Our generation is jam-packed with eagerness, enthusiasm, and are always fighting their way through the crowd. Our minds are always worrying about the future or getting too absorbed in the past. To complete our leftover chores or academic work, we have a habit of staying up late or reducing our sleep hours. We all are hinged to our gadgets trying to catch up with the latest news and are seduced by the lure of viral videos and gossips

Amid all this, we tend to ignore the stress and pressure the brain goes through, we don’t realize that the routine we follow can have a great effect on our mind.

Researchers and scientists at Harvard Medical School have studied the effects of these little things we do that have been normalized. Here are three studies that explain the effects of our daily routine and include recommendations that we all can adapt to live our lives more healthily.

According to WHO, more than 264 million people of all ages suffer from depression globally. Psychologists, neuroscientists have researched throughout these years and have come up with therapies for moderate and severe depression. To name a few, behavioral activation, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), interpersonal psychotherapy (IPT) along with antidepressant medications. However, these methods are not suitable for all patients; as each person is different and is individually, the treatment to cure depression also varies. Hence, there was a need to discover more methods.

So, to find alternative ways, researchers and psychologists at Harvard Medical School have worked on ‘Mindfulness’ or ‘Mindfulness-based meditation’.

Mindfulness is defined as a practice of complete awareness of what’s going on and focusing at the moment, without judgment. This practice has been going on for years by Buddhists, they have used this form of meditation for more than 2,600 years. This topic has flourished over the past years with studies confirming that mindfulness has been successful in reducing stress, depression, and anxiety.

Practitioners have admitted that this practice offers challenges such as – it requires consistency as its effects are more evident with time and bringing the wandering mind to the present, without judgment. Additionally, it was also said that it had given positive results to healthy people as well.

The steps in mindfulness meditation are:

1. Settle In – In a quiet space, use a cushion and sit straight up. Your head and shoulders should rest comfortably and place your hands on top of the legs

2. Now breath – Take a deep breath, feel the fall and rise of your chest, and allow the breath to follow its natural flow instead of controlling it.

3. Stay focused – the mind will wander and will pull your attention away, notice the thoughts but don’t give in to them. To stay focused you can count your breaths.

4. Take 10 – to get the maximum benefit, consistency is required. 10 – 20 minutes per day is the recommended amount.

Sara Lazar, a neuroscientist and assistant professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School (HMS), conducted a study wherein people who had never meditated before were scanned in a Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), later they were put into the eight-week mindfulness-based stress reduction program where they were told to meditate for about 30-40 minutes every day.

At the end of the eight weeks, when they were scanned again, it was found that firstly the grey matter (which comprises of the brain’s neuronal cell bodies) in the left hippocampus, which supports learning, memory, and also emotional regulation, had increased and there was less grey matter in people who have depression. Secondly, the temporoparietal junction, which is vital for perspective-taking, compassion, and empathy had improved.

Lastly, it was the amygdala, where there was a decrease in the grey matter, so the more the change of stress reduction people felt or reported the smaller the matter became in the amygdala. Another conclusion made was, the size of the amygdala didn’t depend on the change in the environment rather depends on the relationship people have to their environment.

“Mindfulness is not about being positive all the time or a bubblegum sort of happiness — la, la, la,” said Suzanna Westbrook, a retired internal medicine doctor. “It’s about noticing what happens moment to moment, the easy and the difficult, and the painful and the joyful. It’s about building a muscle to be present and awake in your life.”

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A recent study examined the time of day Facebook users are more likely to post updates. Facebook usage increases from 9:00 AM through noon, dips slightly during lunch, and then peaks at 3.00 PM, the precise hour when many of the people are most fatigued.

A 2011 study published in Cognition highlights when you work on a task continuously, it’s easy to lose focus and get lost in distractions. Taking proper breaks during work periods is found most productive in the study.

Activities to be performed for an effective break

  1. Move –

Recently some researchers have started to use an interesting marker for biohacking and behavioral flexibility. It is called heart rate variability (HRV).

HRV is simply a measure of the variation in time between each heartbeat and controlled by a part of the nervous system called the autonomic nervous system. The ANS is popularly known as the fight-or-flight mechanism which stimulates stress response, hardwired in the amygdala which protected our ancestors from being eaten by sabertooth tigers.

But nowadays regular activities have become like sitting on digital devices and working for hours continuously. This shortens the breath and as well as HRV. A low HRV is even associated with cardiovascular disease.

