- When you are suffering for any reason, you mind races, which makes it harder to think clearly.
- Doing battle with your thoughts or suppressing them makes it all worse.
- Simply placing your attention on a specific sensation for a short time separates you from your racing thoughts.
- Your body also calms down, your thinking brain functions better, you can better engage in learning, and live your life with more clarity.
Dr. Daniel Wegner out of Harvard, wrote a paper in 1987 called, Paradoxical Effects of Thought Suppression.1 He demonstratedthat the more you try not to think about something the more you will think about it. The paper has been nicknamed, “White Bears.” This not news to any of us. But he also demonstrated that there was a trampoline effect, in that you think about it a lot more. When you frame this discussion in terms neurological circuits and programming this phenomenon becomes a huge problem. Disruptive thoughts progress with age.
A basic tenet of many Eastern philosophies is that worrying about the future and thinking about the past causes internal unrest. There is anxiety around the future and many regrets and frustrations about the past. Staying in the present moment is key, but how do you accomplish it?
You cannot control your mind with your mind. When your mind is racing your body will be tense and tight. The harder you try to calm down your thoughts, the faster your brain will spin. Neurological circuits are deeply embedded, especially the unpleasant ones you instinctively fight.
As you cannot fix, repair, or outrun them, one option is shifting from them to more functional and enjoyable circuits. This is quickly accomplished by focusing your attention on a specific sensation from your immediate surroundings. Any sense works – sound, smell, taste, feel, pressure, and sight. My term for this tool is “active mediation.” It is an abbreviated version of mindfulness, and you focus on any sensation for a few seconds up to a minute. You have connected your consciousness to the present moment. The intention is incorporating this practice frequently into your daily routine until it becomes habitual.
Three steps from Eastern philosophy.
- Focusing on a sensation
I learned them in a workshop given by Alan Wallace, a prominent researcher in integrating Buddhist contemplative practices with Western science.
Active meditation in practice
I practiced this daily during my hectic days at work. I often did it with my patients in clinic, especially if I was running behind. We sat back in our chairs, let our shoulders sag, jaws relax, took a long deep breath, and slowly let it go. (Relaxation). We stayed relaxed for 5-10 seconds (stabilization), while I had them listen to the ventilation system. Then our attention shifted to voices outside the door, our feet on the floor, and back to the vent. It took about a minute.
Invariably, everyone felt more relaxed and I heard my voice change to a softer pitch. Our attention had shiftedoff of racing thoughts to the current moment through sensory awareness. I encouraged them to do this often until became automatic.
You can also do this much faster for just three to five seconds. Simply engage with any sensation for short periods as often as possible throughout the day. During surgery, I would engage with active meditation with essentially every move I made. My “go to” sensation was grip pressure on my surgical instruments. There is more feel and control with light touch. Eventually, the sensation and moves I made become so automatic that I developed a “safe zone”, and it would have required a conscious choice to be unsafe. The consistency of my performance improved my enjoyment of the day as well.
Another rendition of this tool is listening; I mean really listening in a way that you can visualize the other person’s perspective and realizing that the words they are saying mean something different to them than they do to you. It is remarkably more interesting to hear other’s perspectives rather than replaying your own.
The past is the past
You cannot change the past or control the future, and neurological circuits are permanently embedded. Tryingharder to analyze and fix them stimulates and reinforces these patterns (neuroplasticity). Going to battle with them is deadly. Simply shift your attention to any immediate sensory input. That is it and it is that simple.
- Begin using this strategy right now. Sit back in your chair and let yourself relax from your head to toe. As you do this, focus on different sensations.
- Then do this for 5-10 seconds through the day. Just let your attention land on a sensation while you continue your activities.
- Keep doing this daily and indefinitely. With repetition, you’ll do this automatically. It is an important foundational tool on which to rebuild your nervous system.
- Small calming steps add up, body chemistry shifts from threat to safety, and your neocortex (thinking centers) function better.
- You cannot control your thoughts, but you can separate from them and redirect your focus.
- Wegener, D.M., et al. Paradoxical effects of thought suppression. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (1987); 53: 5-13.