We know that excess stress leads to a domino effect in the body. It contributes to weight gain, inflammation, and a decreased immune system. But we often forget about its impact to the brain.
In our busyness, it's easy to become overwhelmed by stress and beset with anxiety.
In addition, we're often in front of screens, scrolling through social media or using the internet for everything from restaurant recommendations to booking a ride. We may mindlessly perform a task or engage in a conversation without truly paying attention to what was said. The busy mind is always responding to stress, and it rarely gets a break. So we're not always present.
Amit Sood, M.D., a physician with Mayo Clinic, says training the brain to be resilient, and nurturing it as you would any other organ, is key to reducing stress and anxiety and finding happiness. Dr. Sood, author of The Mayo Clinic Guide to Stress-Free Living, advocates practicing mindful presence to help get your brain to that point. It may sound like an intimidating concept, but it's quite simple.
We just need to "get out of our head."
"Mindful presence is the intentional deep focus on being present," Dr. Sood says. "You look beyond what a distracted mind would show and that way, you notice more. You're kinder to others and you're kinder to yourself."
A part of the brain, called the amygdala, acts as a sensor that responds to perceived threats. It drives fear, initiating the fight-or-flight response. When we're unfocused, or have a wandering mind, the brain is always in this state, reacting to stressors and working hard to tackle it.
Living superficially — without attention — provokes excess hormones sparked by the amygdala. Norepinephrine and cortisol are the main hormonal players, Dr. Sood says. In high amounts, these hormones are toxic for the brain and the rest of the body, predisposing it to inflammation, a higher risk of cancer, infections, and other chronic conditions.
"With an occasional moment of anger, our body is designed to recover from it, but if it continues for weeks, for years, [our body] does a poor job," Dr. Sood says.
When our mind is still racing from unfinished tasks at work or home, we often carry that stress with us throughout the day. But we can douse the fire that may burn in our bodies.
Dr. Sood says that instead of carrying that burden, release it by focusing on what's important. One easy way to be mindful is to dedicate time with family as soon as you return home. Unplug.
The overall goal is to live deeply, Dr. Sood says. It's about getting out of a distracted space.
"Living deeply brings you in focus, [so] you just focus on what is important," he says. "You start focusing on what is meaningful."
For example, when seeing someone who is upset, rather than letting it get to you, realize that this person may be hurt. It's easier to empathize and forgive. Meanwhile, your stress levels remain low, Dr. Sood says.
"It allows all these timeless values to come and change the experience, to reframe life's challenges," he says. "What it does is it allows you to not rush to judgment. It allows you to create a space between your attention and interpretation."
5 tips for mindfulness
Dr. Sood has five suggestions for adding mindfulness to your day to reduce anxiety:
- Dedicate the first two minutes of your time after returning home to family as though you haven't seen them in a while. Use this time to ask specific questions about their day, without offering criticism or judgment. Ask questions like, "what made you laugh today?" to release happy-inducing hormones such as endorphins and oxytocin.
Find novelty where there is love. For example, look into a loved one's eyes. It also releases oxytocin.
Ask what really matters, often.
Halt the multitasking for a moment. Take a two- to three-minute break every two to three hours to recharge the brain. It could be through a quick walk, stretching, or just relaxing.
Wish people well during the day.