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Pocket Worthy · Stories to fuel your mind. I Slept Outside for a Week and It Changed My Life (Really) Tags: Pocket Worthy · Stories to fuel your mind. I Slept

Photo: Christopher D. Thompson

I live in explicit defiance of the rules of good sleep hygiene. Rule one: Don’t expose yourself to the blue light that’s emitted from phones and computers before bed. (When else am I going to catch up on the day’s hot takes?) Rule two: Sleep in a darkened bedroom. (I had’t considered this when buying my gauzy curtains, which are sufficient to keep my neighbors from peeping but definitely not to block out their overactive security floodlights.) Rule three: No afternoon coffee. (Ha!)

Since middle school over a decade ago, my terrible sleeping habits have manifested in various literal failures to launch: waking up for an early-morning run is a laughable concept. I hit the snooze button, on average, four times every morning. My record is eleven. Lately, my energy's been peaking later and later—I do my best thinking and running starting around 4:30 p.m. In my one attempt to have a consistent sleep schedule after college, I tried to be in bed by 10 p.m. But I often ended up just staring at my ceiling for hours, wondering who the hell is able to fall asleep in 10 to 20 minutes, which is evidently the average.

Maybe that’s why the headline stood out to me: “Want to fix your sleep schedule? Go camping this weekend,” which appeared in Popular Science in early February. A 2017 Current Biology study, which the article cites, focuses on that most mysterious indicator of sleep habits: the circadian rhythm. Put simply, your body should want to be asleep when it’s dark and awake when it’s light. Apparently, this well-tuned internal clock is as easy to achieve as it is lacking in most adults with a job and a smartphone. Just two days spent entirely outdoors can move a person’s internal clock 2.5 hours closer to being in sync with our natural sleep-wake cycle, the researchers found, following an earlier study showing that a week spent outdoors adjusted some subjects’ clocks by a whopping four hours. This is because constant exposure to natural light (and, crucially, darkness) seems to encourage the release of melatonin, the hormone that regulates circadian rhythm. “When your melatonin begins to rise, that tells us the start of the internal biological night is beginning,” says Kenneth Wright, professor at the University of Colorado’s Department of Integrative Physiology and a lead researcher on the study.

Maybe all this was a sign: I could hit reset on my deeply broken internal clock and indulge in some good old-fashioned stunt journalism. Surely, sleeping outside for seven days straight, even if I still had to go to work and couldn't spend all my waking hours in nature, would get my melatonin spiking at the right times. And if it didn’t, so what—winter had just ended and I really missed camping. My only rule was that I had to sleep in nature every single day. I could shower and answer e-mail and even have 2 p.m. coffee in civilization, but I couldn’t sleep in my own bed even if I was cold, miserable, or fearful of serial killers who hike.

My experiment started in early April, and a friend joined me for my inaugural night out at a car-camping site about 20 minutes from my Santa Fe home, staking out a spot for my just-big-enough-for-two tent. We sat at the campfire for a few hours, then it died, we got cold, and we made for our sleeping bags. Must be something like 11 p.m., I thought, but it was only 9:15. We laughed about it—then fell asleep about 15 minutes later. I awoke only when my alarm rang and hit the snooze button just twice.

Both of these victories were possibly a result of being lulled to sleep by, and waking up to, disorienting new surroundings. I kept my hopes low for the second night, when I’d be a little more used to the pattern and I’d be camping alone. I thought I might lie awake thinking about The Blair Witch Project. Nope. This time I was out in five minutes, barely surfaced from my deep sleep when I heard (I hope) deer circling my tent in the middle of the night, and hit my snooze button just once the next morning. After the third restful night, I abandoned my sleep anxieties and started evangelizing: “My sleep has been amazing,” I told anyone unfortunate enough to ask how the experiment was going. “I think my circadian rhythm is already changing. You can just feel it, you know?”

Having drank the melatonin-spiked Kool-Aid, I unzipped my sleeping bag on day four feeling like a whole new, clearheaded woman. I could probably go without my morning coffee, I told myself while drinking my morning coffee. But I did drop the urge to have a cup at 2 p.m.—in fact, I genuinely felt chipper all day. I was becoming the type of functional person who I always thought just lied about their caffeine habits. I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, to start craving a nap, but that was the weirdest part: I never felt sleepy until the moment my head hit the pillow, and shortly after I was out cold. It was like my body knew to be awake until I lay down, and then it said, “Aha! I’m going to sleep now!”

