Stretching Before Bed: 11 Moves That Take You to Dreamland

Stretching Before Bed: 11 Moves That Take You to Dreamland

You’ve got your sleepy tea in hand and those essential oils are diffused AF — think you’re ready for bed? Close. You should also try stretching before bed.

Stretching before catching Zzz’s is a simple, relaxing way to get better sleep.

We’ve narrowed down the best nighttime stretches to throw into your bedtime ritual. Get ready for a sound snooze.

Not stretching before bed? You totally should

A 2016 analysis of several studies suggested there’s a link between meditative movements (think yoga and tai chi) and better sleep. And this boost in sleep quality was linked to a better quality of life, which is pretty major.

How is this possible? It’s probably a combo of things. Stretching helps you get in tune with your body and your breath instead of focusing on every annoying thing that happened that day.

Body awareness can also guide you to mindfulness, which isn’t just a cute self-care hashtag but has actually been found to help foster healthier sleep.

Stretching has physical benefits too: It helps us score some relief from muscle aches, tension, and distracting leg cramps that may happen during sleep.

Reach for sleep: 11 stretches to do before bed

Make sure your bedtime stretches are gentle and vibey, not workout-level extreme. Intense movement can keep you awake, and that’s not what we’re going for here.

1. Bear hug

Upper back and shoulder probs from bad WFH posture? This stretch targets the muscles in your upper back as well as any shoulder blade irritation or pain.

Stand tall and open your arms out big and wide while taking a nice inhale. Exhale as you hug yourself (aw!), with right arm over left arm. Breathe deeply while gently pulling shoulders forward (don’t get tight and push your shoulders up).

Hold this for 30 seconds before releasing on an inhale and opening arms back up wide. Exhale again and repeat with your left arm on top this time.

2. Neck stretch with head rolls

If you’re looking for relief from head, shoulder, and neck tension, this move is for you. Be sure to keep the best posture you’ve got throughout the entire stretch! And never pull your neck down — let gravity and the weight of your hand lead the stretch.

Take a seat or stand up tall. Place right hand on the top of your head or reach for your left ear (dealer’s choice). Softly move right ear toward right shoulder. Hold this pose for 5 nice breaths, then gently remove your hand and straighten your neck to return to the starting position. Repeat on the other side.

Give your neck some extra love and shake things out. Let chin fall slowly down to chest, then rotate your head to the left side, back, right side, and chest for a few breaths. Repeat in the opposite direction.

3. Child’s Pose

This yoga staple is ideal for getting in touch with your breath, relaxing your bod, and reducing stress. It’s also great for working out that back, shoulder, and neck tension.

Kneel on the floor and sit back on your heels. Bend forward at hips and fold over, resting forehead on the floor. Extend arms in front of you. If you need a little extra hip support, grab a pillow to place between your thighs.

While holding this pose, take some deep breaths, noticing any uncomfortable areas or back tightness. Hold for as long as it feels good (up to 5 minutes), or use this pose as a stretch in between other moves.

4. Seated forward bend

This one’s great for loosening up your shoulders, spine, and hamstrings while also giving your back a nice stretch.

Sit with legs extended in front of you. Gently engage core so spine can lengthen as you press your booty into the floor. Bend at hips to fold forward, stretching arms out in front of you. Keep head relaxed and chin tucked into chest.

Hold this position for up to 5 minutes.

5. Legs-Up-the-Wall Pose

This restorative yoga pose is ideal for relieving back, neck, and shoulder tension. Get your Zen on and pretend you’re walking on the ceiling, because, you know, why not?

Sit with your right side against a wall. Lie back on the floor while swinging legs up against the wall. It’s fine if your hips are against the wall or a few inches away — whatever distance is most comfortable. You can always toss a pillow under your hips if you want a boost or just some added comfort.

Rest your arms however you’d like while you stay in this position for up to 5 minutes.

6. Butterfly Pose

This one is for those tight hips and inner thighs! Be gentle in this stretch and let your body lean into it (don’t force it). You’ll be going “ahhh” in no time.

Sit up with spine and head aligned, bottoms of feet facing each other, and knees out to the sides. Grab the tops of feet, engage core, and gently lean forward at hips. Make sure back is straight as you lower your elbows to rest against your inner thighs before softly pushing thighs down.

Hold the pose for 15–30 seconds, continuing to press down on your thighs as long as it’s comfortable. Release and relax for 30 seconds. You can repeat these steps 2–4 times if you’d like.

7. Seated side stretch

Give your sides some love before you snooze. Prepare to feel this one in your abs and lower back too.

Sit cross-legged on the floor (or on your bed if you prefer!) with back straight and head and spine aligned. Rest hands at your sides. Press one hand into the floor and engage core as you reach your other arm over your head. Slowly bend torso to the side as you reach with the arm above your head.

Hold for 15–30 seconds, then relax for another 30 seconds. Repeat 2–4 times on each side if you want more.

8. Figure 4 stretch

This is a great post-running stretch, but it can also help limber you up before bedtime. Say goodbye to a tight booty, hips, and thighs.

Lie faceup on the floor or your bed, keeping a nice flat back. Bend both legs and place right shin just above left knee (your legs will look like a 4). Grasp your left thigh with both hands, softly pulling knee toward chest. Hold for 20 seconds.

You can do this 5 times on each side before coming back to the starting position.

9. Knee to chest

Keep it on the floor (or bed) for another easy lying-down stretch. This classic move targets your hips and lower back.

Lie faceup with your legs extended. Keep left leg on the floor and slowly pull right thigh toward chest.

Hold for 20 seconds, then repeat on the other side. You can repeat this 5 times per side.

10. Spinal twist

Do the twist to get that whole upper body ready for some Zzz’s. You’ll feel this stretch in your core, chest, shoulders, and entire back.

Lie faceup and bend knees a little deeper than 90 degrees at your hips, making sure knees and feet are together. Extend arms to the sides to form a T-shape, keeping hips and shoulders in alignment.

Keep head and spine in a nice straight line as you engage core and twist your bent legs to the right, resting them on the floor. At the same time, turn your head to face left.

Hold this pose for 15–30 seconds before returning to the starting position and repeating on the other side. If you need more stretch, repeat up to 3 times on each side.

11. Kneeling lat stretch

This stretch gets your back muscles and shoulders loosey-goosey while also helping with pain and soreness.

Kneel in front of a chair, a couch, or your bed. Make sure knees are placed right under hips. If you need to, you can grab a blanket or pillow for added support under your knees.

Extend your spine as you bend at hips, folding forward. Your forearms can rest on your surface of choice. Keep palms facing each other as you do this.

Hold it here for about 30 seconds. You can repeat this up to 3 times.

Tips for stretching before sleep

  • Get warm: Warming up before a stretch is the difference between a good stretch and a great one — warm muscles get the best result. So hop in a warm bath with some bath bombs or shower before you get your stretch on.
  • Perform controlled breathing: Slow, rhythmic breathing boosts relaxation, helping you hold stretches for the proper amount of time. Try to hold each stretch for at least 6–10 rhythmic, deep breaths.
  • Keep it light: Intense nightly workouts can raise your body temp and keep you amped and stimulated — not exactly a bedtime goal. Not everyone will notice less sleep due to nighttime workouts, but they could affect your sleep.
  • If you hear a pop, it’s time to stop: Your bedtime stretches shouldn’t hurt you. Pain is usually a signal that you’re going a little too hard. If you feel discomfort, it’s time to stop.

