When you’re worrying, you are essentially living your life in either the future or the past. Worrying about what you’ll do when xyz happens, or over analysing what you did yesterday. As a result, you tend to miss out on what’s happening in the here and now. Chances are, your worrying would be less of a problem if you could notice when the worrying happens and bring your attention back to what’s in front of you. By learning how to train your attention, you can actually start catching your worrying before it gets uncontrollable and can learn how to redirect your attention back to the present moment. This will also help will postponing your worry, as we discussed last week.
Exercising your Attention
Like most things, practise makes perfect. It’s hard to pull your attention away from worrisome thoughts because they’re often about things that are important to us. So, the more you practise your attention training, the better you’ll be at it. If you don’t exercise it regularly, it will become weak and won’t work as well. There are two ways you can “exercise” your attention, through mundane task focusing and meditation. Both of these are actually mindfulness exercises. Mindfulness involves paying attention to what is happening in the present moment with an accepting attitude towards whatever you notice. It also involves practising how to notice when your attention has wandered away from the present and then skillfully redirecting your attention back to the here and now.
You’re not attempting to control your thoughts or make them go away, you’re just shifting your attention back to what’s in front of you at the present moment.
Mundane Task Focusing
One of the most common times for your mind to start wandering is when doing mundane tasks like washing dishes or ironing; this is when our bodies tend to go on autopilot. Therefore, this is the best to do your “workout” to strengthen your attention “muscle”. To do this, the goal is to gradually practise sustaining your attention on a mundane activity, thus giving your attention a good workout. Additionally, you don’t have to add anything extra to your day. All you have to do change how you pay attention doing things you’re already doing. Some common activities include: doing the dishes, hanging washing, gardening, taking a shower, vacuuming, eating a meal, brushing your teeth, walking, etc. Once you decide what mundane task you want to practise this on, you can start your workout! Each time you notice your mind has wandered off the task, anchor your attention back to the task by focussing, non-judgmentally, on the following:
- Touch: What does the activity feel like? What is the texture (e.g. rough, smooth)? Where on your body do you have contact with it? Are there areas of your body with more or less contact with the task?
- Sight: What do you notice about the task? What catches your eye? How does the task appear?What about the light… shadows… the contours… the colours?
- Hearing: What sounds do you notice? What kinds of noises are associated with the task?
- Smell: What smells do you notice? Do they change during the task? How many smells are there?
- Taste: What flavours do you notice? Do they change during the task? What is the quality of these flavours?
You can also strengthen your attention muscle by meditating. You can practise being mindful of your breathing, noticing any time your mind wanders away from the breath, catching its wandering and redirecting it back to the breath as your anchor to the present moment. It’s important to remember that this is NOT a quick fix, it is not easy, and requires regular practise. by practising dialy, you may eventually become better at disengaging from your worries.
To meditate, sit in a comfortable position and just notice what it physically feels like to breathe in and out. You can also take note of any sounds around you that you notice. There many great apps you can download for free to help with this like Headspace and Buddhify.
The more you practise attention training, these exercises will:
- increase your awareness of where your attention is at any moment, so you can recognise when it is getting locked on negative thinking;
- help you be able to flexibly re-direct yoru attention to where you would like it to be in the present moment; and
- help you to notice when your attention inevitably wanders away from the present, and be able to bring your attention back again.
REMEMBER, it is very important to remember that the goal of mundane task focusing and meditation is NOT to have perfect sustained attention in the present moment 100% of the time, or to have a blank mind or no thoughts. That’s impossible. And if that’s your aim then you are actually suppressing your worries and we already know how unhelpful that is. Your mind is going to wander, that’s okay. Just gently bring the attention back.
Nicole Paulie is a Counselling Psychologist, and co-author of “How to be Happy and Healthy – The seven natural elements of mental health.” She provides therapy in the Dublin city area. Contact us to learn more or to book an appointment.
This article was adapted from:
Saulsman, L., Nathan. P., Lim, L., Correia, H., Anderson, R. & Campbell, B. (2015). What? Me Worry!?! Mastering your worries. Perth, Western Australia: Centre for Clinical Interventions.