Q. Lately I've been really stressed and even more "forgetful" than usual. My brain seems spinning out of control with all manner of worries. A friend told me to practice mindfulness. What is that, and how could it help?

A. Mindfulness is the practice of spending a few minutes each day in the present moment. Typically, most people are worrying about what just happened or have anxiety about what is going to happen in the future. Mindfulness meditation, as it is often known, is a way to help you choose what you are going to think about as a strategy for being in the present moment. How can you get started? Begin with just 3-5 minutes. Sit erect in a comfortable chair, breathe naturally (be aware of breathing in and breathing out), and take control of your thoughts. Choose to be thankful for something, focus on a positive and happy thought, or rejoice for something beautiful around you. Stay centered and focused. Purposefully ignore anything going on around you.

Remember that you are not trying to blank out in any way. You are choosing to avoid letting your thoughts run away with you, especially thoughts that ruminate about the past or are fearful about the future. You may be amazed at how many times other thoughts pop up and try to intrude into the moment. Simply say to yourself, "That may be an important issue in my life. Right now I choose to think about _____________." Some find it very frustrating initially to keep their brain calm and focused on the present moment. It does get easier with practice. You may even end up spending 10 minutes in the morning and again in the evening.

How could it help? Studies at Massachusetts General Hospital showed that participating in an 8-week mindfulness meditation program appears to make measurable changes in brain regions associated with memory, sense of self, empathy, and stress. This is the first study to document meditation-produced changes over time in the brain’s grey matter. The analysis of MR images, which focused on areas where meditation-associated differences were seen in earlier studies, found increased grey-matter density in the hippocampus, known to be important for learning and memory, and in structures associated with self-awareness, compassion, and introspection. Participant-reported reductions in stress also were correlated with decreased grey-matter density in the amygdala, known to play an important role in anxiety and stress.

Of course the aim is to be able to make calm mindfulness available to you at any time and in any environment. It may be as simple as being still and quiet for a few seconds, taking three successive breaths—paying attention to your inhaling and exhaling, and stilling the activity within your mind. You might have some pre-established phrase to repeat to yourself as you inhale and exhale (e.g., I am thankful to be alive in this moment). It can be rewarding to perceive how these little mindfulness breaks can benefit your brain and your sense of purpose.