Fashion (Canada) - - Brain -

Ac­tiv­ity and Men­tal Health. “In terms of brain health, stress and its im­pact on the body’s sys­tems is the big­gest is­sue fac­ing young women right now.”

Heart­ened by re­search out of Har­vard Univer­sity that sug­gests mind­ful­ness med­i­ta­tion can thicken the parts of the brain that con­trol learn­ing, mem­ory and emo­tion, I start my own prac­tice. My phone is pow­ered down for the first time in ages and I’m ready for an hour of blissed-out noth­ing­ness. I take a deep breath in, ex­hale as in­structed and—bam!—I’m hit with a rush of thoughts. Did I file an as­sign­ment with a typo? When will I have the chance to an­swer my emails? What if a client calls while I’m here?

Later I de­brief with He­lix’s clin­i­cal di­rec­tor, Jesse Han­son, and learn that this re­sponse is com­mon for first-time med­i­ta­tors. “When we’re in a busy state of mind, we’re col­lud­ing with our anx­i­ety,” he tells me. “The prac­tice is to learn to watch those anx­ious thoughts and de­tach from them, rather than be fooled into think­ing that we are our thoughts.”

Dis­con­nect­ing from stress and anx­i­ety seems like an im­pos­si­ble dream, yet it’s in­creas­ingly im­por­tant for my brain func­tion. When you face a stress­ful sit­u­a­tion, your adrenal glands re­lease a hor­mone called cor­ti­sol. This can be a good thing if you need to flee a burn­ing build­ing, but regularly steep­ing in cor­ti­sol and other stress-re­lated hor­mones could put you at higher risk for myr­iad ill­nesses, from de­men­tia to can­cer.

If stress is a big part of what’s caus­ing my brain fog, my next step is to fig­ure out what’s putting the pres­sure on. I’ll do that right af­ter I post this pic and re­spond to this tweet and…wait, what was I writ­ing? Oh, yes, a sig­nif­i­cant con­trib­u­tor to stress-in­duced lack of fo­cus is the ping­ing from my purse. I love my phone and feel un­moored with­out it, though re­search sug­gests that the way we post, click and surf af­fects our men­tal and cog­ni­tive health. A re­cent big news story: Stud­ies out of the Univer­sity of Hous­ton linked de­pres­sion to how we com­pare our­selves to Face­book friends.

“Psy­cho­log­i­cally, lone­li­ness is a neg­a­tive symp­tom of the dig­i­tal craze,” says Han­son, ex­plain­ing that we de­prive our brains of IRL hu­man con­tact. “The part of our brain that has to do with the ex­pe­ri­ence of con­nec­tion is called the or­bital frontal cor­tex.... Re­search sug­gests eye con­tact helps stim­u­late this part of the brain. When it fires, the per­son feels con­nected and not so alone.” So next time I feel com­pelled to con­nect with a friend via a kissy-face emoji, I’ll ar­range a cof­fee date in­stead.

Tak­ing my re­la­tion­ships off­line is only one piece of the puz­zle. The anx­i­ety-in­duc­ing na­ture of my dig­i­tal life ex­tends to the men­tal habits I form when I spend my days swip­ing from Google to email to Twit­ter. While mul­ti­task­ing is seen as a virtue in our high-pres­sure lives, “We’re not good at mul­ti­task­ing, we just think we are,” says Earl Miller, a pro­fes­sor of neu­ro­science at MIT. “We can re­ally only think about one com­plex thought at a time…. If you spend all your time switch­ing be­tween tasks, you’re wast­ing a lot of your brain pro­cess­ing time switch­ing, not think­ing.” Flip­ping from email to In­sta­gram is so en­tic­ing, Miller ex­plains, be­cause the brain craves new knowl­edge. “We evolved to find in­for­ma­tion re­ward­ing; where a rustling in the leaves might have been a tiger leap­ing out at us.” Know­ing about an ap­proach­ing preda­tor is in­deed life or death. Catch­ing up on Gigi Ha­did’s latest #OOTD? Not so much. When I shift from one task to the next, I se­ri­ously lose fo­cus.

Luck­ily the brain is like a mus­cle I can change by adopt­ing new be­hav­iours. The so­lu­tion, says Miller, is to limit my dis­trac­tions. I fol­low his sug­ges­tion to quit my email, Face­book and Twit­ter while I’m work­ing. It’s dif­fi­cult to break my habit of con­stant check­ing, but grad­u­ally I feel less anx­ious do­ing chal­leng­ing work.

This is the first step, but I’m cu­ri­ous about how my in­creas­ingly fre­netic lifestyle may be af­fect­ing my brain in the long term. Dr. Cara Tan­nen­baum, a sci­en­tific di­rec­tor at the Cana­dian In­sti­tutes of Health Re­search, ex­plains that life­long learn­ing is key to boost­ing brain­power and pre­vent­ing cog­ni­tive ill­nesses like Alzheimer’s. “It may mean learn­ing a new lan­guage or de­sign­ing your own web page,” she ex­plains. “It re­cruits dif­fer­ent parts of your brain so your brain re­serve is higher.”

I as­sumed that all my surf­ing was feed­ing my in­tel­lect, but what I read online may not be sink­ing in. “If you think of your brain like a com­puter, there’s what’s open on your screen and what you save. If you’re read­ing about Kim Kar­dashian and that page links you to a new YouTube video, do you press save at any point? No, you turn off your com­puter and it’s gone. You have to press save to use those brain cells.”

What bet­ter way to “press save,” I think, than to prac­tise med­i­ta­tion? I set out to try again and, iron­i­cally, it’s a piece of tech­nol­ogy that helps me un­der­stand how to fo­cus my thoughts. I or­der Muse, a brain­wave-read­ing head­band de­signed by a Toronto-based neu­ro­sci­en­tist/fash­ion de­signer. It uses sen­sors to send in­for­ma­tion about my neu­ral ac­tiv­ity to an app on my phone that gives me feed­back about what my mind is do­ing while I med­i­tate.

I slide the sleek-look­ing band onto my head. Five sen­sors press against my fore­head and two more tuck be­hind my ears. I start a three-minute med­i­ta­tion ses­sion on the app and a sound­track of a rain­storm starts play­ing through my phone speak­ers. The sever­ity of the weather re­flects my brain ac­tiv­ity—the more ac­tive my mind, the more in­tense the storm be­comes. Grad­u­ally I learn to con­trol the au­dio cues: Fo­cus­ing on my breath­ing yields a tran­quil rain­fall, while run­ning through my to-do list whips up a tsunami. This doesn’t give me that blissed-out state I’m af­ter—at least not yet—but I’m hope­ful for sunny days ahead.

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