Source: Public Domain Pictures/Pixabay + Dương Nhân/Pexels
Objectively, 2020 has been a pretty rough year. If we’re not battling a worldwide pandemic, we’re fighting each other over political and ideological views. The west coast of America is literally in flames. While it’s clear that these events have had a negative effect on our physical and mental health, we also need to consider how they are affecting our brains and changing our thinking. There’s an upside to this process. Understanding the physiological pathways involved in bad decision-making grants us insight into our choices as well as tools for mitigating further damage from 2020.
1. Inflammation takes healthy thinking offline
Inflammation has become a term with a wide variety of uses. In medical conversations, it specifically refers to a type of immune response where certain cells and pathways are activated. This type of inflammation is thought to be at the root of most chronic illnesses today. Elevated inflammation has been connected with poor mental health and may increase the risk of depression. But we now know that inflammation may also compromise our thinking, leading us to make more impulsive choices. This is critically important because inflammation is elevated by poor dietary choices, lack of exercise, and high levels of stress, all of which are unfortunately major themes in 2020.
What to do about it:
Luckily, there are many ways to combat brain-damaging inflammation. First, reduce exposure to foods like refined carbohydrates, processed meats, and fats from corn, soy and vegetable oils. Instead, choose colorful vegetables, crucifers, nuts, and other high-quality sources of protein and fat including cold-water fish like salmon, sardines, and mackerel. Getting a moderate amount of exercise also supports lower inflammation.
2. Elevated stress disables good decisions
If nothing else, 2020 is a year of stress and uncertainty. Our economic, educational, relationship and health security weakened and in some cases, collapsed. Elevated stress, like chronic inflammation, is known to increase the risk for multiple physical and mental health problems. Additionally, it also appears to damage our decision-making. Research has revealed that uncontrollable stress may take the prefrontal cortex—the part of the brain responsible for well-reasoned choices—offline, prompting us to act from our more impulsive limbic system. Without the prefrontal cortex to guide us, we may have more trouble regulating our emotions and considering the outcomes of our choices.
What to do about it:
For most of us, stress isn’t going away completely anytime soon. That’s OK because we need some stress in our lives. Our goal should be to minimize unnecessary sources of stress in our lives whenever possible. This may mean turning off the news for a while or disengaging from the anxiety-inducing use of social media. We can also apply stress-reduction techniques including mindfulness, meditation, moderate exercise, and exposure to nature. Even something as simple as a potted plant in your home may help to offset the negative effects of stress. Finally, our interpersonal relationships can be a wonderful way to buffer stress. However, we need to be aware that not all social interactions are equally helpful. When we spend our time with others excessively focusing on the negative, it can actually backfire and rev up stress.
3. Air pollution hijacks our brains
We’ve known for some time that air pollution is bad for our lungs and hearts. But now we’ve begun to understand that the fine particles in the air we breathe are also impacting our brains for the worse. Tiny particles in polluted air can reach the brain and damage our neurons. They also influence our brains’ immune system, which may cause neuroinflammation and further detrimental effects on our cognition. Perhaps most concerning, recent research shows that air pollution appears to disable the healthy function of the prefrontal cortex. This may help explain why exposure to polluted air is associated with higher levels of impulsive and aggressive behavior. In light of the catastrophic wildfires of 2020, these types of effects could be significant.
What to do about it:
Air pollution may not be completely avoidable. Instead, we just need to do the best we can to avoid sustained exposure. If possible, avoid spending time outside when levels are high. Consider investing in a high-efficiency particulate (HEPA) filter. And especially if you’ve already had high exposure to air pollution this year, avoiding second-hand and wood-fire smoke helps lower the total pollutant load on your lungs, heart, and brain.
Putting it all together
2020 has been a difficult year. And at the time of this writing, it’s not even close to over. To successfully navigate whatever comes next, it’s imperative that we think as clearly as possible. We can do this by limiting the negative influences on our thinking and consciously applying the aforementioned techniques to improve our cognition.