I know that what I experienced isn’t really how circadian rhythms work, but according to Wright, the University of Colorado researcher, it could be related. Cutting exposure to blue light and increasing morning sunlight in any amount can help max out your melatonin closer to nightfall. “When that melatonin rises, it tells the body to get ready for bedtime in a couple hours,” Wright said. “So when it’s time for you to try to go to sleep, you’re probably sleeping more in sync with your clock.”

My experiment was less than scientific, but I do feel like I gleaned some very real benefits simply by letting sunrise and sunset determine my waking hours: the forced bedtime helped me fall asleep sooner, and the 360 degrees of sunlight and the cawing of the ravens every morning were hard to ignore. By the end of the week, I felt consistently tired whenever I chose to go to bed, and consistently more awake when it was time to start the day, and coffee no longer felt like a mandate. (I still drink it—this isn’t magic.)

Why It Works

I learned a lot about sleep hygiene during my week of camping, including that a lot of the specific before-bedtime habits you’ve heard about really do work. But, in addition to changes in natural-light exposure, it was actually those aspects of camping that you’d think would diminish my quality of sleep that probably enhanced it. For instance, temperatures dipped from 70 degrees to the mid-thirties after sundown every night, and the oncoming chill probably signaled to my body that sleep was imminent. Having no cell service meant that I didn't check my phone before going to bed, which meant no blue light messing with my melatonin levels. I also slept in a mummy-style sleeping bag beneath a giant quilt, the weight of which forced me to sleep on my back, so I could breathe, and kept me from moving around. (In fact, research has shown that a weighted blanket can improve sleep for insomniacs.)

How to Making Camping Work for You

For a circadian revamp, Wright sensibly recommends a weekend camping trip, rather than a harebrained workweek of semi-camping. Think of it as a cheat that’ll make it easier for you to develop healthier sleep habits when you return home. “We can use camping to jump-start an earlier sleep schedule, then use good sleep habits to keep us there,” he says. Sleeping in the backyard is OK, too, if you’re not blessed with a state forest up the road, as I am. (I love you, Black Canyon Campground.) Just make sure you’re not too exposed to streetlights or other ambient sources of illumination, and maybe leave your phone inside to cut that temptation entirely.

And even though it’s not scientifically supported, I’ve concluded that camping on a school night should be a casual option, even a sort of monthly treat—like a sports massage or a personal-health day. (I’ve tried neither, but they sound relaxing!)

How to Get the Same Benefits at Home

You can make small changes every day to replicate some of the sleep-cycle benefits of camping. “If you start your day by being more exposed to natural sunlight, that by itself is going to have an impact,” Wright says. He also suggests exercising soon after waking. “That, in addition to turning the lights down in your house and dimming all your electronic devices, could probably help keep your clock timed earlier.”

For indoor nights, I’ve also made some changes to help replicate my outdoor bedroom. I bought a blackout curtain for the window that directly faces my neighbors’ security light. (I moved the gauzy one to the window facing the street, where it will still allow the morning light to shine in.) Every night, I put my phone in airplane mode and read a book instead. I keep my room as cold as I can, although I’m not sleeping in my mummy bag—yet. I try not to worry so much about exactly when I go to sleep and instead eliminate bad sleep hygiene before it catches up to me: goodbye, 11 p.m. e-mail checks; goodbye, afternoon coffee; goodbye, snooze button number four. To paraphrase my favorite dumpster graffiti, which I believe also paraphrases a Beatles song: Everybody has something to hide (about their sleep-hygiene sins) except for me and my tent.

24 Things All Extremely Self-Aware People Know and Do Tags: 24 Things All Extremely Self-Aware People Know and Do

1) They take responsibility

Some people think it’s “harder” to take responsibility, and “easier” to blame other people.

Really? Is it? So it’s “easier” to blame other people, even though blaming other people will never, ever get you what you want?

Doesn’t sound too “easy” to me.

Taking responsibility is liberating because you realize that you can actually do something about it.

I blamed a lot of other people when I first started writing because my posts weren’t accepted into their publications. I thought I knew better than them. I thought I “deserved” to be featured in their publication because I was clearly good enough.