Increased Social Media Use Linked to Developing Depression

Increased Social Media Use Linked to Developing Depression

Young adults who increased their use of social media were significantly more likely to develop depression within six months, according to a new national study authored by Dr. Brian Primack, dean of the College of Education and Health Professions and professor of public health at the University of Arkansas.

Compared with participants who used less than 120 minutes per day of social media, for example, young adults who used more than 300 minutes per day were 2.8 times as likely to become depressed within six months.

The study, which will be published online Dec. 10 and is scheduled for the February 2021 issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, is the first large, national study to show a link between social media use and depression over time.

“Most prior work in this area has left us with the chicken-and-egg question,” said Primack. “We know from other large studies that depression and social media use tend to go together, but it’s been hard to figure out which came first. This new study sheds light on these questions, because high initial social media use led to increased rates of depression. However, initial depression did not lead to any change in social media use.”

In 2018, Primack and his colleagues at the University of Pittsburgh sampled more than 1,000 U.S. adults between 18 to 30. They measured depression using the validated nine-item Patient Health Questionnaire and asked participants about the amount of time they used social media on platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, Instagram, and SnapChat. Their analyses controlled for demographic factors like age, sex, race, education, income and employment, and they included survey weights so the results would reflect the greater U.S. population.

“One reason for these findings may be that social media takes up a lot of time,” said Dr. Cesar Escobar-Viera, assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh and co-author on the study. “Excess time on social media may displace forming more important in-person relationships, achieving personal or professional goals, or even simply having moments of valuable reflection.”

The authors suggest that social comparison may also underlie these findings.

“Social media is often curated to emphasize positive portrayals,” said Jaime Sidani, assistant professor of medicine at the University of Pittsburgh and co-author of the study. “This can be especially difficult for young adults who are at critical junctures in life related to identity development and feel that they can’t measure up to the impossible ideals they are exposed to.”

The findings are of particular importance given that depression was recently declared to be the leading global cause of disability by the World Health Organization and accounts for more disability-adjusted life years than all other mental disorders.

“These findings are also particularly important to consider in the age of COVID-19,” Primack said. “Now that it’s harder to connect socially in person, we’re all using more technology like social media. While I think those technologies certainly can be valuable, I’d also encourage people to reflect on which tech experiences are truly useful for them and which ones leave them feeling empty.”

Additional researchers on this study are Ariel Shensa and Dr. Michael Fine, both of the University of Pittsburgh.

Funding: The research was supported by the Fine Foundation (no relation to co-author Michael Fine).


Humans Used to Sleep in Two Shifts, And Maybe We Should Start It Again

Humans Used to Sleep in Two Shifts, And Maybe We Should Start It Again

Around a third of the Australian population have trouble sleeping, including difficulties maintaining sleep throughout the night.

While nighttime awakenings are distressing for most sufferers, there is some evidence from our recent past that suggests this period of wakefulness occurring between two separate sleep periods was the norm.

Throughout history, there have been numerous accounts of segmented sleep, from medical texts, to court records and diaries, and even in African and South American tribes, with a common reference to “first” and “second” sleep.

In Charles Dickens’ Barnaby Rudge (1840), he writes:

“He knew this, even in the horror with which he started from his first sleep, and threw up the window to dispel it by the presence of some object, beyond the room, which had not been, as it were, the witness of his dream.”

Anthropologists have found evidence that during preindustrial Europe, bi-modal sleeping was considered the norm. Sleep onset was determined not by a set bedtime, but by whether there were things to do.

Historian A. Roger Ekirch’s book At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past describes how households at this time retired a couple of hours after dusk, woke a few hours later for one to two hours, and then had a second sleep until dawn.

During this waking period, people would relax, ponder their dreams, or have sex. Some would engage in activities like sewing, chopping wood, or reading, relying on the light of the moon or oil lamps.

Ekirch found references to the first and second sleep started to disappear during the late 17th century. This is thought to have started in the upper classes in Northern Europe and filtered down to the rest of Western society over the next 200 years.

Interestingly, the appearance of sleep maintenance insomnia in the literature in the late 19th century coincides with the period where accounts of split sleep start to disappear. Thus, modern society may place unnecessary pressure on individuals that they must obtain a night of continuous consolidated sleep every night, adding to the anxiety about sleep and perpetuating the problem.

Biological basis

Less dramatic forms of bi-phasic sleep are evident in today’s society, for example in cultures that take an afternoon siesta. Our body clock lends itself to such a schedule, having a reduction in alertness in the early afternoon (the so-called ‘post-lunch dip’).

In the early 1990s, psychiatrist Thomas Wehr conducted a laboratory experiment in which he exposed a group of people to a short photoperiod – that is, they were left in darkness for 14 hours every day instead of the typical 8 hours – for a month.


It took some time for their sleep to regulate, but by the fourth week, a distinct two-phase sleep pattern emerged. They slept first for 4 hours, then woke for 1 to 3 hours before falling into a second 4-hour sleep. This finding suggests bi-phasic sleep is a natural process with a biological basis.

Pros and cons
Today’s society often doesn’t allow for this type of flexibility, thus, we have to conform to today’s sleep/wake schedules. It is generally thought a continuous 7 to 9-hour unbroken sleep is probably best for feeling refreshed. Such a schedule may not suit our circadian rhythms, however, as we desynchronise with the external 24-hour light/dark cycle.

To successfully maintain a split sleep schedule, you have to get the timing right – that is, commencing sleep when there is a strong drive for sleep, and during a low circadian point, in order to fall asleep quickly and maintain sleep.

Some of the key advantages of a split sleep schedule include the flexibility it allows with work and family time (where this flexibility is afforded). Some individuals in modern society have adopted this type of schedule as it provides two periods of increased activity, creativity, and alertness across the day, rather than having a long wake period where sleepiness builds up across the day and productivity wanes.

In support of this, there is growing evidence suggesting naps can have important benefits for memory and learning, increasing our alertness and improving mood states. Some believe sleep disorders, like sleep maintenance insomnia, are rooted in the body’s natural preference for split sleep. Therefore, split sleep schedules may be a more natural rhythm for some people.

Implications for shift work

Split sleep schedules have recently begun to emerge as a potential alternative to continuous night shift work. Working at night has the combined problems of prolonged wakefulness (often working 8 to 12-hour shifts) and circadian misalignment (working at a time of night when you would normally be asleep).

Shift workers frequently complain of fatigue and reduced productivity at work, and they are at increased risk for chronic disease such as obesity, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease.

Some industries have employed schedules with shorter but more frequent sleep opportunities, on the premise that the drive for sleep will be less with reduced time. For example, 6 hours on/6 hours off, 4 hours on/8 hours off, and 8 hours on/8 hours off, limiting time on shift and reducing extended periods of wakefulness.

Split sleep/work schedules divide the day into multiple work/rest cycles so employees work multiple short shifts, broken up with short off-duty periods every 24 hours.

Split-shift schedules that maintain adequate sleep time per 24 hours may be beneficial for sleep, performance, and safety. A number of recent studies have found split sleep provides comparable benefits for performance to one big sleep, if the total sleep time per 24 hours was maintained (at around 7 to 8 hours total sleep time per 24 hours).

However, as might be expected, performance and safety can still be impaired if wake up and start work times are in the early hours of the morning. And we don’t know if these schedules afford any benefits for health and reduce the risk for chronic disease.

While the challenges of night shift work cannot be eliminated, the advantage of some split shift schedules is that all workers get at least some opportunity to sleep at night and do not have to sustain alertness for longer than 6 to 8 hours.

