by Kathy Barthel: Stressed? Can’t focus? Thoughts wandering everywhere?
It’s no surprise. Your brain wasn’t built for today’s interconnected, information overloaded world.
“We have a medieval brain trying to live in the modern world,” says Dr. Amit Sood, M.D., M.Sc. and author of “The Mayo Clinic Guide to Stress-Free Living.”
A few thousand years ago, the human brain developed its tendency to wander — constantly checking for external threats to safety while rummaging around inside the head, looking for unresolved drama. These days there is just too much going on.
“An average person has 150 undone tasks at any time,” says Sood. “We get stuck with this wandering mind inside the head, so the external attention has gone inside.”
Our mind wanders so much that we spend at least half of every day in a distracted, barely aware state. We can’t remember what we just read or what the boss told us a minute ago because our mind was somewhere else.
Even worse, the brain is wired to stress us out by automatically focusing on the negative, on what went wrong or what could go wrong. “The brain doesn’t really know how to be happy,” says Sood.
To dial down the stress, we have to develop more focused, sustained attention and learn how to interpret events in a way that helps us cope with uncertainty and constant change.
That sounds like meditation, part of the tradition of Sood’s home country of India. But he says people are so distracted by their jumpy, negativity-obsessed minds that they just can’t concentrate on meditation.
Sood’s guide to stress-free living is different because it is based on neuroscience as well as psychology, philosophy and spirituality and was developed after years of work with over 40,000 patients.
His program helps people focus intentionally on the outside world, on its uniqueness and meaning. “The more intentional your thoughts, the more positive your thinking,” he says. And the more engaged you’ll be each day.
Sood says there will always be stressors in life but we can keep them from developing into bad stress, the kind that damages your health and makes most medical conditions worse.
Sood’s program also shows people how to interpret the events in their lives through the five principles of gratitude, compassion, acceptance, meaning and forgiveness.
The principles, “can help you peel off layers of stress and suffering from almost any challenge,” says Sood. “They also enhance your attention by freeing you from the mind’s wanderings.”
- Gratitude. “I really focus on what went right within what went wrong….There are so many things that I am grateful for…And when I focus on them I feel full and when I am full I am ready to give and I am also better able to withstand adversity.”
- “Compassion to yourself is equally important than compassion for others…We don’t recognize that we are humans and as capable of committing mistakes and being imperfect. So look at yourself with the eyes of the person who loves you the most.”
- “Acceptance is about flowing with adversity, creatively working with what is, being open to possibilities. For small things, focus on will it matter in five years; for bigger things, try to find meaning in it, some positive meaning.”
- “Meaning focuses on who you are, why you are here and what this world means. At the core, no matter what you do, you’re an agent of service and love. You touch a part of the world, however small, and leave it a little better than you found it.”
- “Forgiveness respects each person’s humanness, recognizing we all are fallible and vulnerable to ignorant thoughts and actions. Forgiveness is your gift to yourself and others — a gift that provides peace and freedom to all.”
According to Sood, the program is focused on relationships, engagement and emotional intelligence. In the coming weeks an online version will be available on his website including a community where people can get answers to their questions.
Next, Sood thinks there should be more research conducted on “…how can we help our children have deeper and more sustained attention and how can we raise our children surrounded by the principles of gratitude, compassion, acceptance, meaning and forgiveness.”
When Sood gets home from work, he notes his three-year-old daughter doesn’t try to improve him and she finds him interesting every day.
“I learned that was how I should treat my wife and my patients. And when we are able to do that, we engage our brains very differently and we can really become much happier as a society…. The pursuit of happiness actually doesn’t give happiness. It is the pursuit of compassion and gratitude that gives happiness.”