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Cultivating Calm

Mindful Breathing continued...

"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."

Thayer argues that calm energy must be attained through self-awareness and smart lifestyle decisions. In one study, he randomly assigned 18 subjects the task of either eating a candy bar or walking briskly for 10 minutes and then mapping their energy and tension level at several points during the two hours afterward. After an initial, fleeting uptick in energy, the sugar eaters reported plummeting energy levels and rising tension; the walkers, on the other hand, said they consistently were less tense and more energetic. "And yet, how do most of us deal with stress? We overeat and indulge in high-density foods," Thayer says. "Daily exercise is essential to feeling energetic and calm at the same time. The trick is to work out at the right intensity to find that balance. If you had a stressful day and are wound up tight, you need to release lots of tension and would do best with a challenging gym session or power walk, but if you're lagging at midday, you're better off with a short walk that will provide an energy burst without depleting you."

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