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Experiencing Mental Health Issues For The First Time? A Neuroscientist Explains Why

Young woman feeling brain fog and mental health
Image by LILIYA RODNIKOVA / Stocksy
September 7, 2020

Feeling like you aren't quite yourself these days? Maybe you're keyed up, on edge, and have worrisome thoughts racing through your head? Or maybe you're feeling flat, uninterested, and disconnected from others. What the heck is going on? Are you just having a string of really rotten days, or is it something more serious?

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You might be experiencing mental health issues.

If your symptoms are interfering in your daily life—sabotaging your sleep, keeping you from getting any work done, or causing you to feel hopeless—it's time to consider that you may be experiencing anxiety or depression (or both, as they often go together).

Even if you've been mentally healthy your whole life, the stacked stresses of the pandemic, financial strain, and isolation may have pushed you into unknown territory. And you're certainly not alone. For example, a 2020 poll reported that 56% of Americans say that worry or stress related to the pandemic has negatively affected their mental health.

Why are so many of us having mental health problems for the first time?

We all have a certain level of what I call "brain reserve." That's the extra cushion of brain function you have to help you deal with the curveballs life throws at you. In general, the more brain reserve you have, the more resilient you are. Here's a graphic to give you a better idea of what I'm talking about:

brain diagram
Brain Reserve Diagram ©
Image by Amen Clinics, Inc.
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Your everyday habits either increase your brain reserve or drain it. If you typically follow a healthy routine but have adopted some unhealthy quarantine habits—day drinking, baking up a storm, endless Netflix bingeing—you may have lowered your brain reserve.

Higher stress + lower brain reserve = trouble.

So, what can you do?

If you're struggling for the first time, it's important to seek professional help. But don't let medication be the first or only thing you do to fight the bothersome symptoms.

Engaging in daily habits that boost brain reserve can also enhance mental well-being. This will look different for everyone, but I generally advise focusing on positive thoughts, to trigger a release of feel-good neurochemicals. Other practices—like hydration, sleep, exercise, and nutritious eating—can also have a positive impact on mental health.

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Daniel Amen, M.D.
Daniel Amen, M.D.
Clinical neuroscientist psychiatrist

Daniel Amen, MD, is a clinical neuroscientist psychiatrist, physician, professor and 10-time New York Times bestselling author. He is a double board-certified child and adult psychiatrist and founder of Amen Clinics, Inc., which has eight clinics across the country with one of the highest published success rates for treating complex psychiatric issues with the world’s largest database of functional brain scans relating to behavior, with more than 160,000 scans on patients from 121 countries. Amen is the lead researcher for the largest brain imaging and rehabilitation study for professional football players that demonstrates high levels of brain damage in players with solutions for significant recovery as a result of his extensive work. His research on post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury was recognized by Discover magazine’s Year in Science issue as one of the “100 Top Stories of 2015.” Amen has authored and co-authored more than 70 professional articles, seven scientific book chapters and 40-plus books, including the No. 1 New York Times bestsellers, “The Daniel Plan” and “Change Your Brain, Change Your Life.” His most recent book, “Change Your Brain, Change Your Grades,” includes editorial contributions from his teenage daughter, Chloe Amen, and niece, Alizé Castellanos.