At the end of this post you’ll have learned three science-backed ways to beat stress – methods that will bring a profound relaxation into your days, even if you’re a person who must make many daily decisions.
By way of introducing these techniques, you’ll find it useful to know what scientists have discovered about how our brain decides what to pay attention to, and how it routes our attention from doing things to daydreaming and back again.
Most of our problems with stress come down to this: Out of all of the information that comes our way, we’ve decided to pay attention to thoughts that are troublemakers. We decide to believe everything these troublemakers say, all the while pretending that the decision is out of our hands. Despite all evidence to the contrary, “I am a failure” seems urgently, unavoidably true. We don’t want to believe this about ourselves, but it seems as if we have no choice!
And yet all day long our brain works ceaselessly at choosing. It even chooses what mode of attention to apply to every single experience in our lives. The brain is wired to pay attention some of the time, and to relax in reverie some of the time as well.
We all want to make the most of our time. We constantly worry that we’re wasting it. We seek out ways to optimize not only our workdays but our vacation days, too. Most of our efforts at self-improvement are designed to optimize our productivity, and for most of us that means making some changes. These changes involve teaching your brain new patterns: deep breathing instead of clenching, becoming curious about your thinking rather than getting lost in your thoughts. And it’s obviously more effective to work collaboratively with your brain than to struggle against its hard wiring.
Whatever kind of change you’re seeking – whether you want to adopt a new exercise habit, let go of an old hurt, become a calmer parent, or stop thinking “I’m a failure,” you’ll need to make a shift in your usual thinking process. To do this, it helps to understand two things:
1. Your brain is wired to make choices between focused attention and daydreaming. To dream or to do, that is the question.
2. Once you understand your brain’s choice-making mechanism, you can work with it to make the most of your energy, your enthusiasm, and your mental attention.
Your Two Modes of Attention: Doing and Dreaming
Daniel J. Levitin, author of The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload, together with Vinod Menon, a professor of neuroscience at Stanford, recently discovered the “switching mechanism” in the human brain that helps us move back and forth between our two dominant modes of attention.
One kind of attention involves doing. It’s called the “task-positive network”: a network of neurons, like electrical circuits in the brain, that is active when we are doing focused, undistracted work on a single task. For this reason neuroscientists often refer to this neural network as “the central executive.”
The other kind of attention is more like dreaming. It’s called the “task-negative network” – aka “daydreaming mode” – and it engages a whole different network of neurons in the brain. According to Levitin and Menon, these two attentional networks operate like the two sides of a seesaw in the brain: when one is active (or “up”), the other is not. When we’re focused on a task, we can’t daydream. When we’re daydreaming, we aren’t focusing on anything in particular.
For over 300 years, hypnotists and hypnotherapists, myself included, have been working creatively with these two modes of attention. If we do our job properly, a client suffering with severe chronic pain quickly discovers that it is difficult, if not impossible, to attend to the brain’s back pain signals while focusing on another part of the body that feels just fine.
Your Brain on Choices: Riding the Wild Seesaw
Your brain is constantly choosing. All day long your brain switches between these two neural networks as it decides whether to focus on a task or to daydream. Our modern culture encourages us to stay alert and focused, to do excellent work, to be productive at all times. There’s nothing wrong with daydreaming, of course. Some of the world’s most important cultural contributions owe their existence to a few moments of woolgathering. Yet artists and scientists, however fruitful their daydreaming moments may be – must also spend time focused on doing their work, in order to share their exciting discoveries with the rest of us.
The tricky part comes when the brain pulls the switch too frequently between doing and dreaming. Levitin explains,
“A third component of the attentional system, the attentional filter, helps to orient our attention, to tell us what to pay attention to and what we can safely ignore. This undoubtedly evolved to alert us to predators and other dangerous situations. The constant flow of information from Twitter, Facebook, Vine, Instagram, text messages and the like engages that system, and we find ourselves not sustaining attention on any one thing for very long — the curse of the information age.”
This constant switching between doing and dreaming can wear you out. Too much back-and-forth between neural networks, and you may begin to feel not only tired but even somewhat dizzy, as if you’ve been overindulging on the seesaw. Too much decision-making is taxing, even for the most brilliant minds.
“If you’re feeling overwhelmed, there’s a reason,” says Levitin. “The processing capacity of the conscious mind is limited.”
How, then, can you beat stress, when you’re required to make so many decisions every day? The black shirt or the blue one, toast or bagel, coffee or tea, the gym or yoga, the bus or the train, not to mention the big decisions at work, at home, and at school. And what if you’re working to change a habit: how can you make the countless choices, moment to moment, that are necessary to effect that change, without wearing yourself to a frazzle? Levitin recommends trying to focus on one task for at least 30 minutes at a time, including setting specific times of day when you focus only on answering email, or on engaging on your social media accounts.
Given your brain’s relentless choosing – seesawing between productivity and playful wandering, between taking notice and tuning out noise – how can you move into a sense of flow and balance? You can do it by making your own conscious choice – to watch, to really notice what goes on in your mind throughout the day.
You can dramatically reduce the stress that goes with mental overactivity. You can relax and enjoy living with your choice-loving brain, by developing a habit of noticing. You can begin by doing this in three ways:
1. Notice who’s who. There’s Your Brain (whose job it is to think), and then there’s You (who watches all this). You are far more than just your brain’s activity. Your brain cannot observe your thoughts and emotions, but You can. And thanks to quantum physics, we now know that when you observe any phenomenon, you change its dynamic. Remember this now and then throughout the day, and it will encourage you to do #2 and #3.
2. Notice how you take in new information. Whether it’s something you read or hear in the news, or a tidbit your coworker shares with you in passing – do you taste and savor this input? Do you swallow it with the intention to fully digest it before deciding what to do with it? Or do you gulp it down, forgetting it almost immediately? Mindful eating practice can be applied here, too! You can notice how you “eat” the information that’s constantly being served to you.
3. Notice the words you use when you begin acting on new information. Notice what’ you’re saying to yourself about your new plan to exercise 5 days a week, or to spend 20 minutes a day in meditation, or to practice mindfulness while folding your clothes. Do you hear yourself thinking, “What’s the point? I don’t have any self-discipline about that kind of thing” or “I know I’ll just forget to do it” – or some other variation on this theme?
As you practice these three methods, you don’t need to change your negative thoughts. You simply notice whatever is there. All you have to do is watch what is going on with your mind and emotions. As you continue watching in these 3 ways, you’ll regain a sense of control. You’ll begin to feel more confident, less stressed out, and much more relaxed.
I hope you enjoy this noticing practice. It is one of many Therapeutic Learning practices taught in my Finding True Magic certification courses and seminars, and it is profoundly effective. Using these practices throughout your day, you can begin to collaborate with your brain’s choice-making antics, rather than fighting against 7 million years of human evolution.
May you ride the wild seesaw with enthusiasm, awareness, and joy!
At the Institute for Therapeutic Learning we have been teaching Therapeutic Learning practices to hypnotherapy clients in private sessions since 1988. We present these transformational practices to students in depth in the Finding True Magic Transpersonal Hypnotherapy NLP certification course. You, too, can master the Therapeutic Learning practices and put them to work for your success and happiness. Find out more