There’s a lot to be worried about these days. Fires in the Amazon Forest, rising tensions in the Middle East, chaos in the leadership of two of the world’s oldest democracies, frequent mass shootings, rising numbers of hate crimes, lead in the water in Flint and now in Newark… Oh my. I have to stop.
With all that is occurring in the world (to which we have access 24/7), it is no wonder there is a dramatic increase in the number of people who feel anxious. Unfortunately, anxiety feeds on itself. When we are anxious, we notice things that make us more anxious. There is a “negativity bias” in the brain.
It’s important to ask ourselves, what are we paying attention to? As Russell Delman notes, “To take responsibility for our attention is to take responsibility for our experience.”
And because of the seemingly miraculous ability of the brain to change itself through neuroplasticity, taking responsibility for our attention and experience is also taking responsibility for how we want to develop our brain. For example, do we really want to strengthen the networks that can exacerbate anxiety and decrease our ability to respond resiliently to disturbing events?
What we pay attention to shapes our experience. Our experiences create an internal state of being that shapes our reality at home, at work, and in our communities. And, as noted, it also strengthens particular neural pathways in our brains.
In turn, it is our internal state of being that influences what we say and do and how we affect those around us. Anxiety can generate a sense of constriction or crowdedness inside. This feeling too often gets expressed through annoyance, fretting, and arguing.
What do we want to pay attention to and experience? What internal state do we want to live with and bring to our interactions with others? In other words, do we want to strengthen the pathways for fear and anxiety or the ones for curiosity about and compassion for others?
First, we can choose to pay attention to the real challenges in the world AS WELL AS to all that is good in the world and in our lives. This opens us up to multi-faceted experiences rather than creating or increasing anxiety inside us.
Second, if you meditate, you can increase the length and frequency of your meditations and include the practice of resting in spacious awareness. This calms the Salience Network, including the amygdala, so you are less triggered by what you see in the news. And, when you do get triggered, meditation enables you to recover more quickly.
If you don’t meditate, spend more time walking in nature, paying attention to your surroundings and your breathing. When concerns about the world emerge, notice them and then come back to the immediate experience of walking outdoors. You can decide later, with a calmer internal state, what you might want to do about your concerns.
Third, we can choose to pay attention to our thoughts and discern which ones are life-giving and which ones are life-diminishing. What are you thinking right now? Does your thinking engender or diminish your energy? Do your thoughts create caring and compassion for people or feed the tendency to criticize or “otherize” friends, co-workers, or neighbors?
Taking responsibility for where our attention goes is the first step to taking responsibility for our experience and how our brain changes over time. In turn, this enables us to engender more life-giving internal states of being for ourselves and perhaps for those around us.