This Year, Try Spring Cleaning Your Brain
Five ways to soothe a mind overstimulated by anxiety, stress and streams of information.
By Christina Caron
Coronavirus cases are receding across the United States, and face masks are coming off. Little green shoots are finally poking through the earth, signaling the arrival of warmer weather. The pandemic has not been declared over, but after living in survival mode for the last two years, some would say we are emerging into a “new normal.” Though that doesn’t mean our minds are at ease.
Many have endured illness, economic upheaval, the climate crisis, grief and racial inequities. Add to that inflation, supply chain issues and the ripple effects of Russia’s war with Ukraine — three of the biggest sources of stress among people in the United States right now, according to a recent poll for the American Psychological Association.
Perhaps, experts say, the arrival of spring can serve as a natural point to take stock of our mental well-being and reconnect with the things that bring us purpose and joy, offering our brains a respite when possible.
“It really is — for a number of reasons — a perfect time for folks to turn their attention to taking an inventory. Where do I find myself? What have I been through?” said Paul Napper, a psychology consultant to business leaders and co-author of “The Power of Agency: The 7 Principles to Conquer Obstacles, Make Effective Decisions, and Create a Life on Your Own Terms.”
Creating a clear, more focused mind starts by making decisions about how we spend our time every day. When those choices are in line with our values, interests and passions, this is referred to as personal agency.
“You do always have a choice,” Dr. Napper said. “It may not be a great choice,” he added, but examining your options helps you to adapt to your circumstances.
Here are five ways to declutter your mind as we enter a new season.
“Being a human, particularly right now, is stressful,” said Nkechi Njaka, a meditation guide in San Francisco with a background in neuroscience. “And when we think of how degenerative stress is, and how harmful to the body, we need something that can help mitigate it.”
When people notice that their mind is racing or they start to become anxious, they are typically thinking about something in the past or in the future.
To refocus on the here and now, you can start by noticing the sensations in the body, Ms. Njaka said. “Can we feel the ground below us? The heat of the sun?” It is normal for the mind to wander. If this happens, gently return your awareness to your breathing and come back to the present.
If you are compassionate with yourself and approach the practice with curiosity, openness and forgiveness, you will be more likely to try it again, she added.
Take advantage of the transitional moments of the day to practice mindfulness — when you wake up, right before or after a meal or when you change your physical location, for example — so that you can start to form a routine.
Try the Bullet Journal Method
Studies have found that jotting down thoughts in a journal can improve well-being.
One method that has gained popularity in recent years is a practice created by the digital designer Ryder Carroll and outlined in his best-selling book, “The Bullet Journal Method: Track the Past, Order the Present, Design the Future.”
The Bullet Journal is an organizational system but also an exercise in mindfulness — one that requires you to continually re-evaluate how you are investing your time and energy and then decide whether those things are worth it.
Otherwise, Mr. Carroll said, “you can be very productive working on the wrong things.”
Mr. Carroll, who has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, initially started journaling to help him stay focused and succeed in his career, but then he began exploring how he felt about the tasks he was accomplishing. “Did it give me energy? Did it take it away?” he asked himself.
Through journaling, he discovered a pattern: The experiences that gave him a sense of purpose or pride all involved helping others and performing acts of service.
“If you don’t know what you want, you will never be satisfied with anything you have,” he added.
Reduce information overload
We have all been inundated by a relentless news cycle, a fire hose of information coming at us in the form of breaking news notifications, social media posts and email newsletters (among other sources) that can leave us feeling anxious, angry or even helpless.
“Now is the time to completely overhaul your news consumption,” said Cal Newport, a computer science professor at Georgetown University and the author of “Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World.”
Choose just one or two reliable sources and read them at a specific time each day, he advised. For example, you can listen to a news roundup podcast while commuting to work or read a newspaper at breakfast, Dr. Newport said.
Dr. Newport, who is 39 and has managed to avoid social media platforms like Twitter, Instagram and TikTok for his entire adult life, also recommends taking a 30-day break from the technologies in your life that are optional.
In his book, he described what happened when 1,600 people gave it a try. Those who lasted the full 30 days were “cheerily gung-ho and positively aggressive about trying to fill in the time,” he said.
So instead of reflexively watching TikTok or scrolling through Instagram during your free time, think about what you would be doing if you weren’t on either of those platforms: Reading a novel? Taking a restorative walk in nature? Relaxing and listening to music?
Set aside time for those activities.
Declutter your physical space
During the pandemic, and especially during lockdown, many people finally began to clear the junk out of their homes, a phenomenon The Washington Post referred to as the “great decluttering.” If you haven’t tackled your pile of clutter, now might be a good time to do it.
“Messy spaces tend to prevent clear cognitive thinking,” said Catherine Roster, a professor at the Anderson School of Management at the University of New Mexico who has researched how cluttered homes affect people. “It has a distorting effect that can bleed into other aspects of a person’s life — not only their emotions but their productivity.”
Hiring a professional organizer to help sort through the mess is not within everyone’s budget, so Dr. Roster suggested relying on a buddy — ideally someone who is also decluttering their home. Together the two of you can serve as a sounding board for each other to make decisions about what to keep and stay on schedule. Listening to music while you sort and organize can also help motivate you, she added.
Reconneith the people you love
“What I’m seeing with my patients is that many seem to be emotionally cluttered,” said Barbara Greenberg, a clinical psychologist in Fairfield County, Conn.
Information overload coupled with either social isolation or not getting your needs met socially or emotionally “is a really bad brew,” she added.
If there are people you care about whom you have lost touch with during the pandemic, don’t be shy about getting back in touch, she urged.
“We need the support and levity of people who make us feel good,” Dr. Greenberg said.
If it has been a while, it might feel awkward at first to re-establish contact. But just be honest, Dr. Greenberg advised. For example, you might say: “We lost touch during the pandemic, but now things are calming down and I would really love to see you. Not seeing you has been one of the things I’ve missed.”
It might even inspire a “chain of positivity” where the person you contacted feels inspired to do the same with others.
“Truly, everybody wants to get that call,” she said.
Christina Caron is a reporter for the Well section, covering mental health and the intersection of culture and health care. Previously, she was a parenting reporter, general assignment reporter and copy editor at The Times. @cdcaron