Tag Archives: meditation

Beyond Meditation: Improving Brain Health And Performance

Image Source: Medicalxpress

Brain health is a fascinating topic. We know so little about our brains yet they drive everything we do. Meditation and the concept of mindfulness are popular topics, yet we don’t understand how we arrive at the benefits that everyone talks about. It’s probably safe to say that the majority of us don’t know how our brains actually work.

The good news is that we’re in new period of health and wellness where doctors can accurately see how our brains function, and even pinpoint the specific areas where our brains malfunction. This is very different from the traditional, assumption-based approach to making diagnoses in mental health. We are also learning that in many cases, real treatment doesn’t require the help of chemical drugs in order for us to find balance or heal.

 The Brain That Changes Itself by Norman Doidge, M.D. is an informative read that focuses on brain elasticity. He presents the concept that that we can redesign our brains by understanding how they work from a mechanical perspective.

For example, you know when you have trouble recalling a memory, or a specific word? Blame it on the gradual neglect of the brain’s attentional system. In short, our brains become noisy. When this happens, the signal for a new memory can’t compete against the background electrical activity of the brain. This causes a signal-to-noise problem.

Using practical explanations paired with real-world stories, Doidge covers topics ranging from healing through neuroplastic therapy to everyday practices for preserving our brains.

In Change Your Brain, Change Your LifeDr. Amen calls out the main issue with  mental health today – we are “throwing medication-tipped darts” at issues unproven through science.

He relies on a technology called SPECT  to discover which areas of the brain over or under perform. Unlike an MRI or CAT scan,  a SPECT scan shows the electrical activity happening within your brain as it functions. Based on this, he is able to find the cause of a problem through factual evidence.

A SPECT scan is expensive – it’ll set you back $3,500. In Change Your Brain, Change Your Life, he presents methods for anyone to improve their brain health. Treatment methods are broken into four core areas, or 4 overlapping circles, where we can take a balanced approach to assessment and healing.

  1. Biological – how your body actually functions. This is the physical aspect of how your brain and body work together. Factors include nutrition, exercise, sleep, hormones, genetics, and overall physical health.
  1. Psychological – developmental issues and how you think. This includes how we talk to ourselves, self-concept, body image, traumas, upbringing, and significant developmental events.
  1. Social – social support and your current life. This includes the quality of one’s relationships and current life stressors. For example, depression is often triggered by stressful life events involving others, and the health habits of the people with whom we spend time with have a dramatic impact on habits and well-being.
  1. Spiritual – your sense of meaning and purpose. Having a sense of purpose allows us to reach beyond ourselves to affirm that our lives matter.

Mental health is a topic we tread lightly, as though we are somehow considered “broken” or “weak” when addressed. The irony is that our brains are actually the CEOs of our bodies –  influencing every thought we have, each action we take and the behaviors we choose to express. If we treat mental health in a reactive way rather than a circumstantial one, we can break these taboos and become higher functioning human-beings in the process.

Meditation Can Literally Rewire Your Brain

Photo: WoodlyWonderworks, Finding Balance

Photo: WoodleyWonderworks, Finding Balance

I’ve been meditating on and off for the past ten years. It wasn’t until late last year that I started getting consistent about my practice.

There are two big reasons why I made it a daily habit. First, I joined a group called The Catalyst Collective. As part of the 8-week pilot program  we were asked to do the following things daily: write, get 20 minutes of physical exercise, and meditate.

I’ve always liked meditation. In theory it’s so easy – just sit there and breathe? No problem! I quickly came to notice that dropping into a meditative state is not as simple as it seems. With personal coaching from Palomi Sheth I’ve been able to take my sessions deeper through regular practice mixed with a variety of visualization exercises.

Step 1: Calm and center the physical body. A solid technique for this is to do a body scan.

Step 2: Become aware of your mind’s activity.

 Notice, then release, the crazy parade of thoughts and feelings going through your mind. Releasing these thoughts is key and tends to be the most challenging part of meditation, for me at least.

One technique that’s worked for me is to imagine each thought as a balloon. After identifying the thought, I acknowledge it – then release the balloon from my head space.

Another successful technique is to view your thoughts as a film reel. Observe the film as it plays, then move yourself further from the screen.

These first two steps usually take me twenty minutes or more before I drop into a meditative state.

Some nights it doesn’t work at all. In the Catalyst group we talked about even doing a few minutes of deep breathing to get the habit going. And it worked! I saw results – those few minutes spent sitting and breathing helped me relax and recenter right away.

Since then, I’ve made an effort to meditate every evening right before bedtime. Many people find that mornings are equally if not more effective. Here are three ways meditation has helped me and how it can be beneficial to your lifestyle.

  1. Stress reduction.

I’ve been coping  with high levels of anxiety my entire life. In the past few years I’ve discovered new ways to manage and avoid compounding it. Some would call it a flaw, others a feature. Either way, meditation has helped me to remove myself from the craziness. It helps me to learn that the things I fret over are not worth worrying about at all.  

  1.  Promotes mindfulness.

One of my favorite exercises is to visualize a set of Jenga blocks. When I see the initial stack, the blocks are all out of order. They form a jagged tower and it’s about to tip over. As I continue to breathe, the blocks align.  This exercise is incredibly centering and  goes great after steps 1 and 2 above.

  1.  Improves focus and concentration.

It’s ironic that during meditation, I focus on nothing at all. Yet in my daily life, meditation helps me to focus on one thing at a time and give it 100% of my energy.

There are countless other benefits. Meditation has been proven to support the immune system,  increase happiness, and slow  the aging process. If you’re new to meditation don’t worry about doing the right type or having the right tools  (i.e. the latest app).

The best technique is age-old and strips everything else away: simply sit comfortably, close your eyes, and breathe.