How Meditation and Mind-Body Programs Reduce Worry and Help You Stay Present
James Carmody, PhD; University of Massachusetts Medical School
Have you ever wondered why it’s so much easier to worry than to relax? COVID-19 has us all on edge. We spend our days now planning how best to keep ourselves and our community healthy. But even when there isn’t a global pandemic, when we might expect our minds to quiet down and enjoy some peace, they soon come up with worrisome scenarios.
Worriedness is not the concerns that occasionally pop up over a sick child. Worry goes past constructive, hopeful planning. Instead worry takes over, occupying our attention to no good effect. Its toll on health and wellbeing is well documented as we are left tense, sleepless, preoccupied and distracted around the very people we care for.
It’s not just you. Brain function studies suggest why worry takes a toll on our overall health. When our attention is not occupied with what we are doing, linked regions such as the default mode network become active. These systems work away in the background of consciousness, envisaging futures compatible with our needs and desires and planning how they might be brought about. One of the main features of worry is the focus on what could go wrong.
In this way we humans are wired for worry; its survival value is evident in the effortless persistence and universality with which it occurs. We want things to be better for ourselves and the people we love, but life’s unpredictability gives rise to fear that they won’t be and to imagining the things and circumstances that might stand in their way.
This planning threats is important to ensure survival. Its downside is the worry, anxiety and unease when it is given free rein and unnoticed, takes over the mental store. And studies in which people are prompted at random times through the day to record what their attention is on at that moment show that it wanders for much of the day. On automatic pilot in other words.
The flip side of worry are those moments of flow, when our attention is effortlessly absorbed in what we are doing. Those vigilance-oriented brain networks are less active when our attention is focused on what we are presently doing. And as you might expect, the same study found that people rated they were happier when their attention was focused on what we are doing than when their minds were wandering.
Fortunately, there are many ways of quieting our minds so that we spend more time in that happier present moment. And several decades as researcher, clinician, teacher, and practitioner of several popular mind-body programs has shown me that they draw on a couple of simple mind-body principles that counter these default tendencies and their effects on our feeling life. Recognizing those principles helps to see how these techniques are linked with one another and so creatively adapt them in your everyday life.
Mindfulness brings us into the present by cultivating attention to the senses. Meditation for example, brings attention to the sensations of breathing. It takes a little practice; the pull of daydreaming is strong. Our mind wants to default back to thinking and planning.
Yoga and tai chi also direct attention to the flow of sensations; usually those from the sequence of movements. This contrasts with activities like prayer, self-compassion and visualization which have their relaxing effect by countering the ambient narrative’s unsettling tone with reassuring thoughts and images.
The mindfulness that each of these activities develop gives helps you to focus the mental operating system and a capacity to self-regulate it. Studies have shown that just a few weeks of mindfulness practice help with increased attention regulation, working memory, awareness of mind wandering and reduced worry. Imaging studies, similarly, show reduced background planning activity, y and enrichment of neural connections that facilitate attentional and emotional self-regulation.
The wellbeing benefits that come from integrating mindfulness into your life have been confirmed by multiple studies, and programs are offered online to suit all tastes and circumstances. What do you have to lose?
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