Understanding the theory behind breaking the stress response is great, but it doesn’t mean much if you can’t put it into practice. I get (and love) the idea that stepping out of the cycle of our own thoughts is the key to feeling less stressed, anxious, depressed, and overwrought. I’m particularly fond of the idea that we hold the power to get ourselves out of the cycle at any moment, without having to resort to the same old (often unhealthy or counterproductive) tools. The challenge: it’s much easier said than done.
So I talked to another expert who knows more about this stuff than I, philosophically and neurologically. Judson Brewer, MD, PhD, who’s done some beautiful work on the brain changes that come along with mindfulness training, suggests that the most effective way to dissociate from our anxious thoughts is to zero in on our moment-to-moment experience. Mindfulness, at its heart, teaches us simply to observe our thoughts and sensations in a nonjudgmental way – but this can be difficult at first, and a little abstract.
Therefore, breaking it down a little more, Brewer says that the simplest way is “simply to note whatever is most predominant in our experience at any one time.” If your stomach feels knotty, note it. If your brain feels fuzzy, describe it. If your bottom aches from sitting or you smell cinnamon in the air, note these things, too. By doing so, your attention shifts from the self to something else (it doesn’t much matter what), and this helps crack the cycle.
“When we note from moment to moment, this observation prevents us from getting caught up in the content of our minds,” says Brewer.
Here’s an analogy, which is theoretical, but there’s some lovely neuroscience to back it up. Brewer says that the best way to conceptualize stress is that it is a lot like debris accumulating around a rock in a stream – it builds up throughout the day, and eventually the flow of the stream is significantly compromised. This is stress. You can remove the debris by doing physical things (breathing, showering, exercising), “but we find that that original rock is still there, so we have to keep going back and unclogging the stream (or our system).”
But with a tiny shift in attention, by noting our present experience, we’re addressing the “rock” itself. And so it shrinks, and less debris collects: “The more the rock wears away with practice, the smoother the surface.” This is the power of the brain.
The following image really brings it home:
The left side shows activity of a brain region that gets activated when we get “caught up in a thought.” The recording (in red) came from a man who is left to his own thoughts and worries. The right side, on the other hand, shows the situation after he gets a 30-second instruction on how to note his present experience. “You’ll see a complete reversal of this activation in the second run,” says Brewer. “The brain region went quiet and actually deactivated (blue), simply by noting. One might guess that the more he, or anyone, practices doing this, the more this may become his new default state.”
And that’s really what the key is: practicing this shift in attention enough that it becomes a routine, and our “go to” method. I’ve found that it can work very well, but it’s definitely a process, and some days it works better than others. With time and practice, though, hopefully it really will become less deliberate, and more default.
Have you had success noting your moment-to-moment experience to feel less stressed? Please tell us about your experience below.
Alice G. Walton, PhD is a health and science writer, and began practicing (and falling in love with) yoga last year. She is the Associate Editor at TheDoctorWillSeeYouNow.com and a Contributor at Forbes.com. Alice will be exploring yoga’s different styles, history, and philosophy, and sharing what she learns here on the YogaGlo blog.