8 ways to use your mind to live longer

Try these mental tweaks and mind/body techniques to live longer and feel happier, too.
© Self // © Self

Fret less

To banish worries, put stressors on paper. Writing them down and stashing the note in a "worry jar" (or a drawer) makes it easier to compartmentalize and move on, says Andrea Bonior, Ph.D., a psychologist in Washington, D.C. Limiting anxiety is healthy. A surfeit of the stress hormone cortisol may lead to chronic pain, depression, cognitive issues and even heart problems, potentially shortening your life. Not to mention that constant worry is no fun.

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Keep your sunny side up

Optimists live longer, plain and simple. In a 15-year study of more than 100,000 women, cheery types were 14 percent less likely to die in an eight-year period than gloomy gals were, the National Institutes of Health Women's Health Initiative finds. To change your thinking, visualize a happy moment: "Imagining yourself in a hammock on the beach can have an immediate, relaxing effect on the body that makes it more difficult to stay focused on the negative," Bonior says.

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If all else fails, take a nap

When life starts getting you down, catch 40 winks. If you're stressed out, a 45-minute daytime snooze may lower your blood pressure, a study from Allegheny College reports. Siestas also help you catch up on much-needed sleep. That's crucial, because chronic sleep deprivation can cause aging at the cellular level. So give yourself permission to nap like a kid. We predict you'll start feeling like one, too.

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Your relaxation Rx

Which mind/body treatments have the most rock-solid science backing them up? Brent Bauer, M.D., director of the Complementary and Integrative Medicine Program at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, provides the big picture.

For: Back pain Try: Yoga
For: High cholesterol Try: Qigong
For: Depression Try: Music therapy, qigong, yoga
For: Eating disorders Try: Meditation, yoga
For: Fertility Try: Visualization, yoga
For: Heart health Try: Deep breathing, qigong, yoga
For: Immunity Try: Breathing, chants, meditation, qigong
For: Insomnia Try: Acupuncture, visualization, yoga
For: Joint pain Try: Music therapy, qigong, yoga
For: Migraines Try: Acupuncture, yoga

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The science

The latest cutting-edge research proves your mind can heal your body. Here's how:

Your body dials down stress. Dr. Benson's research has found that mind/body practices -- meditation, yoga, tai chi, deep breathing, visualization -- all elicit the relaxation response, quelling the release of stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline. Your heart slows, blood pressure fall and digestion eases.

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The science

Your immunity soars: The relaxation response causes cells to release micropuffs of nitric oxide, a gas that dilates blood vessels and stabilizes the immune system, Dr. Benson reported in Medical Science Monitor. Mind/body methods worked as well as drugs designed to do the same thing, without the side effects.

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The science

Your brain grows. As you get older, your brain begins to shrink. But in a study in NeuroReport, researchers discovered that the prefrontal cortex and the anterior right insula, areas linked to attention and sensory processing, were thicker and more robust in those who meditate. "It's like exercise for the brain, making it stronger," says Rick Hanson, Ph.D., a neuropsychologist in San Rafael, California, and author of Buddha's Brain.

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The science

Your genes change. Here's the real slap-your-forehead news: In a study in PLoS ONE, Dr. Benson compared the genes of 38 people, half of whom meditated regularly and half of whom never did. Controlling for other factors, he found that genes associated with stress-related illness behaved differently in the two groups. "These genes control not only stress but also premature aging and inflammation," he says. It seems meditators' genes were essentially telling their body to stress less and age more slowly.

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