Well, clearly, I wasn’t. And it was only once I took responsibility that I started to write more, and write smarter, and just become better.

That’s “easier” than blaming others.

2) They’re kind instead of nice

The word “nice” has roots in the following:
• Foolish
• Stupid
• Senseless
• Careless
• Clumsy
• Weak
• Poor
• Needy
• Ignorant
• Unaware

The word “kind” has roots in the following:
• Deliberately doing good to others
• Innate
• Natural
• Compassionate
• Loving
• Full of tenderness

I know which list I prefer.

And I know which list I prefer to practice on myself.

3) They know their beliefs aren’t real

I want you to think about your most important belief. One that guides your life. One that you lean on when you need something to lean on.

I want you to remove it from your head. I want you to hold it in your hand. I want you to close that hand.

Now, open that hand. What’s in that hand?

Your belief, right?

Nope.

There’s nothing in your hand.

Your most important belief, the belief that guides you, the belief you lean on... it’s not real.

So... why does it seem so hard to let go of them sometimes? Why does it seem so hard to change? Why wouldn’t we just let go and take on different beliefs all the time, depending on what we need?

What about the beliefs that aren’t useful to you? What’s stopping you from letting them go?

A belief that you need them?

4) They don’t take their results personally

Some of my writing gets read by thousands of people. Some gets read by hundreds. Some gets read by tens. Some gets read by a few. Some doesn’t get read at all.

What would happen if I took all of that personally? I’d be exhausted. I’d be forever up and down and then up again and then down again and... man. That’s unsustainable.

Any feedback I get isn’t about me because it’s about my work. And I’m separate from my work.

And knowing I’m separate from my work allows me to learn from the negative things people say. It allows me to become a better writer. It allows me to become a better person.

5) They know they need certainty and uncertainty

Humans need certainty and uncertainty. This is a fact.

Too much certainty = boredom.

Too much uncertainty = anxiety.

It’s good to be certain about your health, about your relationships, about your finances.

But imagine being certain about every single minute of every single day of your entire life. How boring would that be? How depressing would that be?

We need both.

6) They know they’re more than their thoughts

You’re the one who experiences your thoughts. You’re the one who hears them. You’re the one who can control them.

So... you must be something else. Something different. Something more.

That means that you’re not required to do whatever your thoughts wish for you to do. You don’t have to obey them. They’re not in charge — you are. The real you.

It’s like this quote from Michael A. Singer, author of The Surrender Experiment and The Untethered Soul:

“The day you decide you are more interested in being aware of your thoughts than you are in the thoughts themselves — that is the day you will find your way out.”

7) They know they’re more than their feelings

Same thing as being more than your thoughts.

Your feelings aren’t there to tell you how to act, and they’re not there to tell you whether or not to act at all. They’re there to tell you what’s important to you.

I have another quote for you, this time from Victor Frankl, author of Man’s Search For Meaning:

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response.”

8) They know what’s important to them

When I first wrote everything down that was important to me — with the help of a mentor — and put it in order from most important to least important, and wrote down why these things were important to me, I looked at my list and had this thought: “that’s me.”

Do you know how encouraging that is? How freeing? How much confidence it gave me? And yet people will find all sorts of excuses to not do this, even though the whole thing takes less time than watching an episode of something on Netflix.

I did this with a friend recently. He wrote down everything that was important to him — not to his parents, or to his friends, or what he thought should be important to him — and we put it in order, and we talked about why those things were important to him.

He looked at his list and said this to me:

“Oh my god... I know why I’m not happy.”

So he changed. Now he’s happy.

It’s not “a lot more complicated” than that.

9) They live by what’s important to them

If you know what’s important to you, but still refuse to live by what’s important to you... that’s going to hurt.

I know it hurts because it’s exactly what I did.

It’s exactly what I did because I still valued other people’s opinions of me over my own. Not random people though. The people closest to me.

I still thought I needed their permission. Their approval. I still thought they needed to wholeheartedly and enthusiastically and irrevocably support my every decision.

It was only when I got tired of my own bullpoo, and tired of still not living the life I kept daydreaming about, that I actually changed.

Be grateful if you’re finally getting tired of your own bullshit.

