How Practicing Mindfulness Promotes Brain Health and Cognition
When it comes to aging, there are plenty of “secret recipes,” serums, diets, and trends that claim to keep you young and healthy. However, one technique has actually been found to slow the progression of many age-related conditions like dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
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 tiniest detail.
While it may sound unsubstantial to those who haven’t tried it, the correct practice of mindfulness exercises has been found to have incredible benefits when it comes to the health of the brain and mind.
How Mindfulness Boosts Your Brain
Sure, mindfulness is a great way to calm yourself during times of stress, relax after a long day of work, or just spend a few minutes enjoying life. But there are more concrete benefits researchers believe have lasting impacts on physical and mental health.
For starters, mindfulness does reduce stress. We’re all stressed from time to time, but chronic stress actually has a big impact on things like mental health, digestion, heart disease, and obesity. In fact, the American Psychological Association reported that in 2014, almost 80% of Americans regularly experienced physical symptoms caused by stress and over 70% of Americans regularly experienced psychological symptoms caused by stress. However, a practice called mindful meditation has been found to ease psychological stress like anxiety, depression, and pain with the same effect as antidepressant medication.
Mindfulness changes the physical structure of the brain. Here’s where things get science-y. Research has found that practicing mindfulness regularly actually leads to an increase in the volume of grey matter in your brain. This grey matter lives in an area of the brain responsible for learning, memory, emotional regulation, and perspective. Additionally, that grey matter tends to stick around longer in those who meditate than those who don’t, even though the normal aging process causes brain volume to decrease over time.
How Mindfulness Makes You Healthier
There are other reasons why mindfulness is a great 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 life-changing and challenging to cope with, mindfulness could help to stall the progression of symptoms if started early enough. A specific type of meditation called Kirtan Kriya (KK) is believed to affect 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.
Mindfulness keeps you cool. Agitation and stress are common symptoms of memory loss in older 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 recognize, accept, and dismiss negative emotions with ease.
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 muscles work normally and perform their jobs. Deep breathing, a type of mindfulness exercise, can dramatically increase the intake of oxygen into the bloodstream. As a result, blood carries extra oxygen throughout the body and promotes better function in the digestive system.
How to Practice Mindfulness
While mindfulness can be done anywhere, anytime, it’s best to find a quiet spot where you can be alone with your thoughts. Once you’ve found the perfect zen space, you can begin the process of mindfulness. Here are a few exercises to try.
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, you can improve lung function, oxygen intake, and decrease heart rate.
Here’s how to do it:
- Lie on your back on a flat, comfortable surface with your knees slightly bent and your head supported by a pillow.
- Place one hand on your upper chest and the other hand on your stomach, just below your rib cage.
- 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.
- 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.
Beginners should practice this for no more than 10 minutes 3–4 times per day. As you grow accustomed to the exercise, you can begin to increase the effort and frequency of diaphragmatic breathing.
Mindfulness doesn’t just involve our thoughts. The whole 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 on the present moment and be objective about feelings, rather than judging or trying to fix something.
Here’s how to do a body scan:
- Like diaphragmatic breathing, a body scan is best performed while lying on your back.
- Close your eyes and keep them closed throughout the exercise.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 Type-A 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.
Want to get inspiration for more great mindfulness exercises and activities? A Place for Mom has compiled a list of 25 mindfulness activities that will leave you feeling very zen. Check it out here!