 Simple exercises like jumping jacks, burpees help to circulate lymph fluids through the body and jump-starts the brain with the help of elevated heart rate. People who have high HRV are more resilient to stress. HRV may also provide personal feedback about your lifestyle and help inspire.

2. Water-

‘Dehydration causes Confusion or short-term memory loss’- Harvard public health

Water helps to restore fluids lost through metabolism, breathing, and the removal of waste. It helps to keep you from overheating, lubricates the joints and tissues, maintains healthy skin, and is necessary for proper digestion. Drinking water refreshes the brain and body for enhanced cognitive thinking.

Aside from including water-rich foods, the following chart is a guide for daily water intake based on age group from the National Academy of Medicine:

AgeDaily Adequate Intake
1-3 years4 cups, or 32 ounces
4-8 years5 cups, or 40 ounces
9-13 years7-8 cups, or 56-64 ounces
14-18 years8-11 cups, or 64-88 ounces
men, 19 and older13 cups, or 104 ounces
women, 19 and older9        cups, or 72 ounces

3. Breathe – The term “fight or flight” is also known as the stress response. Practices like mindfulness breathing, box breathing, deep breathing helps to decrease this response at a considerate level. Deep abdominal breathing encourages full oxygen exchange that is, beneficial for incoming oxygen and outgoing carbon dioxide. It slows the heartbeat and stabilizes blood pressure.

· Types of breathing –

1. For energy and focus –

 Inhale for 4 seconds, exhale in less than 1sec known as kapalbhati.

2. For calm and peace –

Inhale for 4 seconds, hold for 4 sec, exhale for 4 sec known as square breathing.

3. For sleep –

Inhale 4 seconds, hold for 7 sec, exhale for 8 sec known as relaxing breath.

After working for hours throughout the day, rest for the mind and body is essential. The most common way to rest is to sleep. Carrying it out effectively is also essential to be able to see the results.

 A study by researchers at Harvard Medical School found that compared to reading a book, people who used smart devices needed an additional 10 minutes to fall asleep. They experienced 90 minutes of delayed melatonin onset and had half the amount of melatonin released. In day to day life, all the smart devices use has increased significantly, resulting in a higher emission of Blue Light. Although it is environment friendly, it is not sleeping friendly.

“Blue wavelengths are beneficial during daylight hours because they boost attention, reaction times, and mood but they seem to be the most disruptive at night.” – Harvard Medical School

Research by NCBI(National Center for Biotechnology Information) states that exposure to light suppresses the secretion of melatonin, a hormone that influences circadian rhythms. Even dim light can interfere with one’s circadian rhythm and melatonin secretion in the body.

So, what is the circadian rhythm?

Our sleep-wake cycle is determined by our circadian rhythm; it can be called the body’s internal clock. Like old-time clocks, this internal clock needs to be reset every day and gets adjusted by exposure to light in the morning.

An irregular circadian rhythm can result in several health problems, including mood disorders such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and seasonal affective disorder.

One meta-analysis conducted by NCBI showed that night-shift workers are 40% more likely to develop depression than daytime workers. Disturbances in Circadian rhythm are most likely to be found in people with depression, often having changes in the pattern of their sleep, their hormone rhythms, and body temperature rhythms.

Harvard researchers and their colleagues – “ Comparing the effects of 6.5 hours of exposure to blue light compared to green light. The blue light suppresses melatonin for about twice as long as the green light and shifted circadian rhythms by twice as much (3 hours vs. 1.5 hours)”.

Generations from now on will always be in exposure to blue light for more than 6-7 hours. But as technology advances, new tools and daily habits can be followed to maintain the health and well being of the body.

Tips for awareness:

  1. Using dim red lights for night lights because red light is less likely to shift circadian rhythm and suppress melatonin.
  2. Avoiding to look at bright screens beginning two to three hours before bed, a more efficient way is setting an alarm for the time to switch off all the technology at home will be If you work a night shift or use a lot of electronic devices at night.
  3. Blue light blocking glasses are available. Wearing blue-blocking glasses or installing an app that filters the blue/green wavelength at night helps optimize sleep.

Optimizing daily choices and habits from time to time increases the level of awareness leading to a successful and fulfilled life. Using mindfulness practice in the morning sets your mood for the day, having breaks rather than working straight for hours increases productivity, and having proper sleep routine habits prepares one for a better day tomorrow.

“You’ll never change your life until you change something you do daily. The secret of your success is found in your daily routine.”–John C. Maxwell

-Kartik and Saima