We Can Preserve Our Memory By Clearing Our Stress — Here's How
Leah Johansen, M.D., practices alongside Robert Rountree, M.D., at Boulder Wellcare in Boulder, Colorado. Johansen earned her medical degree from Trinity School of Medicine and completed her residency training in family and community medicine at Case Western Reserve University.
Home—that was Ann's favorite place.
It didn't matter that her tiny 1860s farmhouse wasn't anybody else's idea of a forever home, or that the carpet and paint had a little wear and tear on them, or that she and her three dogs and four cats had to manage with cramped quarters. The place was definitely rough around the edges—a little like me, she thought—yet it was stout. It had heart and a solid foundation. Most of all, it was home.
Before turning in for the night, ending another hectic day that bounced from working with special needs kids in nearby Boulder, Colorado, to managing her "zoo" (Ann had a weakness for stray pets), she stole a few quiet moments on her front porch. Besides, she couldn't sleep anyway, couldn't shut off her anxious mind. Nothing new. Ann settled into a comfy chair and pressed a steaming mug of "herbal something" to her lips. The aromas of passionflower and lemongrass never failed to carry away the usual smells of the horse ranch she lived by—leather, hay, smoldering fire pits, musky stables.
Ann took a long, slow sip and then gazed at the Colorado sky.
"Perfect," she whispered to herself. Endless blue had given way to countless stars. Intense white lights skipped and danced around milky clusters of yellow and purple. Shooting stars raced across the horizon.
For Ann, this regular nightly treat had a way of captivating her thoughts, resetting her focus, and reminding her, "All is good." Yet, lately, the middle-aged Coloradan didn't feel like her usual self. She couldn't shake a whole new set of worries: her faltering memory and growing anxiety.
Why am I in this crazy fog? she asked herself. I can't hold a thought in my head. And I'm exhausted all the time.
Even worse, Ann had been forgetting things—not just keys and sunglasses but big things like meetings and people's names. She took another sip of tea and began talking out loud to herself: "This stuff isn't doing its job anymore. Isn't passionflower supposed to be calming?"
Ann's anxious thoughts ranged from mere twinges of uneasiness to full-blown panic attacks. How could she clear away the stress, sharpen her thinking, and regain her mental edge? How could Ann reset her focus again and get back to her usual self—the happy, kid-loving, animal-protecting woman she'd always been?
It's time for some memory magic.
Sometimes the scariest place to be is in the safety of our own home, especially when our minds are reeling with countless "what-ifs," robbing us of the rest and tranquillity we need. That was the strange new reality my friend Ann was trying to navigate. The first thing I encouraged her to do (after suggesting an evaluation from a PCP to ensure no underlying pathology was involved) was see her family physician and get to the root of her anxiety. The second was to launch a daily mind-body-emotions regimen that has made a difference in my life.
My own story, depicted in my book, Ultimate Memory Magic, proves that it's never too late and we're never too old to improve our health. Serious heart conditions, debilitating diseases, sky-high blood pressure, out-of-control cholesterol, obesity—regardless of the issue—we can take that first step and do something positive to reclaim our bodies. It's the same with our minds.
We can preserve and even enhance our memory and other aspects of mental function. Concentration, alertness, and the ability to focus can be strengthened, leading to improvements in problem-solving ability, productivity, and even IQ.
Here's the first thing we need to understand: Our mind, body, and emotions are interconnected. Obviously, I inhabit a physical body. And the health of my body is connected to my emotional self, as well as my "soulful" self. So, in order to get back a sharp mind and get on the path to good health, I need to treat my entire body. Those obsessive thoughts—the judgmental ones and the negative self-talk that goes on inside my head—can affect how I feel. This, in turn, can affect my body.
Here are four simple ways you can improve memory function:
1. Clear away stress and negativity.
Deadlines at work and pressures at home produce stress. When this happens, an adrenaline rush surges through our body. Our breathing and heart rate jumps, our senses become heightened, and we receive an instant burst of energy. But if we remain in this supercharged state for too long, we crash, and we end up feeling all kinds of opposite (and highly unwanted) emotions: vulnerability, uncertainty, insecurity, doubt, fear, worry, stress (as well as poor immunity, insomnia, and fatigue). The solution: Come down from the hills of stress and into the valleys of rest on a daily basis. Our minds and bodies are not designed for a continual state of fear, worry, and anxiety—but instead for continual tranquillity with short bursts of adrenaline.
2. Take the time to stretch and relax.
This is my favorite part of the day. Most evenings before turning in for the night, I spend 20 minutes winding down, clearing away stress, and engaging in simple activities that help relax my mind and my body: relaxing stretches for my back; stretches for my legs, feet, and ankles; as well as stretches for my shoulders and arms. As I spend time stretching, I tie in deep breathing with each maneuver.
3. Incorporate deep breathing (also known as diaphragmatic breathing).
Take a breath of air, deep from the gut, and then let it out. Do this a few times with your eyes closed, slowly breathing in and out, concentrating on the air flowing in and out of your lungs. Continue doing this for about three minutes. You can practice this technique either lying down (the easiest way) or sitting comfortably in a chair.
4. Employ "Memitation" techniques.
I came up with my own stress-reducing technique that combines a mental workout with meditation. I call it "Memitation." Officially, it's the act of reviewing memorized information in quiet thought while focusing on breathing. Here's how I do it: With my eyes still closed and continuing to breathe deeply, I recall facts, figures, or other information I've committed to memory. For example, I memorized all 50 U.S. states in alphabetical order. So, I began recalling the name of each state, starting from the beginning of the alphabet: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware.
Clearing away negativity, stress, and anxiety are keys to unblocking our minds and improving our lives. According to brain expert (and my good friend) Daniel G. Amen, M.D., it all begins with our thoughts. "Every cell in your body," he says, "is affected by every thought you have." It's time to change our thinking and transform our lives. Let's get going!
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