10) They never waste a perfectly good mistake

I learned this from Michael Houlihan and Bonnie Harvey, the entrepreneurs behind one of the biggest wine brands in the world — Barefoot Wine. They say that there’s no excuse for wasting a perfectly good mistake, because every mistake is beautiful, because now you’ve got the opportunity to never make the same mistake again.

Never making the same mistake again is real self-awareness. It’s funny though — it’s another one of those things that people say is “hard.” It’s “hard” to admit to your own mistakes. But... is it? Because what’s the alternative? Making the same mistake over and over and over and never moving forward and never becoming who you know you could be?

Does that sound “easier”?

11) They live in reality

I really wanted to just quit my 9-5. Even though I had no savings and hadn’t started making any money on the side. I didn’t care about that because I hated my job so much and I just wanted to escape.

I didn’t want to live in reality, because the reality was that I couldn’t just quit. And that reality was painful. More painful than I’d be able to handle, I thought. So I just complained and sulked and took no action.

I didn’t want to accept my reality because wouldn’t that be admitting defeat? If I accepted it... then what? Where would my drive go? Didn’t I have to hate where I wanted to be to get to where I wanted to go?

No. Another myth.

It was only when I totally accepted that I wasn’t where I wanted to be — when I stopped judging myself for not being where I wanted to be — that I started working to get to where I wanted to be.

It’s only when you accept your reality — no matter how much you think you don’t like it — that you can change it.

12) They know that their opinion of who they are is more important than anyone else’s opinion of who they are

If other people’s opinions of you are more important to you than your own... then how can you expect to live a life that’s true to you? How can you expect to ever stop worrying about what other people think of you? How will you ever feel free?

Do you think your opinion of someone else should be more important than that person’s opinion of themselves? I doubt it. And yet... it’s somehow okay for other people’s opinions of you to be more important to you than your own?

Other people are allowed to be who they are, but you have to be who other people want you to be?

13) They know they’re allowed to put themselves first

If I asked you to write down a list of the important people in your life, would you write your own name?

If so, where would you write it? Right at the top? In the middle? At the bottom?

When I put other people above me is when I lived by their expectations instead of my own. It’s when I wanted their approval, their permission, their support. Actually, it’s not when I wanted it. It’s when I needed it. Well, when I believed I needed it.

And because I needed it... when I didn’t get it, I didn’t do the thing I wanted their permission to do.

That means I didn’t get what I wanted to get. All I got was frustration, and annoyance, and unhappiness.

Because I didn’t think it was ok to put myself first.

You have no control over other people so how can it be ok to put anybody else at the top of your list?

How can they be more important to you than you are?

14) They know that success can never be overrated

A girl said this to me on a date:

“Success is overrated.”

Erm.

Ok.

How can success be overrated?

I guess if you think of success as money, or things, or achievements... then yeah, maybe.

But that’s not what success is. Success is individual. Success is whatever success is to you.

For me, success is choice. Which is similar and different to freedom.

Success is being able to take the time to work hard when I want to. It’s when I’m able to take on a new project. It’s when I’m able to take a day off. It’s when I take an evening off to go watch an NBA game (I need to move to the US first). It’s when I can go on holiday with my (future) wife. It’s when I can pick my kids up from school and take them to basketball practice or chess club or ballet lessons or whatever it is they want to do.

Maximum choice = maximum success.

15) They know the difference between “very” and “too”

If you believe you’re very scared to do something, you leave yourself open to doing it.

If you believe you’re too scared to do something, you’ll never do it.

What story do you tell yourself?

16) They know they can’t become who they are if they’re scared to learn from who they’ve been

There have been times in your life when you’ve been all of who you really are.

What could you learn from that? The least you could learn is that you can be all of who you really are.

There have been times in your life when you haven’t been who you are.

What could you learn from that?

You could learn about what holds you back. You could learn about who you hold back around. You could learn about what makes you think pretending to be someone you’re not is a better option than being the real you.

Wouldn’t learning about those things help you to become you?

17) They know it’s less about “how to” and more about “what’s stopping me”

I get asked a lot of “how to” questions.

How to stop procrastinating, how to stay motivated, how to get over my ex.

All of them have the same answer: figure out why you’re doing it, and then stop doing it. And you probably won’t even need to “stop” — figuring out why is usually enough to stop.

But, of course, that’s not the answer people want. They already know that answer. So they need more.

