New neuroscience findings reveal there’ a biological reason why our to-do lists aren’t just long but never-ending — and why we can’t get out from under to enjoy the contentment we crave. According to Amit Sood, MD, chair of the Mayo Clinic Mind Body Initiative and author of The Mayo Clinic Guide to Stress-Free Living ($9.99, Amazon), our brain seesaws between two modes: The focused mode, when we’ re absorbed in a state of cheerful engagement; and the default mode, when our mind wanders to undone tasks and worries. Problem is, our brain is hardwired to keep us fretting about work deadlines, doctor appointments, and back-to-school busyness, so we don’t get enough time in that joy-boosting focused mode.
“On average, the choices we have to make and the struggles we sift through each day saddle us with up to 150 ‘open files’ in our mind, so we spend 50 to 80 percent of our days physically present, but mentally distracted by concerns and worries,” Dr. Sood explains. “We get so caught up in weeding the yards of our lives that we completely miss the flowers around us — we postpone joy.”
Through his work with thousands of patients over the past two decades, Dr. Sood has discovered that sprinkling moments of “focused attention” throughout the day, during which we consciously choose our thoughts and sensory experiences, can rebalance our brain, allowing us to break free of stress and step into bliss. Here’ how:
Wake up stressed? Send a virtual hug
The mind can kick into anxiety-inducing default mode first thing in the morning, warns Dr. Sood. “As soon as you wake up and the day’s demands come rushing into your consciousness, you start thinking, What do I have to do? What should I dread?’ The result: Anxiety about the tasks you need to tackle — from the pile of work on your desk to the prep you need to do before Saturday’ dinner party — sap your serenity before you’re totally awake.
To derail AM anxiety, Dr. Sood suggests taking two minutes to send loving thanks to five people you care about. “Before you get out of bed, close your eyes, think of each person, then silently send them your gratitude,” he advises. “This switches your focus to what you value and what gives meaning to your life.” And University of California research reveals that a daily gratitude practice revs activity in the calming parasympathetic nervous system and lowers levels of the stress hormone cortisol by 23 percent.
Feeling midday sadness? Smile at a stranger
Even when we’re having a good day, rude cashiers and churlish coworkers can sour our moods by mid-afternoon. The reason others’ cloud of gloom ends up hanging over us? “There’s at least a 50 percent chance the person whose bad mood you’re exposed to is in default mode, wrapped up in a personal problem,” says Dr. Sood. “If you’ re in default mode too, you’ll absorb their negativity and feel gloomy yourself.”
“When someone is rude, you can make one of two assumptions: That they’re angry or that they’re hurting,” says Dr. Sood. “By assuming they’re hurting, you can focus on compassion for their struggles and let go of the grudges and defensiveness that are bringing you down.” Dr. Sood advises silently wishing the person who “wronged” you well. “Smile and send them a thought like, I wish you comfort.” Do this regularly and research shows you’ll experience a boost in contentment.
Too tired for the second shift? Stage a happy hello
All too often, long hours spent tending to work duties, running errands and dealing with snarled traffic can leave us exhausted, making it tough to transition into quality time with loved ones at the end of our hectic days. “We struggle through the doorway juggling briefcases, grocery bags, and the mail,” says Dr. Sood, “and we’ re so caught up in default mode that instead of feeling overjoyed to see our families, we end up feeling snappish and critical.”
The strategy Dr. Sood uses to segue into contented evenings: Taking a few minutes before walking through the door to imagine he’s seeing his spouse and children for the first time in weeks. “The focused mind is engaged by novelty, so this ‘newness’ of vision primes you to experience the joy of the present,” he explains. Also smart: Ask about the good parts of their day and put criticism and complaints on hold when greeting your family. “If your first moments together are negative, your whole evening is likely to be that way.”
Worry keeping you awake? Try a sensory swap
Runaway thoughts that intrude around bedtime are a classic form of default-mode distraction, Dr. Sood notes. “In much the same way that a car’s wheels drift when we let go of the steering, our unmonitored mind can drift toward worries at night,” he says. Problem is, research shows that the harder we try to “push down” intrusive thoughts, the stronger they recoil against us, making it all but impossible to sleep.
Instead of trying to fight off worries, foil them with Dr. Sood’s sleep-inducing Rx: Lightly close your eyes. Notice the sensation of the cool air that enters your nostrils and the warm air exhaled from your lungs. Follow your breath from your nose to your heart, imagining it’s soothing you as you inhale and expelling your burdens as you exhale. Repeat until you drift off. Says Dr. Sood, “In nearly every class I teach this technique, I hear someone’s snores.”
This story originally appeared in our print magazine.
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