Mental Health: Understand and Optimize Your Mental Sharpness

Do you find yourself sitting in front of your computer on a gloomy morning and trying to be productive, only to feel that things just can’t seem to get going? Do you have trouble collecting your thoughts after coming back home from the grocery store where you had to wait in line for an hour (6 feet apart, of course), only to find out that there’s still no milk for breakfast tomorrow? Or do you lock yourself outside of your car with items still left inside? What’s going on? What happened to my brain?

It is intuitive to think that when our thinking abilities (or a fancier term, cognition) seem dull, that something is wrong with our brain. This may be especially true when we have a reason to believe that something has happened to our brain in the past (for instance, a concussion). Whether or not we’ve had a history of head injuries, there are a variety of factors that can and will negatively affect our cognition on an everyday basis. The good news, though, is that most of these factors are modifiable, meaning that we can sharpen our thinking abilities without having to undergo a procedure to “fix” the brain.

Sleep

Poor sleep is arguably the biggest opponent to sharp thinking abilities. One bad night’s sleep is all it takes to leave one feeling groggy and slow the next day. Months of bad sleep certainly won’t help. Luckily, there are many tools out there to help, be it medication or behavioral strategies. If you have sleep apnea, it will be important to improve your sleep using the devices your doctor prescribed, like a CPAP machine. Your first step will be to talk to your provider and find out what’s causing your sleep problems. You can find behavioral tips from the Home Base Team on how to improve your sleep here.

Stress and Mood

This might be a tie. I can’t decide whether psychological symptoms or sleep have a bigger impact on cognition and memory. Broadly speaking, any mood disturbances (ranging from a particularly stressful day to years of battling mental health disorders) can chip away how much mental horsepower we can spare on our tax return or work assignment. As we all know, anxiety thoughts can keep us from focusing on the tasks we want to be focusing on. Depression is associated with a variety of cognitive inefficiencies, like slow thinking and poor attention and memory. Coping with mental health problems is no small task but therapy can help you refocus your mental energy back to the things that are important to you. Mental health coping skills will not only decrease anxiety and depression, but they will likely also improve your ability to focus on and remember the things you care about.

Pain

Another important factor. Pain is often overlooked, but it can be distracting (even when you feel like you are used to it). Many times, physical pain makes us a little less patient – this can manifest by being irritable toward others, as well as being less likely to continue to try to work on something that requires a lot of concentration. Obviously consult with your doctor about pain, but also take a look at your home environment and consider making changes to your ergonomics. For example, investing in a good-quality lumbar support cushion and/or an adjustable laptop stand. Or maybe make a mental rule not to curl up on the couch with a laptop if your body feels stiff afterward. Maybe you need to stretch every hour or go for a couple of brief walks during the day. If you’ve been in physical therapy before, consider picking up the tricks and exercises your physical therapist once taught you. And consider a conversation with your counselor/therapist on behavioral interventions for chronic pain management.

Substances and Medications

Alcohol and marijuana change how our mind works – that’s why many people use these substances. They can be effective in taking the edge off and calming our nerves in the short-term, but too much of these substances can hurt the cells in the brain. In addition, what many of us may not realize is that medications can sometimes slow us down as well. It is a bad idea to stop a medication on your own (it can be dangerous, even life-threatening), but it is a good idea to speak with your prescribing doctor if you suspect the medication that you started two weeks ago is causing side effects on your thinking abilities.

Disorganization and Lack of Strategy Use

Different environments require different skillsets. Going from a highly structured environment (like the military) to a place where order is very much a scarce resource can be a tough transition. Especially during this recent social distancing, our homes may be more chaotic and lack the schedule and commitments that are usually in place. This disorganization may lead to you feeling like you’re unable to plan and pay attention to things. Don’t be discouraged! You may just be cognitively “out of shape.” Here’s an analogy: the motor of power drill may very well be in a good shape, it just needs a new set of bits. When structure is not readily available from the environment, it is important to structure things for yourself. For example, maybe start using a calendar on your phone or start sharing a to-do list with family members. Our mental resources are precious; save them for things that can’t be done by technology and leave mundane/routine tasks to your “secretary” (as in, your wall calendar, whiteboard, or phone). In this blog series of cognitive skills, we will cover more about the specific strategies you can use to improve daily cognitive functioning. Stay tuned!

Low Self-Efficacy

Cliché but true, we can be our own worst enemies. That little whisper in your head saying, “This isn’t gonna work,” or “I tried this last time and look how that went,” or “I can’t do this” can be surprisingly powerful. Next time, before you do something important, take a second and see if you can hear one of those inner voices in your head. Acknowledge those thoughts, put them aside, and then go on with your task. You do not have to carry them with you or get into a battle with them, and you certainly do not have to conform to what they have to say.

What are the top two to three things getting in your way of feeling sharp? List them out and tackle them one by one. Home Base is available if you need additional support during this time or would like to speak to someone. Please visit www.homebase.org/connect2care or call our clinic at 617-724-5202.


About the Author: Doris is a neuropsychology post-doctoral fellow at Home Base. Her clinical training has focused on neuropsychological evaluation and client-centered cognitive and functional rehabilitation. She has extensive clinical and research experience working with individuals who suffered from traumatic brain injury (TBI).