Asking “what’s stopping me” questions can be scarier because they go deeper. “How to” questions are surface questions. They’re easy to answer. But “what’s stopping me” questions give answers like “because I’m scared” or “because I don’t want to” or “because I don’t know if I can.”

Admitting to those, confronting those... that’s self-awareness.

18) They don’t turn one problem into two

I do this way too often. Like when I’m driving and someone cuts me up. Or pulls out in front of me. Or is going too fucking slow.

They do these things and I get angry. Or pissed off. Or frustrated.

Why though? What good does it do? Do I think that’s going to somehow resolve the situation?

Surprisingly, it never does. Me getting angry at the person in front never makes them go faster. Who’da thought!

The first problem was the person in front of me driving slowly. Depending on how you define “problem”.

The second problem was me getting angry about the first.

Which of those is out of my control? Which of those is within my control?

There’s no need to turn one problem into two.

19) They know it’s not wrong to feel bad

Brené Brown said it best: we can’t selectively numb emotions.

If you numb sadness, you numb happiness. We can’t have true happiness without true sadness. Believing anything else means not believing in reality.

How many times do you hold back from really feeling? How many times do you feel sad, but then stop yourself? How many times do you try your best to avoid feeling sad?

Avoiding feeling sad is the same as avoiding feeling happy. Because if you don’t let yourself feel one, you’ll never feel the other. Not really. Not truly.

It’s not wrong to feel bad.

We’ve just decided that it is.

20) They don’t waste time failing at what they don’t want

Is there a bigger waste of time than failing at what you don’t want? I suppose continuing to fail at what you don’t want is even worse... and yet how many of us do that?

How many of us settle for that pain, rather than the pain of failing at something we do want? Even though I don’t think any sane person would argue that the pain of the latter is infinitely more worthwhile.

It’s just like Jim Carrey said:

“You can fail at what you don’t want. So you might as well take a chance on doing what you love.”

How simple.

21) They know there’s only one common denominator in all of their relationships

If you’ve ever said “why are all women [x]” or “why are all men [x]”, then I have some news for you: it’s not them.

It’s you.

Have you ever realized that you’re the one who’s picking these people? That you’re the one who’s choosing to spend time with them? That you’re the one who’s choosing these particular people to get to know better?

I only know this because this is exactly what I was like. And I still don’t think I’m completely past it.

All the women I’d been with and were dating seemed to be “complicated” or “flakey” or “not sure about what they wanted.”

I was convinced that this was true. That all women were just like this. I never even considered, never even thought, not for a moment, that maybe, just maybe... it had something to do with me.

Because of course it couldn’t be me! How could it possibly have been me? It was them! Their fault!

No.

False.

And let’s just say that was true. It’s not, but let’s say it was. Let’s say it was all their fault. How does that help? Is that a useful belief?

Or is it a more useful belief to actually look within and understand why I’m choosing who I’m choosing?

22) They don’t say the word “don’t”

Don’t think of a blue tree.

Yeah. Exactly.

The unconscious mind can’t handle the word “don’t.” Because “don’t think of a blue tree” essentially means “think of ANYTHING other than a blue tree.

Anything? Anything at all? That’s almost infinity things. It’s actually infinity minus one — the blue tree.

Because choosing from almost infinity things is somewhat difficult, the mind goes in the one direction you’ve given it: the blue tree.

So.

How many times have you thought something similar to the following:

“DON’T mess up.”

“DON’T think about that.”

Or even...

“I DON’T want to fail.”

I don’t want to fail. Where do you think the mind does when you think that?

I know where it goes.

But don’t believe me.

23) They’re grateful to the people who’ve been a part of their life

Every person who’s been in your life — every person who’s loved you, who’s liked you, who’s disliked you, who’s hurt you, who’s deliberately hurt you — they’ve all impacted you.

They’ve all helped to make you who you are.

The only way you won’t be grateful for that is if you don’t like who you are.

And self-aware people always like who they are.

24) They know they’ve already been who they really are

There has been at least one time in your life when you’ve been who you really are. There have probably been many times. I hope there have. But there’s definitely been at least one time.

One time where you’ve made a decision completely for you. Where other people’s opinions just didn’t seem to matter. When you knew with your whole heart that it was just the right thing.

How did it feel? Good, right? And that’s an understatement.

So... what’s stopping you from doing it more often? What’s causing you to hold back from feeling that good again? Why are you pretending to be something you aren’t?

