Your prefrontal cortex is a blessing and a curse.
Located under your forehead, mankind's hugely developed prefrontal cortex enables creativity, foresight and strategy. However, that same prefrontal cortex is responsible for those nagging thoughts that keep you up at night – the "what if" scenarios that become increasingly terrifying as their exigency approaches.
While these imaginary situations where you fail the test and lose the girl – or boy, depending on your anatomical preference – may not ever play out, the long term effects on your body from these thoughts actually can. When the brain invents a stressful situation (or replays something horrific that just happened), the sympathetic nervous system engages in very real fight-or-flight responses. These adrenaline pumping, heart-racing reactions are great at making you jump away from a moving car, but they can have incredibly detrimental effects in the long run. Our bodies are incapable of sustaining the stress we are capable of providing it. Stress can eventually lead to organ failure and death in mysterious and insidious ways.
Whether an increased risk for heart attack, coronary heart disease, arrhythmias or even just "sudden death," you can, quite literally, stress yourself to death.
Hopefully you're still reading, because there is hope. Now, meditation has long been frowned upon by Western culture as some sort of Eastern cultish religious nonsense. That being said, quieting your thoughts has nothing to do with religion, chi, Zen or anything else on a physiological level (and I mean that with absolutely no ill-words towards religions of any kind).
It has come to light in recent years that meditation is one of the healthiest things you can do for your brain, and subsequently, the rest of your body. This is coming from real neuroscientists doing real research on real brains – this is not the hippie stuff your parents warned you about.
The Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin produced hard data that short amounts of mindfulness meditation lead to increased influenza resistance. Akira Kasamatsu, M.D., went as far as monitoring the electronic activity of 48 priests and disciples of Zen Buddhism, a religious sect known for meditation. Their brain activity showed increased levels of what are known as alpha waves. These waves are heavily associated with being relaxed.
These long-time practitioners of meditation were literally able to tune their brains to a relaxed wavelength, regardless of how stressful a situation may be. Imagine being able to make stress go away with a conscious decision – these individuals don't have to imagine that power. They already have it.
Countless scholarly articles reinforce this sentiment, explaining how mindful meditation can be used to manage chronic pain and reign in anxiety disorders.
To approach "mindfulness" from ground zero can seem difficult. The whole point of the exercise is to quiet the mind – something I struggle with on a daily basis. To begin, you need a mental focal point. Some people like to use the word "mantra," but if that seems hokey, call it a focal point. Sometimes I just use the word "focus" as a constant reminder of what I'm trying to do. Relax every muscle in your body. Sit upright so you don't fall asleep. See if you can sit there and do nothing but think less and less for 10 minutes. Use a timer on your phone so you don't feel the need to peek at the time. It takes practice, but even if you don't get it your first time, you'll be amazed how good quiet time feels. It's the kind of habit that takes little time and less planning. Do it in the library if you're stressed and until you fall asleep when you're antsy.
It's your brain; learn to make it work for you.
Andrew Fleming is a junior in neuroscience. He can be reached at email@example.com.