Although we aspire to have consolidated sleep, this may not suit everyone’s body clock or work schedule. It might, in fact, be a throwback to a bi-model sleep pattern from our pre-industrial ancestors, and could perhaps work well in a modern industrial setting.


The Science of Reasoning With Unreasonable People

The Science of Reasoning With Unreasonable People

Don’t try to change someone else’s mind. Instead, help them find their own motivation to change.

A few years ago, I made the mistake of having an argument with the most stubborn person I know. R., whose initial I’m using to protect his privacy, is a longtime friend, and when his family came to visit, he mentioned that his children had never been vaccinated — and never would be.

I’m no proponent of blindly giving every vaccination to every newborn, but I was concerned for his children’s safety, so I started debunking some common vaccine myths. After days of debate, I was exhausted and exasperated. Determined to preserve our friendship, I vowed never to talk with him about vaccines again.

Then came 2020. Fear of the vaccine may be the greatest barrier to stopping Covid-19. It stretches far beyond the so-called anti-vaxxer community: About half of Americans harbor questions about the safety of the Covid-19 vaccines; 39 percent say they definitely or probably won’t get one.

I decided to see if I could open R.’s mind to the possibility. What I didn’t realize was that my mind would be opened as well.

As an organizational psychologist, I’ve spent the past few years studying how to motivate people to think again. I’ve run experiments that led proponents of gun rights and gun safety to abandon some of their mutual animosity, and I even got Yankees fans to let go of their grudges against Red Sox supporters. But I don’t always practice what I teach.

When someone seems closed-minded, my instinct is to argue the polar opposite of their position. But when I go on the attack, my opponents either shut down or fight back harder. On more than one occasion, I’ve been called a “logic bully.”

When we try to change a person’s mind, our first impulse is to preach about why we’re right and prosecute them for being wrong. Yet experiments show that preaching and prosecuting typically backfire — and what doesn’t sway people may strengthen their beliefs. Much as a vaccine inoculates the physical immune system against a virus, the act of resistance fortifies the psychological immune system. Refuting a point of view produces antibodies against future attempts at influence, making people more certain of their own opinions and more ready to rebut alternatives.

That’s what happened with my friend. If I wanted him to rethink his blanket resistance to vaccines, I had to rethink my approach.

Several decades ago, when treating substance abuse problems, psychologists developed a technique called motivational interviewing. The central premise: Instead of trying to force other people to change, you’re better off helping them find their own intrinsic motivation to change. You do that by interviewing them — asking open-ended questions and listening carefully — and holding up a mirror so they can see their own thoughts more clearly. If they express a desire to change, you guide them toward a plan.

In controlled trials, motivational interviewing has helped people to stop smoking, abusing drugs and alcohol, and gambling; to improve their diets and exercise; to overcome eating disorders; and to lose weight. The approach has also motivated students to get a good night’s sleep; voters to reconsider their prejudices; and divorcing parents to reach settlements.

Recently, thanks to a vaccine whisperer, it has been applied to immunization. Arnaud Gagneur is a pediatrician in Quebec who encourages reluctant parents to immunize their children. In his experiments, a motivational interview in the maternity ward after birth increased the number of mothers willing to vaccinate their children from 72 percent to 87 percent; the number of children who were fully vaccinated two years later rose by 9 percent. A single conversation was enough to change behavior over the next 24 months.

I set up a conversation between Dr. Gagneur and my friend. After 90 minutes, it was clear to me that R.’s vaccination stance had not changed.

“I have tried to apply all the principles of motivational interviewing, but I have had the unpleasant feeling of not doing so well,” Dr. Gagneur wrote to me in email. “R. is very knowledgeable and always ends up finding arguments that support his decision.”

Strangely, I didn’t feel defeated or irritated. I wanted to learn how my friend’s views could evolve.

The pioneers of motivational interviewing, William Miller and Stephen Rollnick, have long warned against using the technique to manipulate people. It requires a genuine desire to understand people’s motivations and help them reach their goals. Although R. and I both want to keep his children healthy, I realized I had never tried to understand his perspective on vaccines before. So the next morning, I called him.

In our past debates, R. had focused only on the potential downsides of vaccinations. With Dr. Gagneur, though, he acknowledged that vaccines could be good for some but not necessarily for others. If he lived in a country experiencing an outbreak of, say, malaria, would he consider immunization? “You weigh the pros and cons,” he said.

Psychologists find that when we listen carefully and call attention to the nuances in people’s own thinking, they become less extreme and more open in their views. I wondered how my friend’s ambivalence applied to Covid, and I knew that the kinds of questions I asked would matter. Social scientists have found that asking people how their preferred political policies might work in practice, rather than asking why they favor those approaches, was more effective in opening their minds. As people struggled to explain their ideal tax legislation or health care plan, they grasped the complexity of the problem and recognized gaps in their knowledge.

So for my second attempt, instead of asking R. why he was opposed to Covid vaccines, I asked him how he would stop the pandemic. He said we couldn’t put all our eggs in one basket — we needed a stronger focus on prevention and treatment. When I asked whether vaccines would be part of his strategy, he said yes — for some people.

I was eager to learn what might lead R. to decide that he is one of those people. In motivational interviewing, there’s a distinction between sustain talk and change talk. Sustain talk is commentary about maintaining the status quo. Change talk is referencing a desire, ability or commitment to making a shift. A skilled motivational interviewer listens for change talk and asks people to elaborate on it. This was my third step.

I asked R. what the odds were that he would get a Covid vaccine. He said they were “pretty low for many different reasons.” I told him it was fascinating to me that he didn’t say zero.

“This is not a black-and-white issue,” R. said. “I don’t know, because my views change.” I laughed: “This is a milestone — the most stubborn person I know admits that he’s willing to change his mind?” He laughed too: “No, I’m still the most stubborn person you know! But at different stages of our lives, we have different things that are important to us, right?”

I don’t expect R. or his children to be vaccinated any time soon, but it felt like progress that he agreed to keep an open mind. The real breakthrough, though, was mine. I became open to a new mode of conversation, with no points to score and no debate to win. The only victory I declared was against my own prosecutor tendencies. I had prevailed over my inner logic bully.

Many people believe that to stop a deadly pandemic, the end justifies whatever means are necessary. It’s worth remembering that the means are a measure of our character. If we succeed in opening minds, the question is not only whether we’re proud of what we’ve achieved. We should also ask whether we’re proud of how we’ve achieved it.

I no longer believe it’s my place to change anyone’s mind. All I can do is try to understand their thinking and ask if they’re open to some rethinking. The rest is up to them.


22 brain exercises to improve memory, cognition, and creativity

22 brain exercises to improve memory, cognition, and creativity

The brain is the most complex organ of the body. It regulates multiple bodily functions, interprets incoming sensory information, and processes our emotions. It is also the seat of memory, intelligence, and creativity.

Although the brain gets plenty of exercise every day, certain activities may help boost brain function and connectivity. This in turn may help protect the brain from age-related degeneration.

The brain is always active, even during sleep. However, certain activities can engage the brain in new ways, potentially leading to improvements in memory, cognitive function, or creativity.

This article outlines 22 brain exercises that may help boost memory, cognition, and creativity.

1. Meditation

Meditation generally involves focusing attention in a calm, controlled way. Meditating may have multiple benefits for both the brain and the body.

According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, research suggests that meditation may benefit the brain by slowing brain aging and increasing the brain’s ability to process information.

2. Visualizing more

Visualization involves forming a mental image to represent information. The mental image may be in the form of pictures or animated scenes.

A 2018 review notes that visualization helps people organize information and make appropriate decisions.