Because real self-awareness is so much more than knowing who you are.

It’s being who you are.

It reminds me of the biggest regret of the dying:

“I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected me of.”

That still gets me every time I read it.

I tried to work out exactly why it got me for a while. And I couldn’t. I’d just get emotional. But I think I have it now.

It gets me because the regret has nothing to do with not knowing how to live a life true to themselves. It has everything to with knowing exactly how, but lacking the courage to do it.

They knew who they were. They knew what they wanted. They knew what kind of life they wanted.

And yet... they made different choices. Because they thought they had to fulfill the expectations of others.

That is heartbreaking.

And sort of ironic. If they lived their life based on the expectations of other people, what did they think the other people were doing? Those other people were probably doing the same — living by the expectations of a group of different “other people.” And then THOSE other people... and on and on it goes.

We all know who we are.

Maybe it’s time to stop pretending we don’t.

**********

If you liked this then subscribe to my blog. I’ll teach you how to become more self-aware, and you can take part in my surprisingly popular Wednesday Q and A: www.matthearnden.com

7 Ways Meditation Can Actually Change The Brain
Category: Member Blogs
Tags: 7 Ways Meditation Can Actually Change The Brain

The meditation-and-the-brain research has been rolling in steadily for a number of years now, with new studies coming out just about every week to illustrate some new benefit of meditation. Or, rather, some ancient benefit that is just now being confirmed with fMRI or EEG. The practice appears to have an amazing variety of neurological benefits – from changes in grey matter volume to reduced activity in the “me” centers of the brain to enhanced connectivity between brain regions. Below are some of the most exciting studies to come out in the last few years and show that meditation really does produce measurable changes in our most important organ. Skeptics, of course, may ask what good are a few brain changes if the psychological effects aren’t simultaneously being illustrated? Luckily, there’s good evidence for those as well, with studies reporting that meditation helps relieve our subjective levels of anxiety and depression, and improve attention, concentration, and overall psychological well-being.

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Meditation Helps Preserve the Aging Brain

Last week, a study from UCLA found that long-term meditators had better-preserved brains than non-meditators as they aged. Participants who’d been meditating for an average of 20 years had more grey matter volume throughout the brain — although older meditators still had some volume loss compared to younger meditators, it wasn’t as pronounced as the non-meditators. "We expected rather small and distinct effects located in some of the regions that had previously been associated with meditating," said study author Florian Kurth. "Instead, what we actually observed was a widespread effect of meditation that encompassed regions throughout the entire brain."

 

 

Meditation Reduces Activity in the Brain’s “Me Center"

One of the most interesting studies in the last few years, carried out at Yale University, found that mindfulness meditation decreases activity in the default mode network (DMN), the brain network responsible for mind-wandering and self-referential thoughts – a.k.a., “monkey mind.” The DMN is “on” or active when we’re not thinking about anything in particular, when our minds are just wandering from thought to thought. Since mind-wandering is typically associated with being less happy, ruminating, and worrying about the past and future, it’s the goal for many people to dial it down. Several studies have shown that meditation, though its quieting effect on the DMN, appears to do just this. And even when the mind does start to wander, because of the new connections that form, meditators are better at snapping back out of it.

 

Its Effects Rival Antidepressants for Depression, Anxiety

 

A review study last year at Johns Hopkins looked at the relationship between mindfulness meditation and its ability to reduce symptoms of depression, anxiety, and pain. Researcher Madhav Goyal and his team found that the effect size of meditation was moderate, at 0.3. If this sounds low, keep in mind that the effect size for antidepressants is also 0.3, which makes the effect of meditation sound pretty good. Meditation is, after all an active form of brain training. “A lot of people have this idea that meditation means sitting down and doing nothing,” says Goyal. “But that’s not true. Meditation is an active training of the mind to increase awareness, and different meditation programs approach this in different ways.” Meditation isn’t a magic bullet for depression, as no treatment is, but it’s one of the tools that may help manage symptoms.

