In the game of life, too much stress can hold you back and drive you to burn out before you reach your goals. According to a recent study, more of us are experiencing serious stress than ever. Left unchecked, it can harm us psychologically, physically and professionally.
In preparation for a series of lectures on stress management for health care providers, I took a deep dive into the subject, looking for simple ways within one’s control to tackle the problem. I found a practice that will change your life for the better.
First, it’s important to understand exactly how stress works on humans. Early on, we developed the stress-response (fight-or-flight) to protect ourselves in a dangerous world, and it came in handy! Today, our system is wired to appraise stimuli as threatening or benign, and then respond accordingly. While some stress occurs because there are too many demands on us with no way to cope with the pressure, the majority of stress is self-inflicted.
Most of our stress comes from what we choose to pay attention to. Really.
This is the conclusion of professor Amit Sood, who created the Mayo Clinic Guide to Stress Free Living. His research found that most of our stress is driven by our cognitive style. We get stressed out because we let our mind wander, and too often, it drifts to what he calls “black holes” and “open files.” The black holes are worries, conflicts and criticisms that sting. The open files are items to be dealt with or ruminations over something we’ve done or not done in our past. He points out that when our mind wanders, it often lands on negative thought patterns because they are stickier than anything we can contemplate. These keep us from being in the moment, where is much less stress in our life.
The secret to a less stressful life is Attention Training, where you consciously control where your mind goes and what you choose to notice. Too many of us live in a default state of unfocused attention, which puts us at great risk of being stressed out all the time. If instead, we trained our attention to focus on our current activity, we will avoid the drift that leads to dark thoughts.
According to Sood, when we are in between active moments, we should train our attention to seek joy and novelty. You can find joy around you if you try, such as nature, people having a laugh or children enjoying themselves. Novelty is everywhere, be it a new invention you’ve never seen before, a new experience during your travels or a fresh idea from a book or magazine. It’s a matter of where you point your mind.
The key to Attention Training is to consciously intervene in your thought process on a daily basis, looking for 4-6 opportunities to redirect your attention to the present or the positive. Then it’s a question of maintaining that practice over a few months, where eventually it becomes second nature.
When you find your mind wandering off to an open file, challenge it to redirect to what you are doing in the now. When you feel stress coming on at work or in transit, look around you for something positive to anchor your attention to. Most importantly, pay attention to what you pay attention to!
Here’s an example of Attention Training in action for me: Recently during my travels, I was stuck in the Washington DC airport on a flight delay for two hours. The scene at our gate was tense and everyone was worried about their missing connections. Some were angry at the airlines and others were nervously chatting loudly on their phones about the predicament.
This is a typical part of my life as a keynote speaker. Taking Sood’s advice, I stayed alert for something inspirational to pay attention to and by serendipity, I heard an overhead announcement in the terminal that WW2 war veteran Frank Kaszuba was soon arriving at the gate next to me, and that he would be given two medals of honor for his duty. People scrambled to gather at the gate to greet him, including several veterans.
I pulled my mind away from my travel woes and redirected it (and my camera phone) to the scene that was about to unfold. A few minutes later I witnessed a scene of joy, where hundreds of people cheered on Frank as he ambled off the plane. You can see the pride all over his face, and by focusing my attention on that – my day quickly turned positive. My travel stress melted away. In this case I let another man’s triumph becomes my elixir. And it can work for you!
Tim Sanders, CEO of Deeper Media Inc and best-selling author of Dealstorming: The Secret Weapon that Will Solve Your Toughest Challenges.