Mindfulness and meditation. There was a time when a scientist would have laughed at any consideration of this topic. Scientists work with hard data, and little data about meditation existed.

Today, however, advanced diagnostic techniques have added significantly to our understanding of how lifestyle elements affect a person’s health, and brain health in particular, says Ayesha Sherzai, MD, MAS, a neurologist with the Brain Health and Alzheimer’s Prevention program at Loma Linda University Health.

“Lifestyle elements can be a solution and a problem at the same time,” Sherzai says. “Our brain weighs 3 pounds, is 2 percent of our body weight, yet it consumes 25 percent of our energy. Because the brain is constantly working, it’s important to understand how stress affects the brain.”

Optimizing brain activity

Convincing proof exists that habits such as sedentary behavior, smoking, alcohol, and stress damage the brain, while good nutrition, exercise, stress management and restorative are practices that optimize brain activity. 

“Brains respond to stress in multiple ways,” Sherzai says. “Stress produces hormones that can damage brain connections. High levels of stress are shown to destroy memory, judgment and a person’s ability to quickly retrieve memories.”

Sherzai says people who are exposed to chronic long-term stress show shrinkage of their hippocampus, the area of the brain responsible for learning, memory, and emotions. But in people who manage their stress and meditate regularly, the size of the hippocampus actually increases.

Mindfulness-based training stops hippocampal atrophy by improving the natural conditions in the body that cause increased connections within the brain. Those connections builds resilience and delay the brain’s cognitive decline that comes with aging. 

“Mindfulness is a state of being focused in the present, focusing on you,” Sherzai says. “This leads to being aware of our circumstances, our strengths or limitations, even the opportunities we have before us.”

Managing emotions

Sherzai says there are ways to begin intentionally managing your mental and emotional circumstances.

First, develop a system where you consistently evaluate the stresses in your life, and define them as good or bad. 

“Good stresses can create brain resilience,” Sherzai says. “Things like volunteering, playing games, even gathering together for family events are things that can positively challenge your brain. Mentally labeling what is stressful and what is not is important. You need a system to identify the stressors that are out of your control.”

Second, focus on one task at a time, and stop multitasking. “There is no such thing as multitasking,” Sherzai says. “We can either focus on one task at a time, or pay attention to them all and do them all poorly.” 

Sherzai, who is also a culinary artist, recounts a practical experience she had of operating in a “mindful way.”

“I was invited to a kitchen where several of us would be baking bread,” she said. “But while we were working there would be no conversation. Just focusing on the acts involved in making bread.

“It was a surreal situation,” Sherzai continues. “But it taught me a lesson. I knew the science of mindfulness. But for the first time I was experiencing being immersed in the moment. It was so peaceful.”

Third, establish key priorities for yourself, and set appropriate expectations for you to achieve. By expecting too much out of yourself, you are likely to see yourself as a failure. 

“My family always takes attention,” Sherzai says. “The key to my happiness is managing my expectations. How much time to I have? How much can I give?Plan to delegate things not under your control.” The key is to move away from an urgency-based type of lifestyle to one based on planning and purpose. 

“If all your activities are based on urgency, you basically find yourself chasing things,” Sherzai says.

Finding ways to disconnect from this immensely stressful life, even for just a few minutes, is critical, Sherzai says. Many accomplish these breaks through meditation, which Sherzai says can be done almost anywhere. 

“I meditate in my car in my office parking lot before starting each day. Those five minutes completely change my day,” she says. “Others meditate while they walk, counting their steps or thinking of names of their loved ones. You can be in your favorite chair, looking at a favorite picture.”

By learning to be in a mindful state all the time, you take care of your brain, Sherzai says. This lets your brain take care of your body. And your improved awareness has another important benefit.

“You have time to create a greater purpose for yourself,” Sherzai says. “Nothing matters if you don’t have a higher purpose in your life. By learning the steps of mindfulness, you actually will strengthen your commitment to that important goal.”