 

Meditation May Lead to Volume Changes in Key Areas of the Brain

In 2011, Sara Lazar and her team at Harvard found that mindfulness meditation can actually change the structure of the brain: Eight weeks of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) was found to increase cortical thickness in the hippocampus, which governs learning and memory, and in certain areas of the brain that play roles in emotion regulation and self-referential processing. There were also decreases in brain cell volume in the amygdala, which is responsible for fear, anxiety, and stress – and these changes matched the participants’ self-reports of their stress levels, indicating that meditation not only changes the brain, but it changes our subjective perception and feelings as well. In fact, a follow-up study by Lazar’s team found that after meditation training, changes in brain areas linked to mood and arousal were also linked to improvements in how participants said they felt — i.e., their psychological well-being. So for anyone who says that activated blobs in the brain don’t necessarily mean anything, our subjective experience – improved mood and well-being – does indeed seem to be shifted through meditation as well.

Just a Few Days of Training Improves Concentration and Attention 

Having problems concentrating isn’t just a kid thing – it affects millions of grown-ups as well, with an ADD diagnosis or not. Interestingly but not surprisingly, one of the central benefits of meditation is that it improves attention and concentration: One recent study found that just a couple of weeks of meditation training helped people’s focus and memory during the verbal reasoning section of the GRE. In fact, the increase in score was equivalent to 16 percentile points, which is nothing to sneeze at. Since the strong focus of attention (on an object, idea, or activity) is one of the central aims of meditation, it’s not so surprising that meditation should help people’s cognitive skills on the job, too – but it’s nice to have science confirm it. And everyone can use a little extra assistance on standardized tests.

Meditation Reduces Anxiety — and Social Anxiety

A lot of people start meditating for its benefits in stress reduction, and there’s lots of good evidence to support this rationale. There’s a whole newer sub-genre of meditation, mentioned earlier, called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts’ Center for Mindfulness (now available all over the country), that aims to reduce a person’s stress level, physically and mentally. Studies have shown its benefits in reducing anxiety, even years after the initial 8-week course. Research has also shown that mindfulness meditation, in contrast to attending to the breath only, can reduce anxiety – and that these changes seem to be mediated through the brain regions associated with those self-referential (“me-centered”) thoughts. Mindfulness meditation has also been shown to help people with social anxiety disorder: a Stanford University team found that MBSR brought about changes in brain regions involved in attention, as well as relief from symptoms of social anxiety.

 

Meditation Can Help with Addiction

A growing number of studies has shown that, given its effects on the self-control regions of the brain, meditation can be very effective in helping people recover from various types of addiction. One study, for example, pitted mindfulness training against the American Lung Association's freedom from smoking (FFS) program, and found that people who learned mindfulness were many times more likely to have quit smoking by the end of the training, and at 17 weeks follow-up, than those in the conventional treatment. This may be because meditation helps people “decouple” the state of craving from the act of smoking, so the one doesn’t always have to lead to the other, but rather you fully experience and ride out the “wave” of craving, until it passes. Other research has found that mindfulness training, mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT), and mindfulness-based relapse prevention(MBRP) can be helpful in treating other forms of addiction.

 

Short Meditation Breaks Can Help Kids in School

For developing brains, meditation has as much as or perhaps even more promise than it has for adults. There’s been increasing interest from educators and researchers in bringing meditation and yoga to school kids, who are dealing with the usual stressors inside school, and oftentimes additional stress and trauma outside school. Some schools have starting implementing meditation into their daily schedules, and with good effect: One district in San Francisco started a twice daily meditation program in some of its high-risk schools – and saw suspensions decrease, and GPAs and attendance increase. Studies have confirmed the cognitive and emotional benefits of meditation for schoolchildren, but more work will probably need to be done before it gains more widespread acceptance.

 

Worth a Try?

Meditation is not a panacea, but there’s certainly a lot of evidence that it may do some good for those who practice it regularly. Everyone from Anderson Cooper and congressman Tim Ryan to companies like GoogleGOOGL +0.35% and Apple AAPL -0.37% and Target TGT +0.95% are integrating meditation into their schedules. And its benefits seem to be felt after a relatively short amount of practice. Some researchers have cautioned that meditation can lead to ill effects under certain circumstances (known as the “dark night” phenomenon), but for most people – especially if you have a good teacher – meditation is beneficial, rather than harmful. It’s certainly worth a shot: If you have a few minutes in the morning or evening (or both), rather than turning on your phone or going online, see what happens if you try quieting down your mind, or at least paying attention to your thoughts and letting them go without reacting to them. If the research is right, just a few minutes of meditation may make a big difference.

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