A new year brings both hopes and anxieties. We want things to be better for ourselves and for the people we love, but we worry that they won’t and imagine some of the things that might get in the way. More broadly, we might worry about who will win the election, or even if our world will survive.
It turns out humans are hard-wired to worry. Our brains are continually imagining futures that will meet our needs and obstacles that might stand in the way. And sometimes each of these needs can conflict with each other.
Worry is when this vital planning gets the better of us and occupies our attention in vain. Tension, sleepless nights, preoccupation and distraction around those we care about, the effects of worry are endless. There are, however, ways to tame it.
Like a Professor of Medicine and Demographic and Quantitative Health Sciences, I researched and taught mind-body principles to doctors and patients. I have discovered that there are many methods to quiet the mind and most of them are based on a few simple principles. Understanding these can help creatively practice the techniques in your daily life.
Our brains are sabotaging the happier present moment
We’ve all experienced moments of flux, times when our attention is just effortlessly absorbed in what we’re doing. And studies conducted in real time confirm a increased happiness when people can focus their attention on what they are doing, rather than when their minds wander. It may seem strange as we let our minds wander for something like half the day, despite the cost of happiness.
The reason can be found in the activity of related brain regions, such as the default mode network, which becoming active when our attention is not occupied with a task. These systems operate in the background of consciousness, envisioning futures compatible with our needs and desires and plan how these might be provoked.
Human brains have evolved to do this automatically; planning for scarcity and other threats is important to ensure survival. But there is a downside: anxiety. Studies have shown that some people prefer electric shocks to be left alone with his thoughts. Sound familiar?
Our substantive thinking is essential to operating in the world. It is sometimes the origin of our most creative images. We suffer from its discomfort when, unnoticed, it invades the mental storehouse.
Mindfulness, the practice of observing the activity of our mind, offers both real-time insight into this default feature of the mental operating system and a ability to self-regulate.
This is backed up by studies showing an increase in attention regulation, working memory, and awareness of mind wandering that develop after only a few weeks of mindfulness training. Similarly, imaging studies show that this type of training reduces default mode activity and enriches the neural connections that facilitate attentional and emotional self-regulation.
Evolution Prioritizes Survival Over Happiness
This default schedule is part of our evolutionary history. Its value is evident in the effortless persistence and universality with which it occurs. Mind-body programs like yoga and mindfulness are indicative of the desire many people have to be happier in the present moment.
How we use our attention is at the heart of our emotional well-beingand many mind-body programs are based on training our minds to be more adept in this way.
Mindfulness training, for example, asks students to direct their attention to the sensations of the breath. And though it may seem easy, the spirit resists, tenaciously. So, despite repeated resolution, a person finds that within seconds attention has effortlessly shifted away from planning daydreams.
In those moments when you manage to notice these thoughts with a certain detachment, their stubborn concern for the past and the future becomes clear. And the planning’s semi-vigilant orientation (“What could go wrong here?”) also becomes clear.
We begin to notice that this hope, comparison, and regret is often about family and friends, work, and money—themes of relationship, status, and power that are central to tribal primate survival. All based on knowledge of our passage.
Our bodies notice
Traditional teachings of meditation attribute our body crunch daily discomfort which naturally accompanies the possibility of the loss, failure and unfulfilled dreams embedded in this narrative. It’s a tension that often goes unnoticed amid coping with daily demands, but its underlying discomfort sends us seeking relief in something more enjoyable like a snack, screen, drink, or drug.
Mindfulness makes us more aware of these concerns and redirects attention to the senses. These, by their nature, are present-oriented – hence the almost cliché idiom “to be in the moment”.
So when you feel tense and preoccupied with anxious thoughts, try to focus your attention on the sensations of your breath, wherever you notice it in your body. Body tension naturally dissipates with the change in orientation, and a feeling of greater calm ensues. Don’t expect the attention to stay there; This will not be the case. Just notice the attention returning to the worries and gently bring it back to the breath.
Try it for a few minutes.
Other mind-body programs use similar principles
It would be almost impossible to design studies comparing all the techniques that cultivate mindfulness. But my experience of over four decades as a practitioner, clinician, and researcher of several popular mind-body programs suggests that most techniques use similar principles to reclaim the present moment.
Yoga and tai chi, for example, draw attention to the flow of sensations accompanying the sequence of movements. In contrast, systems such as cognitive therapy, self-compassionprayer and visualization contradict the disturbing tone of the ambient narrative with more reassuring thoughts and images.
Just a little practice makes this mental tendency universal, and your ability to change it, more apparent in the midst of activity. The resulting reduced excitement means that stress-related hormones dissipate, allowing those feeling good like serotonin and dopamine to be restored to the brain as the happiest here and now becomes woven into the fabric of everyday life.
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