Your Brain on Thanksgiving, Pt. 2

How’s it going? Are you crazy-busy trying to get it all ready? Or are you basking in gratitude that someone else is? Whatever you have planned, here are a few more ways you can use this holiday as an opportunity to help your brain out.

Learning:  If you want to live a brain-healthy lifestyle, you can’t ever miss an opportunity for learning. One thing that is both good and bad for the brain about holidays is tradition. On the positive side, there are some things about tradition and ritual that create pleasure and a sense of well-being. Knowing that your Aunt Jane will be bringing her Green Bean Casserole, whether you like it or not, can be pleasure inducing. AND – your brain craves three things – variety, novelty and challenge. Why not use the holidays as an opportunity to experiment with new ingredients, new techniques, new dishes? Long ago, I admitted that I really don’t like turkey all that much. Over the last few years, we’ve experimented with serving lamb or crab or other sort of crazy, non-traditional holiday dishes. This year, we are going to learn to make Porchetta. Trying a new recipe and experimenting with new foods is great for your brain. Why not even use it as an expression of gratitude? There are SO many kinds of food on this planet – why not use this holiday meal as a way of expressing gratitude for the incredible variety we are offered to sustain ourselves?

Mindfulness – Mindfulness is a word that is often used for the practice of focusing your mind on one specific thing at a time. Our brain is more like the muscles in our body than most of us think. As it turns out, we can train our brains in similar ways to training our bodies to do certain things. If you are struggling with focus, mindfulness practice can significantly help. Taking a day to focus on something really specific, like gratitude, is very brain healthy. Of course you will have lots to do on the holiday. Sometimes they can feel like busier, crazier days than we ever have at work. In the midst of the preparation – take 10 minutes and quiet your brain to focus on ONE thing. Maybe the thing you are most grateful for? Maybe your hopes for the next year? Maybe your love for those closest to you.

We’d love to hear how you experimented with these ideas and how you made them your own.

Your Brain On Thanksgiving

Who would think of a holiday as something that could be good for your health? The newsstands and talk shows are currently crammed with helpful advice on how to “survive” the holidays without losing your mind or killing your relatives, make them more healthy or save some of the boatloads of money you are likely to drop making them special. The message: holidays are kind of dangerous.

From a brain health perspective, holidays can indeed be a bit dangerous, especially if they create stress. They can also be a rich opportunity for some brain boosting, without a lot of major effort. Really. Here are a couple of ideas:

Gratitude: Thanksgiving is all about gratitude. Yes, dinner is right up there too, but essentially this is the time we set aside to declare our blessings and say “Thanks”. Gratitude is one of the most helpful practices for your brain. Focusing on things that you are grateful for releases dopamine, the pleasure chemical, which is good for counteracting stress and builds important nutrients in your brain. Your brain is five times as likely to go to negative thoughts as positive, so focusing on positive things helps train your brain to go toward a positive “reward” state more easily.

The Dinner Table: The food and nutrition part of Thanksgiving (or any holiday) doesn’t have to be a killer. We have a list of the 50 best foods for your brain. (Ask us for it!) It’s really not hard to sneak them in. Add a little bit of Kale to your stuffing. Make the salad so stinking good that no one really wants the mashed potatoes. If you can do just a few things to make the food healthy, great. More important – make it fantastic. A holiday meal should create social connection, which is really good for your brain. Put conversation stirring questions under every plate or assign someone to facilitate a brain-rich dialogue.

Reframing: Holidays can often bring pain with the celebration. My grandfather died on Christmas morning and there will never be another Christmas that doesn’t include a sad moment of missing him. Brokenness in families, financial stress, loss and hardship… it all tends to feel a bit magnified during holidays. While acknowledging the reality of these things, holidays like Thanksgiving can also be a great time to practice what is formally called “cognitive reappraisal”. That means that we can tell any story another way that is still true, but has a different focus and a different effect on the brain. Telling stories about what we learned from a missing relative, honoring the memory of a loved one with a poem or toast, or creating a new ritual or tradition are great ways of reframing painful emotions into more brain-boosting, dopamine-rich experiences.

We will post more ideas tomorrow. For now, can you think of some creative ways to practice these three things this Thanksgiving? We’d love to hear about it.