Recent advances in neuroscience show that our minds grow stronger with exercise, no matter how old we are. According to Dr. Michael Baime, founder and director of the Penn Program for Mindfulness, mindfulness is a proven way to strengthen specific parts of your brain.It can allow you to:
- Optimize memory. “Mindfulness helps you hold more information in your working memory at one time,” Baime said. “That means you have more information to make decisions.”
- Regulate emotion. The practice enhances the part of the brain that negotiates between cognition and emotion. When we’re getting the “panic” message, mindfulness allows us to stop and think. So instead of selling investments in a hurry, you might look at your overall portfolio allocation.
- Let go of the past. When we face trauma or difficulties in life, our brains store that information, and we use it to make future decisions. Mindfulness brings hidden fears into awareness. As a result, we can be more objective about risk.
Replace fight-or-flight instincts with logic
So what is mindfulness? According to Baime, it’s a way of focusing on one thing, such as your breath or the sensation of your body. It’s about training your attention or awareness to be more stable.
“Mindfulness is the way meditation got rebranded,” he said.
The goal is to overcome primitive instincts and strengthen the parts of the brain that handle logic.
“Our classic fight-or-flight system was helpful when wild animals were hunting our ancestors as prey. But when we’re faced with something like a change in the financial markets, it’s not as useful,” Baime said. “Mindfulness helps us step out of reactivity and use our brains to make better decisions.”
Replacing reactivity with logic sounds simple. But many people react emotionally. When we face an upsetting situation, we want to take immediate action—any action—even if it’s not the best action.
“There’s a reason we eat dessert or go shopping when it’s not in our best interest,” Baime said. “We want to feel better immediately. We lose our perspective.”
How to get started with meditation
Baime recommends working with a trained mindfulness coach or joining a mindfulness class or program. Eight-week mindfulness-based stress reduction programs are widely available.
However, you can get started on your own. Here’s how:
- Get ready. Find a quiet spot without distractions and dress in comfortable clothes. Set aside a specific amount of time for your practice. Beginners might want to start with 5 or 10 minutes and build up to 20. Sit or lie down in a comfortable position.
- Focus on your breathing. You can count your breaths or pay attention to each inhale and exhale. Take note if your mind wanders away from your breath—and when it inevitably does, bring your attention back to your breath.
- Do it when you can. Ideally, you have 10 to 20 minutes each day to practice mindfulness. But brief moments of mindfulness are also helpful. People feel better when they take a moment to leave their heads and enter their actual experience. Brief periods of mindfulness—even only a minute or 2—can be restorative, calming, and refreshing.
It’s not about relaxing
Baime cautions that while the practice of mindfulness has considerable payoffs, it’s not an easy commitment to make. Many people give up on it quickly when they realize how much work it is.
“You don’t necessarily feel chill when you practice. In fact, you might notice how stressed you are,” he said. “It’s not like sitting in a hot tub and feeling your body relax.”
Instead, Baime says the practice is comparable to working out at the gym. And like working out, it can be exhausting. “When you go to the gym, it’s tiring. But it’s good for you,” he said. “When you use a capacity to exhaustion, that capacity has been stretched and it gets tired.”
Like exercise, there’s a significant amount of data on the physical and emotional benefits of practicing mindfulness, says Baime. For some people who suffer from depression, an 8-week mindfulness training can be as effective as lifelong antidepressant use.
Baime has seen other benefits firsthand. People make better investment decisions, they become better leaders, and they make more thoughtful decisions about their futures.
“Often people realize they have the power to change their lives,” he said.
Getting the most out of the practice
To get the most out of mindfulness, Baime doesn’t recommend using it as a quick fix.
“The goal is to change the fight-or-flight system so you don’t react that way in the first place,” he said. “That takes a significant amount of work and time. Regular meditation with a certified mindfulness trainer is the best way to do that.”
However, he acknowledges that meditation techniques can help in a moment of stress.
If the market has an unexpected volatility bout and you find yourself distracted by it, use your practice to stay calm. This will help you make better decisions, which often means leaving your investments alone.
“Awareness is the key,” he said. “If you notice you’re becoming reactive or anxious, stop for a minute and notice, and then come back to the immediate sensations of how you are. Feel your feet on the floor. Feel the contact of the air on your face. Take a slow breath in and breathe it out 3 times. You’ll undo a bit of the biological wiring that drives impulse and reactivity.”
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