When I was showering this morning, it got pretty crowded!
Simply put, when a challenge confronts us—an important meeting or a tough conversation with a relative—the oldest part of our brain (the limbic brain), and especially an almond-shaped structure called the amygdala registers threat. That sends the brain on a kind of wild-goose chase, mostly in search of safety and certainty. Remember at this instinctive level, the brain doesn’t know that it’s reacting to reality or fiction at this point. Adrenalin and cortisol get pumped into our body based on the mind not knowing the difference between a movie or someone cutting us off on the highway.
Thousands of years ago when our ancestors were hunters in the wild, they would get stimulated by hunting for food. But after the hunt, they would sit around, eat, rest and digest. During those rest periods they recovered before the next round of survival challenges. The problem today: We direct and play in many fictional movie “hunts” within our own brains. We’ve become good movie producers—creating movies (or narratives) in our own minds. Thus, in today’s hyperactive world, we get sent on repeated mental hunting expeditions. Unfortunately, we get little rest and recovery between “hunts,” which in time mentally wears us out. We start to work even harder to solve our problems, real and imagined. Eventually, we sacrifice more and more of our time trying to catch up with everything going on in our real-and-imagined world: We have to impress our boss, have to attend every sports game kids will ever play, have to keep up the house, have to stay in shape…. The list of tasks—real and imagined—gets overwhelming. That’s how you end up with a crowd in your shower as you attempt to multi-task—an impossible activity. Neuroscientists have proven that we don’t multitask; rather, we do what’s called task switching—which actually degrades our performance on both activities. Finally, according to Professor Richard Boyatzis and his team at Case Western Reserve University, we keep giving more and more of ourselves to solve all the problems around us—he calls this The Sacrifice Syndrome. But eventually we slip into a state of exhaustion, frustration, and anger called “dissonance.” We become out of tune with others around us. And the best test to diagnose if we’re in the state of dissonance is if everyone around us looks like a jerk—When actually, we’re the jerk! And the bad news is that, because of our overprotective amygdala, dissonance is the default.
Question: So, what’s the antidote to dissonance? Answer: Mindfulness, the antithesis of mindlessness. Instead of engaging in multitasking, mindfulness puts us in the present state, right here, right now—attending to only one activity at a time. So, eating mindfully is a much slower process involving savoring, chewing, swallowing and pausing to enjoy the taste—not gulping down a sandwich on the way to a meeting. The good news about becoming more mindful is that it’s triggered by something we do unconsciously all the time: Breathing. Mindful breathing requires some discipline and practice, but not much to get started. However, it does take an investment over time if you want to get good at it.
To get started, try this. Sit in a chair—more toward the front of it, not leaning or slouching into the back of the chair. Sit upright in an alert but comfortable position. Put both feet on the ground and your hands on your lap. Now, just breathe. There’s no single best way. Just breathe in and out slowly. This is mindful breathing—especially when you concentrate on it by thinking in your mind, I’m breathing in and now I ‘m breathing out. Such deep, concentrated breathing begins to relax your mind and switch your body from the fight-flight mode to the rest-and-recovery mode. Don’t worry if your mind wanders, daydreams, or raises thoughts about the past or future. That’s normal. Just treat those thoughts as clouds passing by and refocus on your breathing. Eventually, you’ll get good as you practice more. It’s like weightlifting for your brain—without all the sweat!
If you begin to practice this state of mindful breathing, eventually your reaction to the stimuli around you, real and imagined, starts to slow way down. You’re less likely to get anxious, upset or angry because mindful breathing becomes part of your adaptation reflex. Literally, in time, you’ll start to take a deep breath or two or three before responding and reacting to whatever’s going on. That powerful pause gets learned by practice. Start by practicing mindful breathing for just 2 minutes a day and tie it into to your daily routine—after breakfast, before you start your car, when you arrive at the office. Remember that regularity and habit are more important than duration or episodic events.
And when you take a “mindful shower” with just you and the warm water, you’ll know you’re making progress.
tendon later today. These unlikely shower mates were all characters in an adventure movie playing in my mind. However, neuroscientists would be quick to point out that our bodies don’t know what’s real or what’s fiction. When we slip into a monkey-brain, mindless state, our bodies react as if the movie were real. Notice how you can watch a James Bond chase scene and how your body reacts—you feel it in your stomach, you grip the arm rests of your seat. When you’re in the shower, driving to work, or sitting at lunch, you have a choice: To be either mindless or mindful. And while it’s always a choice, for most of us mindlessness and dissonance are the default. This has both a biological and evolutionary basis.