Today's guest article is by James Carmody, PhD, Professor of Medicine and Population Health Sciences at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.
He focuses on the psychological and brain processes associated with distress and well-being, and the extent to which mind-body techniques can create greater ease.
His article — which we’ve edited and expanded — comes to us courtesy of The Conversation.
Why we're hard-wired to worry, and what we can do to calm down
By James Carmody, PhD
A new year brings both hopes and anxieties.
We want things to be better for ourselves and those we love — but often worry that they won’t and imagine barriers that might stand in the way.
Beyond those worries in our personal spheres, many of us also feel anxious about societal, environmental, and cultural stresses like pollution, climate change, and divisive politics.
As it turns out, humans are wired to worry. Our brains are continually imagining futures that will meet our needs — which may conflict with each other — and things that could stand in the way of meeting them.
Worry results when that kind of planning-oriented mental wandering occupies our attention to no good effect, potentially causing sleepless nights as well as preoccupation and distraction in the presence of friends and family.
We’re happier when focused on the present moment — which happens automatically when we’re busy — and which we can achieve through mindful meditation, tai chi, and similar practices.
Conversely, when our minds wander, they tend to gravitate toward worries and concerns, and that tendency — traditionally called rumination — promotes depression and anxiety.
Fortunately, there are many methods of quieting the mind, most of which draw on a few straightforward principles, understanding of which can help you practice and benefit from any one or more of them.
Our brains sabotage the happier present moment
We’ve all experienced moments of flow, times when our attention is just effortlessly absorbed in what we are doing.
And studies carried out in real time confirm an increase in happiness when people can focus attention on what they are doing, rather than when their minds are wandering. It may seem odd then that we leave our minds to wander for something like half the day, despite the happiness cost.
The reason can be found in linked brain regions such as the “default mode network”, that become active when we’re not occupied with a task.
These systems run silently in the background of consciousness, envisaging futures compatible with our needs and desires and planning how those might be brought about. Human brains have evolved to do this automatically; planning for scarcity and other threats is important to ensure survival.
But there’s a downside, in the form of unwarranted anxiety. In fact, studies have shown that some people prefer electric shocks to being left alone with their thoughts. Sound familiar?
Our background thinking is essential to operating in the world. It is sometimes the origin of our most creative images. We suffer from its unease when, unnoticed, it takes over the mental store.
Mindfulness, the practice of observing our mind’s activity, affords both real-time insight into this default feature of the mental operating system and a capacity to self-regulate it.
Studies consistently show that just a couple of weeks of mindfulness training yields increased attention regulation, better working memory, and awareness of mind wandering.
Similarly, brain-imaging studies reveal that mindfulness training dampens activity in the default mode network and enriches neural (brain cell) connections that facilitate self-regulation of our attention and emotions.
[Editor’s note: Mindful meditation may also bulk up the brain and exert beneficial “epigenetic” effects that dampen inflammation and raise resilience to stress. For more on those topics, see Meditation Builds Gray Matter and Meditation Yields Healthy Gene Changes.
While people's nearly universal reports of benefit support the value of mindful meditation, the clinical evidence for its epigenetic effects in people — while generally positive — is mixed and of inconsistent quality: see Are Claims for “Mindful” Meditation a Bit Mindless? and its links to other Vital Choices articles about meditation and yoga.]
Evolution prioritizes survival over happiness
The mind’s proclivity to default to planning mode results from evolutionary pressures to focus on securing food and safety.
And we see evidence of its value to survival of our species in the persistence and universality of the natural tendency of people’s brains to default to planning activity — which can lead to counterproductive rumination.
Mind-body programs like yoga and mindfulness are indicative of the people’s common yearning to dwell in the happier present moment.
How we use our attention is central to our emotional well-being, and many mind-body programs are based on training our minds to be more skillful in this way.
Mindfulness training, for example, asks students to direct their attention to the sensations of breathing. And while that may seem easy, the mind resists, sometimes tenaciously. So, despite repeated resolve, a person finds that, within seconds, attention has effortlessly defaulted to anxieties or planning-oriented daydreams.
Just recognizing this “default” feature of your brain is progress. Whenever you view these thoughts with some detachment, their dogged — often fruitless — concern with past and future becomes clear. And your brain’s default tendency toward worrying also becomes clear.
The brain’s tendency toward hoping, comparing, and regretting often centers around family and friends, work, and money — themes of relationship, status and power that are central to the survival of tribal primates, from chimpanzees to people. And for humans, those concerns and anxiety to background worries about health and the possibility of death.
Our bodies take notice
Traditional meditation teachings attribute our everyday unease to the bodily tightening that naturally accompanies the possibility of loss, failure and unfulfilled dreams embedded within this narrative.
This bodily tension often goes unnoticed amidst our attention on managing moment to moment, everyday demands — but its background discomfort sends us looking for relief in something more pleasant like a snack, a screen, a drink, or a drug.
Mindfulness makes us more aware of these preoccupations and reorients attention to the senses. These, by their nature, are oriented to the present — hence the advice to “be in the moment”, which may be a cliché but has real value.
So, when you notice yourself tense and preoccupied with anxious thoughts, try shifting your attention to the sensations of your breathing, wherever you notice it in your body.
Bodily tension naturally dissipates with that shift in focus, and a feeling of greater calm follows naturally. Don’t expect attention to stay there; it won’t. Just notice that attention goes back to worries, and gently return it to breathing.
Try it for just a couple of minutes and I think you’ll see what I mean.
Other mind-body programs use similar principles
It would be nearly impossible to design studies comparing all the techniques that cultivate mindfulness.
But my more than 40 years as a practitioner, clinician, and researcher of popular mind-body programs suggests that most techniques use similar principles.
Yoga and tai chi, for example, direct attention to the flow of sensations accompanying the sequence of movements. In contrast, systems such as cognitive therapy, self-compassion, prayer and visualization counter the ambient narrative’s unsettling tone with more reassuring thoughts and images.
Just a little practice makes this universal mental tendency toward preoccupation, and your ability to shift it, more apparent amidst daily activities.
The reduced ruminating that results dissipates stress-related hormones like cortisol, allowing feel-good ones like serotonin and dopamine to predominate in the brain.
And the happy result is that healthier attention on the here and now becomes woven into the fabric of everyday life.
You can read professor Carmody's original article here.