Mindfulness for Brain Health

Mindfulness for Brain Health

Incorporating Mindfulness Into Your Daily Routine

When it comes to aging, there are plenty of serums, trends, fads and secret recipes that all claim to be the secret to immortality. After all, no one loves those wrinkles that begin to appear over time. However, there’s more to aging than beauty and one technique has actually been found to slow the aging process, but not for your face –– for your brain.

Mindfulness is the practice of being fully aware of the present moment –– from what’s happening around you to what you’re doing, down to the smallest detail. It’s been found to slow the progression of memory-related diseases like dementia and Alzheimer’s and while it may sound like hocus pocus to those who haven’t tried it, implementing the practice of mindfulness exercises into your daily routine could have incredible benefits when it comes to the health of your brain and mind.

How Does Mindfulness Improve Brain Health?

Practicing mindfulness is a great way to calm down during times of stress. After a long day of work, enjoying a few minutes of mindfulness could make all the difference in your mood. While it’s a nice way to relax, there are real, concrete benefits to mindfulness that research shows have lasting impacts on your physical and mental health.

Mindfulness relieves symptoms of stress

In today’s fast-paced society, stress is nearly unavoidable. We all feel rushed and out of control from time to time, but constant stress has a significant impact on your health. In fact, chronic stress affects mental health, digestion, heart disease, obesity, and more.

In 2014, the American Psychological Association released statistics on stress in the United States. They found that nearly 80 percent of Americans regularly experience physical symptoms caused by stress, including digestive problems and illness. In addition, 70 percent of Americans regularly experience psychological symptoms caused by stress.

While these statistics suggest that Americans have a serious problem with stress, there are ways to combat the effects. Mindful meditation has been found to relieve psychological stress caused by conditions like anxiety, depression, and chronic pain with the same effectiveness as a moderate dose of antidepressant medication.

Regular Mindfulness Practice Changes the Physical Structure of the Brain

Much of the brain is composed of grey matter, a material which contains most of the brain’s neuronal cell structures. Grey matter in the brain is associated with things like learning, perception, memory, decision-making, speech, and self-control.

Regularly practicing mindfulness has been found to increase the physical volume of grey matter in the brain, potentially impacting and improving our ability to learn, make memories, and make informed decisions. Additionally, for those who regularly practice mindfulness, grey matter volume stays intact longer than those who don’t practice regularly, even though the normal aging process causes grey matter volume to decrease over time.

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How Mindfulness Makes You Healthier

There are other reasons why mindfulness is a good way to keep yourself healthy.

Practicing mindfulness keeps you sharp. Mindfulness has been linked to a slower progression of memory-related diseases. While conditions like dementia and Alzheimer’s disease are challenging to cope with, mindfulness could help to stall or slow the progression of symptoms if started early enough. A specific type of mindful meditation called Kirtan Kriya (KK) is believed to affect the health of the brain by increasing neurotransmitters. In turn, this slows the process of memory loss, as a loss of neurotransmitters is directly associated with Alzheimer’s disease.

Mindfulness keeps you calm. Agitation and anxiety are common symptoms of memory loss in aging adults. In addition, these symptoms often affect anyone feeling stressed or unhappy. However, mindfulness meditation helps to increase your awareness of emotions and can help teach you to understand, accept, and dismiss negative emotions more easily.

Mindful breathing regulates digestion and circulation. Our bodies need oxygen to breathe, but also to fuel our circulatory system. Blood carries oxygen throughout the body, helping our muscle systems work normally and perform their jobs efficiently. Deep breathing, a type of mindfulness exercise, can significantly increase the amount of oxygen in the bloodstream. As a result, blood carries extra oxygen throughout the body and promotes better function in the digestive system, as well as other muscle-controlled systems of the body.

How to Practice Mindfulness

While mindfulness can be done anywhere, it’s best to find a quiet spot where you can be alone with your thoughts. Once you’ve found the perfect space, you can begin the process of mindfulness. Here are a few exercises to try.

Diaphragmatic breathing

Would you be surprised to hear that as you’re sitting here, you’re breathing incorrectly? It’s true. Subconscious breathing often becomes inefficient due to the incorrect use of the diaphragm, a large, dome-shaped muscle at the base of the lungs. By intentionally using this muscle during a deep breathing exercise, it’s possible to improve lung function, oxygen intake, and decrease your heart rate.

Here’s how to do it:

  1. Lie on your back on a flat, comfortable surface with your knees slightly bent and your head supported by a pillow.
  2. Place one hand on your upper chest and the other hand on your stomach, just below your rib cage.
  3. Slowly begin to inhale through your nose. The goal is to feel your stomach expand with one hand while keeping the hand on your chest as still as possible.
  4. To exhale, tighten your stomach muscles and release the air through pursed lips. The hand on your stomach should fall inwards while the hand on your chest remains still.
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Beginners should practice this for no more than ten minutes three to four times per day. As you grow used to the exercise, you can begin to increase the effort and frequency of diaphragmatic breathing. If you begin to feel light-headed, stop the exercise and breathe normally until you feel better.

Body Scan

Mindfulness doesn’t just involve our thoughts. The entire body should be used during a mindfulness exercise to get the most out of the session. A mindful body scan is an exercise that incorporates the full body. It trains you to heighten your focus of the present moment and be objective about your feelings, rather than judging or trying to fix a negative thought or emotion.

Here’s how to do a body scan:

  1. Like diaphragmatic breathing, a body scan is best performed while lying on your back.
  2. Close your eyes and keep them closed throughout the exercise.
  3. Bring your attention to your breathing, noticing any patterns and feeling where your back makes contact with the floor as your lungs expand. Take time to focus on the breath and let any other thoughts leave your mind.
  4. As you inhale slowly, bring your attention to the tips of your toes. Begin to notice any sensations you may feel there. Feelings to notice may include buzzing, tingling, pressure from shoes or socks, temperature, or any other stimulus. If you don’t notice a particular sensation, that’s okay too. Avoid judging your thoughts or feelings and focus solely on the tips of your toes.
  5. Choose a spot slightly higher on your body, like your heels, calves or knees, and repeat the process of bringing attention to that area and noticing sensations. Continue this process, slowly moving up the body, until you’ve reached your head.
  6. Throughout the exercise, your mind will undoubtedly wander and lose focus. When this happens, there is no need to judge or scold yourself. Simply notice that your thoughts wandered, acknowledge it, and bring your attention back to the body.
  7. Once you’ve finished the process of focusing on areas of your body, return your focus to the breath. Spend a few moments in this focus, taking time to notice how your breathing may have changed.
  8. When you’re ready, open your eyes. Notice how your body feels. Does it feel more relaxed? Do you feel heavy or tired? Acknowledge these feelings and praise yourself for a successful mindful body scan.

While this may sound a bit out there for the more straight-laced among us, body scans are a great way to train your brain to process negative emotions in a healthier way and at the same time, be more in tune with the way our body is feeling.

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