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Cultivating Calm

Beauty and Comfort continued...

"Things that are beautiful to the senses capture our attention and quiet the mind in an effortless way," says Etcoff. "Changing your environment by bringing in your favorite music or photos of happy events and places and people you love is very calming and reassuring." The world is full of small harbingers of joy and harmony — you just need to seek them out and incorporate them into your daily routine. It can be as simple as taking a walk around a leafy park in the middle of a hectic day or burning a candle of your favorite scent at night.

Another way to foster the relaxation response is to engage in pleasant repetitive activities, says Alice Domar, Ph.D., executive director of the Domar Center for Complementary Healthcare in Waltham, MA. Those that involve easy concentration and lulling repetition, like knitting, swimming, even petting an animal, calm the mind. "During the course of a day, most of the thoughts women think are negative: They worry about the future or feel like failures for not having a spotless kitchen or fitting into size 6 jeans," says Domar. "Finding something you enjoy doing that distracts you from automatic, negative thinking patterns is important. It might be something you enjoyed as a child, when you were able to live in the moment and more easily experience joy."

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.

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