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When most of us think of ‘spirit’ or ‘spirituality,’ things like a moral code, religious services or houses of worship come to mind. And that’s fine. But, tending to your spirit doesn’t necessarily require a heavenly choir or a donation box. Spirituality can be thought of in broader, less religious terms and still help guide you through tough times, supporting your emotional health. Likewise, studies indicate that being mindful of your spirit can support your ability to age well by helping to keep you physically healthier, younger and more vital.
When you start to put more emphasis on your spiritual side, it becomes easier to connect with positive, health-supportive emotions like gratitude, joy and contentment. Call it a match made in heaven (as it were). For example, some studies show that those who attend religious services or who feel they are spiritual experience lower levels of anxiety and depression; have lower blood pressure and fewer strokes; and, overall, feel healthier. To take advantage of the anti-aging benefits a spiritual path – be it traditionally religious or not – can bestow, here are a few health-sustaining steps:
Tend your spirit — by soothing your busy brain.
Physically, your brain thrives when its fueled with healthy, wholesome foods, but it also craves something that’s hard to come by in these distraction-filled times – and that’s a time-out. Granted, our brains do get a break when they power down at night. But consciously giving your brain a few moments of quiet time during the day is a youth-preserving, spirit-lifting gift you should be generous with. Time spent without to-do lists, devices, or any form of packaged entertainment is akin to giving your muscles a day off from weight training, enabling them to rebuild and come back stronger. Consciously adding brain-quieting moments to your day is a healthy way to help tame the body’s response to negative thoughts and feelings, without denying or suppressing them. Three simple ways to help manage your mind with a more spiritual approach include:
The essential mental health skill. When we learn (or re-learn) how to appreciate simple pleasures, to be more present with others and our surroundings, to experience gratitude for much of what we might have previously overlooked, we’re cultivating a quiet, aware, mindful state that’s infinitely kinder to the brain than running it on perpetual overdrive. Need a refresher course? Try these mindfulness training tips.
If you’re looking to engage in anti-aging brain self-care while also soothing your spirit, meditation is the answer. I encourage everyone to do it, every day. Even if you only have time for a 10-minute “sit,” you can quickly quiet mental chatter and tame anxiety and depression, all while boosting the brain’s relaxing, alpha wave output. If you can grow your practice into a longer, daily one, even better. Relaxing and quieting the mind daily has been shown to slow brain-aging by as much as eight years when compared to a control group, according to a recently published 18-year study. When you settle in for meditative moments, remember to find a quiet spot, free of distractions and turn your phone ringer off. (It is, after all, only for a few minutes.)
For a quick refresher course on getting started, check out “How to Start a Home Meditation Practice,” by meditation teacher Norman Fischer, where he shares how-to tips plus a helpful 2-week meditation plan for beginners.
Though not what you might think of as a ‘practice’ per se, taking a few minutes to contemplate, or think deeply and exclusively about something that’s important or meaningful to you, is also beneficial for spirit and body. Be it planned or spontaneous, quiet contemplation is an excellent, no-pressure way to slow down an over-revving brain and to cultivate tolerance and compassion, which contributes to improving overall health. Where to contemplate life? Just about anywhere, but for many folks, a house of worship, a park bench on a beautiful day or even just a good soak in a hot bath, are all great places to retreat – and go deep into your thoughts in a healthy way.
Tend your spirit – with movement that really matters.
When it comes to exercise and movement, it’s not unusual to hear proponents refer to their physical activity of choice as something akin to a devotional experience — their ‘church’ if you like, their time to be in the moment. While outdoor activities are great, not everyone can do them every day, so I often advise my patients (whether they’re athletic or not) to incorporate practices that combine movement, breath work and meditative and spiritual elements, like yoga, t’ai chi, qi gong, etc. They all offer anti-aging benefits such as reducing blood pressure, taming stress and anxiety, and supporting mental health. Good for the body, good for the spirit – and good for aging well!
Tend your spirit – by getting creative.
If you’re serious about putting the brakes on aging, break out a paintbrush, some knitting needles, or that guitar that’s been gathering dust. Creative activities that require concentration not only connect you with your spiritual side but, according to a growing body of research, also relieve stress and help arrest cognitive decline. Studies show that artistic expression can help relieve symptoms of depression and anxiety, and enhance cognitive skills like memory and reasoning, particularly in older folks. Not particularly artistic? Fear not. Experts say that the most benefit comes from the process, not the result, so, like they say, just do it – and don’t worry too much about the end-product.
Tend your spirit – by banishing toxins.
Whether or not you subscribe to the notion that your body is a temple, it’s never too late to start treating it like one. While there are hundreds of ways to purge chemical toxins from your life and home, to support the health of your body and spirit, I urge you to cut way back – and ideally eliminate – three of the most common ‘everyday’ toxins we consume, namely sugar, processed foods and alcohol. Each of them speeds aging in different ways, undermining immunity and gut health, and negatively impacting mood, which in turn can make it a lot tougher to remain in touch with your spirit. My advice? Either go cold turkey today or taper off over time, if that’s more your style. Keep in mind though, spirit-sapping toxins can also come in human form, so remember to distance yourself here too. Steer clear of toxic people, like those who thrive on spreading misery, are hyper-critical or judgmental. Give your spirit an immediate boost by extracting yourself from unhealthy relationships that drain your spirit or energy. Instead, spend your time connecting with those who share a similar spiritual outlook, who celebrate and support you and understand the true gifts of equitable, intimate friendship and relationships.
Tend your body and soul – by spreading kindness.
To connect instantly with your spirit, think, small acts of kindness. More than just a boon to the recipient, they create a connection between you and the world at large, an instant of intimacy that supports you while bestowing compassion on another. When you are kind to another person with no expectation of anything in return, you experience the “helper’s high”— the pleasure and reward centers of your brain light up, as if you were on the receiving end of the good deed. To break it down even further, levels of serotonin, the serenity brain chemical, and oxytocin, the love and bonding hormone, go up. And the stress hormone cortisol and blood pressure go down, which protects your cardiovascular system. Kindness is also contagious. Witnessing acts of kindness stimulates feel-good chemistry in others and inspires similar acts. With just one random act of kindness at a time, we help each other become more present and connected to each other —and healthier, too.
Tend your spirit – with nature.
Time spent in verdant surroundings almost immediately calms the body, helping to shift your brain into a state of restful awareness. The senses come alive – eyes, ears, sense of touch and especially the olfactory system, so much so that some researchers theorize that the aromatic chemicals released by pine trees may play a role in turning on our body’s prized disease-fighting “killer T-cells.” Immersing oneself in the sensory atmosphere of trees and just “doing nothing,” except being fully present, initiates a cascade of beneficial effects. The parasympathetic nervous system switches on, cortisol drops, and the brain’s prefrontal cortex—your hard-driving command center— takes a break as you drift into a renewing and refreshing soft-focus, spiritual state of awareness. My advice? Head for the hills, or the waterfalls, or the forest as often as possible, revel in the natural wonders and reap the restorative, youth-preserving benefits.