manage all types of stress moving forward. These strategies, after all, aren't just good crisis management tools; they're evergreen and, if implemented into your life permanently, will make the next crisis (global or personal) far less punishing on your brain.

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