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Cultivating Calm

Mindful Breathing

Not only can stress make you sick, it can also age you. But quieting the mind can have the opposite effect.

New research from the University of California, San Francisco, suggests that stress affects our bodies on the most basic, cellular level. Researchers drew blood from 58 moms, 39 of whom were caring for a chronically ill child, to measure the telomeres — protein complexes that protect DNA — inside their immune cells. Telomeres naturally contract with age; but the telomeres in the immune cells of mothers who reported the most stress were markedly shorter than those of the control group's, making the stressed-out moms nine to 17 years "older."

Thankfully, other research offers hope that we're not doomed to age prematurely. In separate studies, Sara Lazar, Ph.D., a neurobiologist at Massachusetts General Hospital, and Columbia's Dr. Brown have found evidence that basic meditation techniques, such as controlled breathing, not only promote positive emotions but also help us stay youthful and vibrant. For example, when Lazar compared the brain scans of 20 experienced meditators with those of 15 non-meditators, she found that in the first group, two regions of the brain were significantly thicker: the insular cortex and part of the prefrontal cortex.

"With age, the whole brain thins," notes Lazar, "but meditation seems to slow the deterioration of the parts of the brain that are aware of emotions and physical processes in the body" — e.g., heart rate and hunger — and that integrate thoughts and feelings to make sound decisions. People who meditate daily might be better equipped to gauge how full they are, for example, preventing overeating, or have a better sense of their exhaustion level and decide to go to bed early when it would help them.

Dr. Brown has conducted several studies on how yoga breathing can alleviate anxiety and depression. Currently, he's examining the brain-wave activity of individuals who have just practiced these techniques. "Their charts resemble the slow, rolling-hill pattern of the brain waves we see in babies who are in the 'quiet alert' state, like when they're looking in their mothers' eyes," he says. "In contrast, the typical brain-wave activity of an adult is a series of chaotic, incoherent squiggles."

Fuel Your Mood

For many people, the idea of calm suggests images of lounging under a beach umbrella, whiling the day away. But lethargy and calmness are two very different things, says Robert Thayer, Ph.D., a psychology professor at California State University in Long Beach and author of Calm Energy. Thayer, who has been studying ways to combat stress for more than 25 years, has identified four fundamental states of being: tense tiredness, calm tiredness, tense energy, and calm energy. In his view, most of us spend our lives yo-yoing between tense energy (you just downed a Venti-size coffee) and tense tiredness (the kids are finally in bed, the dishes are done, but you can't stop fretting about all the unfinished business on your to-do list). He believes the optimal state for daily life is calm energy, "a high level of physical and mental vigor coupled with low muscle and brain tension."

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