People can practice visualization in their day-to-day lives. For example, before going shopping, people can visualize how they will get to and from the grocery store, and imagine what they will buy when they get there. The key is to imagine the scenes vividly and in as much detail as possible.

3. Playing games

Playing card games or board games can be a fun way to socialize or pass the time. These activities may also be beneficial for the brain. A 2017 study found a link between playing games and a decreased risk of cognitive impairment in older adults.

4. Playing memory card games

Memory card games test a person’s short-term memory and ability to remember patterns. They are a simple and fun way to engage the brain and activate areas related to pattern recognition and recall.

5. Practicing crossword puzzles

Crossword puzzles are a popular activity that may stimulate the brain. An older study from 2011 notes that crossword puzzles may delay the onset of memory decline in people with preclinical dementia.

6. Completing jigsaw puzzles

Completing a jigsaw puzzle can be a good way to pass the time and may also benefit the brain. A 2018 study found that puzzles activate many cognitive functions, including:

  • perception
  • mental rotation
  • working memory
  • reasoning

The study concluded that doing jigsaw puzzles regularly and throughout life may protect against the effects of brain aging.

7. Playing sudoku

Number puzzles, such as sudoku, can be a fun way to challenge the brain. They may also improve cognitive function in some people.

A 2019 study of adults aged between 50 and 93 years found that those who practiced number puzzles more frequently tended to have better cognitive function.

8. Playing chess

A 2016 meta-analysis notes that chess and other cognitive leisure activities may lead to improvements in:

  • memory
  • executive functioning, which is the ability to monitor and adapt behavior in order to meet set goals
  • information processing speed

9. Playing checkers

A 2015 study found that there is a connection between regular participation in checkers or other cognitively stimulating games and larger brain volume and improved markers of cognitive health in people at risk of Alzheimer’s disease.

10. Playing video games

A 2015 review notes that some types of video games — such as action, puzzle, and strategy games — may lead to improvements in the following:

  • attention
  • problem solving
  • cognitive flexibility

11. Socializing

Enjoying company of friends may be a mentally engaging leisure activity and may help preserve cognitive function. A 2019 study found that people with more frequent social contact were less likely to experience cognitive decline and dementia.

Some social activities that may help stimulate the brain include:


  • having discussions
  • playing games
  • participating in social sports

12. Learning new skills

Learning new skills engages the brain in different ways and may help improve brain function.

A 2014 study of older adults found that learning a new and cognitively demanding skill, such as quilting or photography, enhanced memory function.


13. Increasing personal vocabulary

Increasing one’s vocabulary range is a great way to broaden knowledge while exercising the brain.

A simple way to increase vocabulary is to read a book or watch a TV program and note down any words that are unfamiliar. A person can then use a dictionary to look up the meaning of the word and think up ways to use the word in a sentence.


14. Learning a new language

“Bilingualism” refers to the ability to speak two languages.

A 2019 review notes that bilingualism increases and strengthens connectivity between different areas of the brain. The researchers propose that this enhanced connectivity may play a role in delaying the onset of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.


15. Listening to music

A 2018 study published in Brain Sciences found that listening to music a person enjoys engages and connects different parts of the brain.

The researchers propose that this may lead to improvements in cognitive function and overall well-being.


16. Learning a musical instrument

Learning an instrument exercises parts of the brain that are responsible for coordination.

According to a 2014 study, playing an instrument may benefit cognitive development in a young brain and help protect against cognitive impairment in an aging brain.

17. Taking up engaging hobbies

Taking up a new hobby can be mentally stimulating and exercise the brain in new ways.

Hobbies that require coordination or dexterity will activate a person’s motor skills. Such hobbies may include:

  • knitting
  • embroidery
  • drawing
  • painting
  • dancing
  • learning a musical instrument

18. Exercising regularly

Regular physical exercise is beneficial for both the brain and the body. Authors of a 2019 review note that exercise improves the following aspects of brain health:

  • memory
  • cognition
  • motor coordination

19. Dancing

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), exercise has beneficial effects on the following aspects of cognitive health:


  • memory
  • planning
  • organization

Dance is a form of exercise that may also engage areas of the brain involved in rhythm and balance.


20. Engaging in sports

Certain sports are both physically and mentally demanding. Some require a range of cognitive skills, such as:


  • sustained attention
  • planning
  • multitasking
  • the ability to adapt rapidly to changing situations

A 2019 review notes that elite athletes who participate in high demand sports tend to have improved attention and faster information processing speeds.


21. Practicing tai chi

Tai chi is a form of physical exercise that involves gentle body movements, rhythmic breathing, and meditation.

A 2019 study compared brain function and connectivity among tai chi practitioners and those who did not practice it.

The researchers found that the tai chi practitioners had enhanced connectivity between different regions of their brain. They proposed that this may improve cognition and decrease the rate of memory loss.


22. Sleeping

While not necessarily an active exercise, sleep is crucial for both the brain and the body.

According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, most adults need between 7 and 9 hours of sleep each night, although many people get less sleep than they need.

A 2015 review notes that sleep has been proven to:


  • boost memory recall
  • reduce mental fatigue
  • regulate metabolism

As such, making sure to get enough sleep each night is an important step toward maintaining a healthy brain.



Brain exercises can be as simple as actively engaging the brain in everyday tasks. Others are targeted workouts for the brain, specifically designed to enhance memory, cognition, or creativity.

Exercising the brain may help improve brain function and boost connectivity between the different areas. This may help protect the brain from age-related degeneration.

People are likely to differ in terms of the brain exercises they find most enjoyable. It may be a good idea to try a range of brain-training activities at first and to stick with those that provide the most enjoyment or reward.


A Fun Way to Keep Your Memory Sharp

A Fun Way to Keep Your Memory Sharp

Experts say trying new things can go a long way for the brain

Memory slips loom larger as people grow older. Forgetting why you walked into a room, or what you were supposed to pick up at the store can provoke nagging anxiety — not to mention dark humor about impending decrepitude.

If your next search for the car keys sets off such thoughts, keep in mind two reassuring facts. First, some loss of memory is completely normal. Second, there’s a simple, enjoyable technique that can minimize age-related decline.

The specifics vary from person to person, but the idea is the same: Change things up.

“As adults approach retirement age, they come to a fork in the road,” says Michael Yassa, PhD, director of the Brain Initiative at the University of California, Irvine. “You’ve been intellectually and emotionally engaged for a very long time. You can choose to cease that engagement, or you can plan a rich retirement filled with activities.

“We see clear differentiations in brain function for those who get out and about and do lots of new things, as opposed to those who decide to stay at home and watch TV.”

The comfort of settling down into a predictable pattern may be enticing, but the brain craves stimulation, says Dana Boebinger, a neuroscientist and PhD student at Harvard University and MIT. “In order to keep your memory sharp,” she reports, “you have to do exciting, interesting, challenging stuff.”

From a scientific perspective, memory can be broken up into three components: encoding, the act of absorbing a piece of information into our memory system; storage, the process of retaining the information; and retrieval, getting the information back into our conscious awareness. The normal aging process can slow, or inhibit, each of those steps.

“In general, memories are a compressed version of reality,” says Yassa. “With age, they’re even more compressed. You lose a lot of details. You may remember what happened, but not when and where it happened.”

This compression is even seen in short-term memory: “In the laboratory, we have individuals look at images that are similar (but not identical) and ask them if they’re the same thing they’ve seen before,” he says. “Older adults are more likely to say, yes, it’s the same thing. That suggests their initial encoding of the memory was not at the highest level of detail.”

“We see clear differentiations in brain function for those who get out and about and do lots of new things, as opposed to those who decide to stay at home and watch TV.”

