Editor's Note: This is part four of our four-part "Be Well and Vital" series with Micah Howard, MD. Dr. Howard practices family medicine in Decatur, Alabama.
We brush our teeth daily. Why not brush our brains? Not literally, of course, but there are interesting parallels between dental hygiene and mental hygiene that can have significant implications for our health, according to Micah Howard, MD.
"As much as we hear today about multi-tasking, new research shows there is actually no such thing," Howard says. "What we're doing is rapidly shifting our focus among multiple subjects. So one of the resources most in demand in today's society is the ability to pay attention to one thing at a time."
That's when the topic turns to the age-old practice of attentive thinking known as mindfulness or meditation. "Exercising our brain's ability to focus can show results with only minutes a day," Howard says. "It should become as routine a part of our daily lives as brushing our teeth.
"We've become so overwhelmed by distractions that we consider this to be a normal situation. If there's anything in the world worth cultivating for a successful and healthy emotional balance, it's how well we can pay attention. There's an old adage, 'what you don't pay with attention, you pay with pain.'"
A basic mindfulness practice can begin as simply as setting aside a few minutes a day for meditation. "The key is consistency," Howard says. "Start with a period of time between, say, five to 20 minutes a day for strengthening your attention and your ability to focus.
"Morning is best for most people. The basic process is to sit comfortably--one veteran of meditation calls it 'sitting with dignity.' You release the tension in your hands so you're not making a fist. Then you close your eyes and be quiet, and listen. Many people assume that the goal is to reach some void or blank state of mind, but actually the opposite is true.
"You're there to observe and breathe. When you have an errant thought, you come back to your center idea, your anchor. It can be a word, a phrase or an image, but I like to focus on my breath because it's always there and has just enough variability to maintain my interest. Each time your mind wanders, you bring it back. Don't judge yourself. Just let it go and come back to that center place. Doing that is like the equivalent of a rep at the gym, so when your mind is being difficult it's possible you did more work in that session than when you're having minimal stray thoughts.
"There is a visual I like in an old yoga book that shows a person sitting underneath a waterfall, observing it but in a way that's not quite so close that the water is falling on him.
"Make it easy, make it consistent, and the rewards are huge for your time. It's a different concept than most people are accustomed to, of doing a skill so as to get great at it, at some future time. The metaphor I like to use is to regard the brain as a plant, and with this practice, you are watering the plant. You don't need to toss a whole bucket on and then not water it for a week. It doesn't take a lot of water, just a little every day. And the key is 'every day.' You can't make it go any faster. Just be patient with yourself as though you are allowing a flower to bloom."
There is abundant and growing evidence of meditation's positive medical effects at a genetic level. Harvard Medical School researcher Herbert Benson, MD, who first coined the term 'relaxation response,' found in a recent study that the practice affects levels of insulin production, and boosts levels of hormones involved in energy metabolism.
"We have within us an innate, inborn capacity that counters the harmful effects of stress," according to Benson. "And this study has shown its genomic basis: namely that specific hubs of genes are changed when people evoke this relaxation response."
"To me, as a physician," Howard says, "this 'medicine' of meditation is the closest thing to a panacea that can exist. Mental hygiene, grounded in this one moment, is just as important as hygiene for our body. It's just as much a function, and a basic necessity, as breathing."