Take A Deep Breath, Then Another: Meditating Your Way Back To Cognitive Health

Your car breaks down, and you’re late for work. You’re out of work, and your savings are dwindling. Your mother-in-law is coming into town for the holidays, and she doesn’t like the way you do, well, anything. The traffic’s bad, and the dude behind you keeps honking. Your spouse is angry, your friend is sick, your parent is dying, your kid’s in trouble, your boss is demanding, your inbox overflows, the dog is barking, your flight is late, the subway’s packed, the talking heads on TV are screaming, “The sky is falling!” over and over, your doctor doesn’t like what she sees on the scan, and you haven’t exercised in, what, a year?

In short, you are stressed: Calgon-take-me-away, oh-my-goodness, hamster-wheel stressed!

Also? You are not alone. In fact, 75 percent of us report stress on a daily basis, with few knowing what to do about it other than marinating in it to the point of pickling. Stress damages not only the body, whose fight-or-flight cortisol response, when chronic, can wreak havoc on every physical system in the body, but it can also damage the brain’s cognitive functioning. In fact, stress has been shown to directly lead to cognitive decline.

So what is to be done? Here’s the good news: learning how to manage both everyday stresses and the more difficult moments of real hardship and strain (divorce, death, sickness, etc.) has been shown to not only reverse cognitive decline but to improve cognition well beyond your beginning baseline. Particularly when undertaken in combination with good nutrition, exercise, and a good night’s sleep.

And one of the quickest — and easiest! — ways to reduce stress immediately is to meditate.

Yes, meditate.

Breathe in. Breathe out. Breathe in. Breathe out. It’s not any more complicated than that. Meaning, we’re not telling you to go join an ashram or find a guru. (Unless you want to do those things, in which case, by all means, knock yourself out!) We are saying that taking even one minute out of your busy life to sit still and focus on your breathing can reduce stress. Which, in turn, improves memory and cognition.

While there are many forms and schools of thought regarding meditation, all of them are based in one simple system: sit still and focus on your breathing. If your mind wanders, as it will, keep bringing it back to your breath. Here’s a four-step meditation guide for beginners:

  1.  Sit or lie comfortably. The floor, the bed, your office desk chair, grass, really anywhere works well.
  2.  Close your eyes.
  3.  Breathe naturally. Don’t make any strained efforts to control your breath. Just breathe. (Pearl Jam has a great song by that title, “Just Breathe.” It’s three and a half minutes long. See if you can meditate through its entirety, and watch how just those three and a half minutes can lower your stress levels.)
  4.  Notice your breath. What does it do to your ribcage? How does it feel coming out of your nose? What does it do to your belly, your shoulders? Notice all of it. If your mind wanders, bring it back to the breath.

That’s it. Breathe in. Breathe out. Rinse, repeat. Done every day, in combination with the three other cognitive enhancers Neurotrack recommends — good nutritional health, good sleep health, and good physical health — you will see great improvements in brain power and bring a little zen back into both your life and limbic system.

Editor’s note: This is the third in a 7-part series created by Neurotrack about maintaining your cognitive health and well-being. It’s Neurotrack’s way of marking World Alzheimer’s Month. The science is clear, the evidence unequivocal: the new habits you start today can make an enormous difference in the health of your brain of tomorrow. Next week we will discuss sleep: how to get more of it and why it’s important for maintaining the brain. Please check back here to learn more.

Deborah Copaken
Deborah Copaken

Deborah Copaken, Head Writer at Neurotrack, is also a New York Times bestselling author of The Red Book and Shutterbabe, among others. Her work appears regularly in The Atlantic as well as in The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Nation, The Washington Post, and many others.