Yassa emphasizes that, unless a brain is diseased, these changes tend to be subtle, and don’t impair a person’s ability to live a normal life. Indeed, some types of memory loss — such as having the name of a person or object on the tip of your tongue, but having trouble retrieving it — are common and nothing to worry about.

The time to be concerned — and see a doctor — is when you experience “a pervasive pattern of decline over time,” he says. “The mild forgetfulness we all get as older adults is perfectly fine.”

But if you wish to remain as sharp as possible, he recommends creating “an enriched environment” by engaging in activities that involve “a little bit of physicality and a lot of social interaction.”

Granted, “social interaction” can be a challenge during a pandemic, but there are many high-tech ways to stay in touch with family and friends. And those hours spent at home can be utilized in brain-boosting ways.

“Learning new dances, a new language, new skills — all of those are incredibly valuable” for people who are approaching, or have reached, senior-citizen status, he says. The combination of novelty and light exercise is “a kind of fertilizer that surrounds brain cells with nutrients.”

Whenever we encounter something unexpected, it prompts the release of dopamine, which is “very good for the brain,” according to Yassa. Sabina Brennan, PhD, an Irish neuroscientist and psychologist and author of the book 100 Days to a Younger Brain, agrees. “Novelty is a critical element of neuroplasticity, the human brain’s amazing capacity to adapt and change across the lifespan,” she says.

“Stretching yourself a little, doing things beyond your comfort zone, or pushing yourself into situations that require you to cope with challenges will change your brain chemistry. This will impact positively on your mood and your brain function.”

This makes sense from an evolutionary perspective: noting and retaining new information enhanced humans’ prospects of survival. But how far must we stretch ourselves before we see results? Are small shifts sufficient, or should we try something radically different?

Yassa admits there is little research on that specific question, but he agrees with Brennan that a key factor is whether the new activity elicits positive emotions. “I think people have to go out of their comfort zone a little bit, but not so far out of their comfort zone that they get frustrated,” he says. “If a novel experience such as switching from reading one genre of book to another is exciting and interesting, it’s a winner. If it’s frustrating or annoying, it’s not going to be beneficial. If you’re a musician, you may not have to learn a new instrument — just learn new pieces all the time, or perform in a different group.”

Both Yassa and Brennan have another, somewhat surprising recommendation: Participate in activities that stimulate as many senses as possible. “This is what we instinctively do as children,” Brennan bemoans. “But, alas, when we go to school, we are discouraged from touching, tasting, etc. Actively engaging your senses can play a powerful role in embedding memories in your brain.”

For example, cooks who experiment with a different cuisine will expose themselves to unfamiliar smells, which tend to linger in the memory. “The olfactory system evolved together with the memory system of the brain, so it has direct access to it.” Yassa says. “It’s very privileged! Olfaction is one of the most powerful stimulants for our memory system.”

Indeed, in a recent New York Times essay, neuroscientist and best-selling author Daniel Levitin, PhD, revealed that, as part of his effort to keep his memory sharp, “I go to new parks and forests where I’m more likely to encounter the smells of new grasses and trees.” He also samples new artisanal chocolates whenever possible, stimulating both taste and smell. That recommendation should not be a hard sell.

Trying new podcasts — Brennan has one called Super Brain — could also provide valuable stimulation. In addition, she endorses an everyday behavior that will be novel for many of us: staying mindful.

“Our ability to form memories for recent events does appear to decline with age,” she says. “But in many instances this might not be due to failures of memory, but rather failures of attention. If you haven’t attended to where you put your keys then you can’t encode the memory, and it is pretty much impossible to recall a memory that wasn’t encoded.”

So, to keep a sharp memory as we grow older, the key steps are clear. Be present. Stay physically active. Keep challenging yourself, in fun, engaging ways. And above all, stop that internal chatter that says, “I’m really getting old.”

“People who classify themselves as older and who expect memory to decline with age actually perform more poorly on memory tests,” Brennan says. “You can shape your brain not only by the actions you choose to take, but also by the way that you think about and approach life.”

That’s good to remember.


Investor known as the ‘Warren Buffett of Japan’: The No. 1 secret to success, wealth and happiness in life

Investor known as the ‘Warren Buffett of Japan’: The No. 1 secret to success, wealth and happiness in life

The secret to a happy life isn’t an abundance of wealth — and yet, we often hear people say they want more money. But rarely anyone says they have too much, or just enough.

In my 30 years of researching money and happiness, one of the most remarkable individuals I’ve ever met was a Japanese entrepreneur and investor named Wahei Takeda.

Before Takeda passed away in 2016, at 83, I had the honor of having him as a mentor for 15 years. A truly happy man, he taught me what it really means to live a successful and meaningful life.

“There is no end in the money game,” Takeda once told me, comparing it to baseball. Even if you are winning in the bottom of the ninth inning, that doesn’t guarantee a win.

The money game is the same, he explained. Even if you are wealthy in your 30s or 40s, that doesn’t mean something disastrous can’t happen and leave you destitute.

The ‘Warren Buffett of Japan’
Often called the “Warren Buffet of Japan,” Takeda was one of the country’s most successful and well-known investors.

In 2006, Takeda had top 10 stakes at more than 100 companies valued at 30 billion yen, making him Japan’s No. 1 individual investor, the Nikkei newspaper reported at the time.

The ‘Warren Buffett of Japan’

Often called the “Warren Buffet of Japan,” Takeda was one of the country’s most successful and well-known investors.

In 2006, Takeda had top 10 stakes at more than 100 companies valued at 30 billion yen, making him Japan’s No. 1 individual investor, the Nikkei newspaper reported at the time.

Takeda was also the founder of Takeda Confectionery, a company whose biggest seller was Tamago Boro, which sells bite-sized biscuits shaped like little eggs.

What’s especially interesting is that if you visit the factory, you’ll find workers listening to music of children singing “arigato,” which means thank you in Japanese.

Takeda believed that serenading the snacks with the expression of thanks served as a reminder that it is the staff’s hard work and continued customer loyalty that keeps the company going.

(The ongoing tradition also explains why Tamago Boro bills its sweets as “candy that has heard ‘thank you’ one million times.”)

‘Maro’ is the key to a happy and abundant life

All of this reflects Takeda’s philosophy of “maro,” which is short for magokoro in Japanese and means a sincere heart. You could say that your maro is strong if you have pure intentions and lead an upright life.

Inner contentment and gratitude are the essence of maro. And I know for certain that my success today is a direct result of Takeda’s constant reminders telling me to “maro up” and say “arigato.”

After Takeda’s success in the confectionery business, he decided to devote more time to fostering the growth of small businesses, and became known as a “community philanthropist.”

All throughout his phenomenal career, Takeda inspired thousands of people to become more giving and open to the flow of money both into and out of their lives.

He believed that kindness and generosity are the keys to happiness and prosperity.

Achieving a state of ‘maro’

Those who are in touch with their maro create win-win situations for themselves and for the people around them.

When your maro increases, according to Takeda, three things happen:

You become more magnetic, emitting and attracting positive energy. This surrounds you with good people and things you truly care about, which then creates a cycle of happiness and abundance.

You become more passionate and energized to accomplish things that are important to you. This makes you more intuitive and able to choose the best way to live your life. And since you’re doing what you love most, you constantly open doors to exciting new opportunities.

You express more gratitude for life and increasingly find yourself saying “thank you.” Since gratitude is contagious, others start to express gratitude and welcome more abundance into their lives as well.

In a money-obsessed society, the simplest way to reach a state of maro to express gratitude and give to others, instead of always wanting or asking for more.

Ken Honda is a happiness expert and the bestselling author of “Happy Money: The Japanese Art of Making Peace With Your Money.” He has owned and managed businesses, including an accounting company, consulting firm and venture capital corporation. Ken studied law at Waseda University and currently resides in Tokyo, Japan.


Set Better Boundaries

Set Better Boundaries

by Priscilla Claman

Boundary predators are easy to find at work. They include the boss who asks you to work the weekend you have a family wedding or the client who tacks on two more presentations to the senior team than you agreed to, or the team leader who assigns you more work than your colleagues.

Boundary predators aren’t just at work. They also include the crafty four-year-old who says, “But Daddy said I could have another cookie!” Or the 17 year old who commits to driving three friends to the movies without first asking your permission to borrow the car. Or the beloved partner who leaves the dishwasher for you to unload even though you made a deal to take turns and you did it yesterday.

Boundary predators rely on their power and authority — and your passivity — to get what they want. It’s up to you to push back by understanding how to create boundaries and maintain them. Personal boundaries are difficult to define and hard to maintain in all spheres of our lives. Unlike laws or national boundaries, personal boundaries don’t exist on their own; you have to will them into existence through conversation, especially if you aren’t in a position of power. However, all kinds of people conduct these difficult conversations every day with customers, clients, and kids, clarifying the work to be done and both drawing and holding the line. The following approaches will make it easier for you to conduct persuasive conversations that set and maintain boundaries:

Have an Agreement Up Front
When everyone consents to terms ahead of time, everyone knows what the objectives are and what to expect, and there is usually less potential for opposition. For example:

  • “I have to leave this meeting at 11:30, but I’ll check in this afternoon.”
  • “Yes, you can take the car, but you will have to be back by 10:30 so I can take your sister to practice.”
  • “Let’s say that you can always have two cookies, but only two cookies, for dessert.”

Establishing a clear boundary gives you a defense against withering in an endless meeting or listening to continuous nagging for more dessert. Then, you can just remind the other party of the agreement and be firm. “Only two cookies for dessert, remember?”

Mention Your Credentials
Setting boundaries, no matter how casual, requires some authority. Briefly referring to the expertise you bring to the table gives you additional power in boundary negotiations. Here’s what that sounds like:

  • “I’ve worked with at least 20 CEOs in similar situations, and I know I can help you.”
  • “Yes, I’ve worked with this software on several other projects, and I know I can make a contribution to the team. But we’ll have to figure out how to reassign my current work.”
  • “As your father, I am responsible for your safety, and I don’t think that’s a safe thing to do.”

To up the ante a little, mention others who are with you:

  • “You’ve reached the right department to resolve your problem. We have a reputation for being the best, so if you follow my instructions, I’ll have you back online in a jiffy.”
  • “Parents choose their kids’ TV programs, and your dad and I agree that’s not a program you should watch.”

Expect Your Boundaries to Be Challenged
We’re all familiar with “scope creep”— when you’re asked to do more than you signed up for. As any parent of a two-year-old knows, setting a boundary is almost an invitation to test it. So, don’t get angry. Think about it and make a choice. Do I want to make this an exception or do I want to stick with the agreement?

There are times when you can gain something from conceding, but you’ll need to reset the boundary bargain as a part of the same conversation. For example:

  • “I’m happy to do it again for you, this time. How about lending me two people on your staff while I do it? I’ll teach them all I know, and then you’ll have the resources in house.”
  • “Yes, you can have the car all day Saturday if you drive your sister and her friends to practice. The following Saturday, though, I’m going to need it.”

Ask Questions
Ask loads of clarifying questions before committing, especially when you aren’t clear on the right approach. The answers will help you decide what to do when your boundaries are challenged. Keep your questions open-ended, so you’ll be able to gather more information without being perceived as negative:

  • “Let’s talk a little more about your project. You said it had strategic importance. How is that? Do you have some ideas for the outcomes you want? Let’s come up with some options for meeting your team’s strategic goals for this fiscal year.”
  • “What can you tell me about the people we’re creating this how-to-interview program for? Are they experienced interviewers? What concerns do you have about their ability to select the right person for the job?”
  • “That is an interesting new bike you want us to buy for you. What makes it different from the bike you have now? What do you plan to do with your old bike?”

Try Not to Use the Word “No”
Sooner or later you’re going to have to use the word “no,” if only to stop your kid from running into the street. But don’t be afraid to disagree, even with powerful people. You can have a persuasive conversation that sets boundaries without starting a world war. The key is to not say no directly. This skill is useful for setting boundaries, while maintaining the relationship:

  • “My team and I would be very happy to work on your important project, but we’re unable to start for six months.”
  • “I’m sorry I just won’t be able to make that Friday deadline. Let’s talk about what we can do now.”

When you say no indirectly, offering alternatives maintains the relationship and eases the negative blow. Doing this works in the office and in other realms of your life, too:

  • “I can scale back what I give you and do it by Friday, or I can complete it and give it to you a week later.”
  • “I’m very excited about taking this job, and I understand you want me to start right away, but I have a two-week vacation planned with my family. Would you like me to start after I take my vacation or take the vacation after I start?”
  • “It’s just not possible for us to spend that amount of money on a new bike this summer. However, I’m happy to brainstorm with you how you could earn some money and sell your old one. Then we might be able to contribute something to the cause.”

Alternatives give the people you are saying no to a greater sense of control. You’re not denying them everything, and you’re sending a strong message that you still want to work with them.

Don’t Offer a Parade of Reasons When You Say No
Overexplaining will not help you agree to a boundary. Too much information can lead to too much discussion. And it erodes your position:

  • Don’t say, “I can’t work next Saturday because I’m going to my grandson’s first birthday party,” unless you know your boss is particularly sensitive to grandmothers. The boss might argue, “But he’ll have a birthday next year,” or “You’ll be home by 6 p.m. Have the party then.” Now you are into an argument that’s hard to win. Say instead, “I’m sorry. I’ve an important family obligation I just can’t change.” And stick to it.
  • Don’t say you can’t come to a party because you don’t have a babysitter, because then the host could offer to let your children come, too. Then you’d be forced to say, “But that wouldn’t work because . . . ” Instead, say, “I wish we could, but we just can’t,” and leave it like that.

After a Crisis, Reset the Agreement
Emergencies occur. You will drop everything to take your daughter to the emergency room when she breaks her leg. You will work more hours than is reasonable to make sure that product gets out the door on time. But you need to restart your agreement when the emergency is over. If you had a strong boundary agreement in the first place, it will be much easier to reestablish it. If you can, allude to the agreement while you are responding to the emergency, and always give the important news in the first sentence:

  • “I’m not going to make the presentation this afternoon. I’m on my way to the emergency room with my daughter. When she is stabilized, I’ll call and see what I can do to reschedule.”
  • “No problem. I’ll take over while you go to that important conference in Chicago, but when you get back, let’s return to our regular plan for day-care drop-off and pickup.”

With any interruption in your boundary agreement, you will need to reset the agreement to move forward:

  • “Yes, I’ll drop everything and fly to meet with Big Important Client to resolve their problems with our technology, but let’s agree that I’ll to go back to managing my current team with my current responsibilities when I get back next month.”
  • “Yes, while you are staying at Grandma’s you can watch the TV much longer. But Grandma has her rules at her house, and we have our rules at our house.”

Strangely enough, even when you are in charge, using your authority doesn’t always help you set boundaries, as anyone who has toilet trained a toddler will tell you. The harder you push, the more resistance you create. Being persuasive, not pushy, will help you set boundaries in a collaborative way. And the more you conduct conversations to clearly set — and enforce — boundaries, the more they will be respected.

Article Link: Set Better Boundaries


Feeling anxious? The way you breathe could be adding to it

Scrolling social media, amid frantic posts about politics and COVID-19 cases, you may have come across a friend or two reminding everyone to “just breathe.”

Talking about being kind to yourself may sound like something from a nursery classroom. But even cynics should care about self-compassion – especially if they want to be resilient.

In his new book Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art, journalist James Nestor argues that modern humans have become pretty bad at this most basic act of living. We breathe through our mouths and into our chests, and we do it way too fast. There’s even a phenomenon called “email apnea,” where multitasking office workers breathe irregularly and shallowly — or even hold their breath — for half a minute or more while glued to their devices.

Besides all the worrisome health problems this may cause, which Nestor details in his book, our ineptitude at breathing may have another big consequence — contributing to our anxiety and other mental health problems.

“The rate and depth we breathe at is a huge determinant of our mental state,” says Elissa Epel, a professor at UC San Francisco.

Researchers like Epel are exploring how using breathing techniques — some new, some ancient — can help people stave off anxiety. What they’re discovering is that breathing could be an overlooked key to finding more calm and peace.

How breathing can calm us
We often try to tame anxiety by changing our thoughts — questioning the worst-case scenarios in our heads, interrupting rumination with some kind of distraction or going to therapy. But breathing offers a different approach, bypassing the complexities of the mind and targeting the body directly. Instead of trying to think yourself out of feeling anxious, you can do something concrete — breathe slow or fast, in a particular rhythm, or through one nostril — and sometimes find immediate relief.

In a 2017 study, highly anxious people were assigned to take a course in diaphragmatic breathing relaxation and they practiced twice a day at home. Diaphragmatic breathing, or belly breathing, involves breathing deeply into the abdomen rather than taking shallow breaths into the chest. After eight weeks, they reported feeling less anxious compared to a group that didn’t receive the training. They also showed physical signs of reduced anxiety, including lower heart rate, slower breathing and lower skin conductivity.

So, a regular breathing practice might help you feel calmer in your everyday life. But other studies suggest that focusing on your breathing in moments of acute stress could also be useful.

In an older study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers brought participants into the lab and told them they were going to receive electric shocks. Some of the participants practiced breathing slowly before the shocks (which were actually never administered), while others focused on breathing at a normal rate or didn’t regulate their breathing at all. The slow breathers — breathing about eight breaths per minute — not only reported feeling less anxious while anticipating the pain, they also showed lower anxiety on a physical level, as measured by sweat and blood flow to the fingers.

Another study followed up on this research and tested three different breathing rhythms: fast inhaling with slow exhaling; slow inhaling with fast exhaling; or evenly paced inhaling and exhaling. Here, the fast inhaling with slow exhaling (2 seconds in, 8 seconds out) was the most effective at relieving both the physical and mental experience of anxiety.

Of course, breathing is a major component of many meditation and Buddhist mindfulness practices, and it may be a key reason why they work. In a small 2017 study, researchers asked people with anxiety disorder to try either alternate nostril breathing or mindful breath awareness for 10 minutes, two days in a row. They found that practicing alternate nostril breathing was about three times as effective at reducing people’s feelings of anxiety.

These benefits felt profound to the participants in a small, 12-week yoga breathing class in the United Kingdom. According to researchers from the University of Southampton:

Participants described feeling “more in control,” noting “anxiety doesn’t feel debilitating anymore.” One participant reported marked increases in confidence, mindfulness, and spirituality; [and] greater ability to relax … Three participants returned to paid employment, another was able to secure a long-desired job, and another became able to contemplate a return to work, having been unable to do so for many years.

The ripple effects of breathing
The way we breathe can set off a cascade of physical changes in the body that promote either stress or relaxation.

“If we’re breathing really shallowly and fast, it causes our nervous system to up-regulate and we feel tense and anxious,” says Epel. “If we’re breathing slowly, it actually turns on the anti-stress response.”

Technically, breathing influences the sympathetic (“fight or flight”) and parasympathetic (“rest and digest”) branches of our nervous system, and certain techniques can promote more parasympathetic calm and relaxation. Some may also cause us to release hormones like prolactin and possibly oxytocin, the feel-good hormone of love and bonding.

“[Breathing techniques] are allowing you to consciously take control of your breathing so you can take control of your nervous system so you can take control of your anxiety,” says Nestor. “When we breathe in a certain way, we are sending messages to those emotional centers of our brain to calm down.”

Other techniques, like tummo — a yogic breathing practice that involves forceful or gentle breathing, abdominal contractions during breath holding, and visualization — actually amp up the sympathetic nervous system, spiking our body’s stress to activate a deeper relaxation afterward, similar to how tensing a muscle and then letting it go works.

This is similar to the kind of breathing that “Iceman” Wim Hof teaches his followers, a method that Epel is currently researching. Hof is famous for his seemingly superhuman feats, like climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in shorts and changing his immune response to E. coli, which he attributes to a finely tuned control over his own physiology thanks to breathing practices and more.

Fast breathing can be triggering for people with anxiety — causing the tingling limbs and lightheadedness that often accompany panic attacks — but that’s part of the point. When you breathe fast and start to feel symptoms you normally associate with anxiety, it may help you re-interpret those symptoms in a less threatening way. They become less worrisome because they have a clear cause, the same way that an elevated heart rate during exercise doesn’t bother us. And if you can connect anxiety to faulty breathing habits, it means you can change the way you breathe and potentially see some improvement.

How to breathe better
If you want to practice breathing for better mental and physical health, there are endless techniques to try. Although these shouldn’t be seen as a replacement for therapy or a cure for severe anxiety, they can be a free and simple tool for both short-term relief and long-term benefit. “Breathing techniques could be used as first-line and supplemental treatments for stress [and] anxiety,” write Ravinder Jerath and colleagues in a 2015 study.

Many of the techniques that have been formally researched are derived from pranayama, yogic breathing that dates back to ancient India:

Ujayyi: Deep breathing with a narrowed throat, creating an ocean-like sound, often recommended while doing yoga asanas.
Bhastrika, or “bellows breath”: inhaling and exhaling forcefully.
Nadi Sodhan and Anulom Vilom: Types of alternate nostril breathing, where air is inhaled in one nostril and exhaled through the other, sometimes with breath holding.
There are also a variety of “box breathing” practices, derived from the pranayama Sama Vritti, where you inhale for four seconds, hold for four, exhale for four, hold for four, and repeat. Other timed techniques include 4-7-8 breathing, often recommended to help you fall asleep.

In the same way that mindfulness practice isn’t just meditation, breathing as a practice isn’t just waking up every morning and doing 10 minutes of box breathing. It’s also important to be aware of the way you breathe in everyday life (or while you’re checking your email).

In Breath, Nestor’s tips boil down to a short list of general principles, including make sure to breathe through your nose and not your mouth, slow your breathing down (to five or six seconds in and five or six seconds out), and extend your exhales for even greater relaxation.

Now so much talk about breathing might have you feeling anxious — that’s how I felt, at least, while reading about all the ways that our breathing habits are faulty. In one study, the researchers noted that anxious people were skeptical in the beginning of the experiment and had some difficulty practicing. But this group still went on to feel better at the end of 12 weeks of practice.

All this research illustrates just how much influence our body has on our mind. Modern life brings many things to be worried about, but, as Nestor writes, not being able to breathe remains one of our deepest and most primal anxieties. If somehow the way we’re breathing is signaling to our brains that something is wrong, it’s no wonder we feel anxious — and it’s no wonder all these breathing techniques can bring such profound healing.

This article was originally published on Greater Good, the online magazine of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley.

Watch James Nestor’s TEDxMarin Talk on diving and whales here:


Why self-compassion – not self-esteem – leads to success

Why self-compassion – not self-esteem – leads to success

Talking about being kind to yourself may sound like something from a nursery classroom. But even cynics should care about self-compassion – especially if they want to be resilient.

Think back to the last time you failed or made an important mistake. Do you still blush with shame, and scold yourself for having been so stupid or selfish? Do you tend to feel alone in that failure, as if you were the only person to have erred? Or do you accept that error is a part of being human, and try to talk to yourself with care and tenderness?

For many people, the most harshly judgemental responses are the most natural. Indeed, we may even take pride in being hard on ourselves as a sign of our ambition and resolution to be our best possible self. But a wealth of research shows that self-criticism often backfires – badly. Besides increasing our unhappiness and stress levels, it can increase procrastination, and makes us even less able to achieve our goals in the future.

Instead of chastising ourselves, we should practice self-compassion: greater forgiveness of our mistakes, and a deliberate effort to take care of ourselves throughout times of disappointment or embarrassment. “Most of us have a good friend in our lives, who is kind of unconditionally supportive,” says Kristin Neff, an associate professor of educational psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, who has pioneered this research. “Self-compassion is learning to be that same warm, supportive friend to yourself.”

If you are a cynic, you may initially baulk at the idea. As the British comedian Ruby Wax wrote in her book on mindfulness: “When I hear of people being kind to themselves, I picture the types who light scented candles in their bathrooms and sink into a tub of Himalayan foetal yak milk.” Yet the scientific evidence suggests it can increase our emotional resilience and improve our health, wellbeing and productivity. Importantly, it also helps us to learn from the mistakes that caused our upset in the first place.

Relying on self-compassion, not self-esteem

Neff’s research was inspired by a personal crisis. In the late 90s, she was going through a painful divorce. “It was very messy, and I felt a lot of shame about some bad decisions I had made.” Looking for a way to cope with the stress, she signed up for meditation classes at a local Buddhist centre. The practice of mindfulness did indeed bring some relief, but it was their teachings about compassion – particularly, the need to direct that kindness toward ourselves – that brought the greatest comfort. “It just made an immediate difference,” she says.

Superficially, self-compassion may sound similar to the concept of ‘self-esteem’, which concerns how much we value ourselves, and whether we see ourselves positively. Questionnaires to measure self-esteem ask participants to rate statements such as, “I feel that I’m a person of worth, at least on an equal plane with others”.

Unfortunately, this often comes with a sense of competition, and it can easily result in a kind of fragile narcissism that crumbles under potential failure. “Self-esteem is contingent on success and people liking you, so it is not very stable – you could have it on a good day but lose it on a bad day,” says Neff. Many people with high self-esteem even resort to aggression and bullying when their confidence is under threat.

A wealth of research shows that self-criticism often backfires – badly

Cultivating self-compassion, Neff realised, might help you avoid those traps, so that you can pick yourself up when you feel hurt, embarrassed or ashamed – without taking down others along the way. So, she decided to design a psychological scale to measure the trait, in which participants had to rate a series of statements on a scale of 1 (almost never) to 5 (almost always), such as:

  • I try to be loving toward myself when I’m feeling emotional pain
  • I try to see my failings as part of the human condition
  • When something painful happens, I try to take a balanced view of the situation


  • I’m disapproving and judgmental about my own flaws and inadequacies
  • When I think about my inadequacies it tends to make me feel more separate and cut off from the rest of the world
  • When I’m feeling down, I tend to obsess and fixate on everything that’s wrong

The more you agree with the first set of statements, and the less you agree with the second set of statements, the higher your self-compassion.

Neff’s first studies examined how self-compassion related to people’s overall mental health and wellbeing. Questioning hundreds of undergraduate students, she found the trait was negatively correlated with reports of depression and anxiety, and positively correlated with general life satisfaction. Importantly, this study also confirmed that self-compassion was distinct from measures of self-esteem. In other words, you could have someone with a general sense of superiority, who nevertheless finds it very difficult to forgive themselves for perceived failures – a far from ideal combination.

Blossoming field

Later research confirmed these discoveries in more diverse samples, from high-school students to US veterans at risk of suicide, all of which showed that self-compassion increases psychological resilience. Indeed, self-compassion has now become a blossoming field of research, attracting interest from many other researchers.

Some of the most intriguing results concern people’s physical health, with a recent study showing that people with high self-compassion are less likely to report a range of different ailments – such as back pain, headache, nausea and respiratory problems. One explanation could be a muted stress response, with previous studies revealing that self-compassion reduces the inflammation that normally comes with mental anguish, and which can damage our tissues in the long term. But the health benefits may also be due to behavioural differences, with evidence that people with higher self-compassion take better care of their bodies through diet and exercise.

People who have higher levels of self-compassion are generally more proactive – Sara Dunne
“People who have higher levels of self-compassion are generally more proactive,” says Sara Dunne, a psychologist who studied the link between self-compassion and healthy behaviours at the University of Derby, UK. She compares it to the advice of a well-meaning parent. “They would tell you that you need to go to bed, get up early and then tackle your problems,” she says. Similarly, someone with high self-compassion knows that they can treat themselves kindly – without overly judgemental criticism – while also recognising what is best for them in the long-term.

This is an important point, says Neff, since some early critics of her work had wondered whether self-compassion would simply lead to lazy behaviour and low willpower. In their view, we need self-criticism to motivate us to make importance changes in our lives. As evidence against this idea, she points to research from 2012, which had found that people with high self-compassion show greater motivation to correct their errors. They tended to work harder after failing an important test, for instance, and were more determined to make up for a perceived moral transgression, such as betraying a friend’s trust. Self-compassion, it seems, can create a sense of safety that allows us to confront our weaknesses and make positive changes in our lives, rather than becoming overly self-defensive or wallowing in a sense of hopelessness.

Rapid interventions

If you would like to gain some of these benefits, there is now abundant evidence – from Neff’s research group and many others – that self-compassion can be trained. Popular interventions include “loving-kindness meditation”, which guides you to focus on feelings of forgiveness and warmth to yourself and others.

In one recent trial, Tobias Krieger and colleagues at the University of Bern in Switzerland designed an online course to teach this exercise alongside more theoretical lessons about the causes of self-criticism and its consequences. After seven sessions, they found significant increases in the participants’ self-compassion scores, along with reduced stress, anxiety and depressive feelings. “We measured a lot of outcomes,” says Krieger, “and they all went in the expected direction.”

There are also written interventions, such as composing a letter from the perspective of a loving friend, that can provide a significant boost, says Neff. For most people, the habit of self-criticism does not seem to be so deeply ingrained that it is beyond repair. (Neff’s website includes more detailed guidelines on the ways to put this and the loving-kindness meditation into practice.)

Neff says that she has seen an increased interest in these techniques during the pandemic. For many of us, the struggles of isolation, remote working and caring for the people we love have provided the perfect breeding ground for self-criticism and doubt. While we cannot eliminate those stresses, we can at least change the ways we view ourselves, giving us the resilience to face the challenges head on.

More than ever, we need to stop seeing self-compassion and self-care as a sign of weakness, says Neff. “The research is really overwhelming at this point, showing that when life gets tough, you want to be self-compassionate. It’s going to make you stronger.”