I react to stress physically. My breathing becomes shallow and fast, and most of the time my heart races, too. I feel a tension in my jaw, right at the hinge, so it feels like its bulging. Sometimes I stick my tongue between my teeth to keep from clenching. I roll my neck around, and as my head goes toward my shoulder, I feel a heavy strain.
Many of us are familiar with the physical symptoms of stress, and often those symptoms manifest in our breathing, heart, and movements. You have probably seen articles about slowing down the breath and breathing deeply. This, in turn, slows down the heart as we get more oxygen. But, what about slowing down the mind?
One way to help is to think about the meaning of the word “attend” as it relates to “focus.” It comes from two roots: “at,” which means toward, and “tend,” which means stretch. Therefore, “attend” means stretch towards, as if your mind is invisibly reaching out toward the object of your attention.
If you want to slow down your mind, slow down your attention. In order to do that, try keeping your attention on the outer world.
When I’m feeling stressed, it’s often while I’m working. I like to look around and notice the design of the components on my desk. Here’s a rundown of the process:
1. Look to the left of your desk (or your field of vision, wherever you happen to be) and pick something out to notice. Spend a few seconds contemplating it. Notice the way it’s placed and whether its placement was something you consciously thought about. Think about the way it’s designed.
2. When your mind wanders, try to bring it back to your breath, then stretch out your attention again to the object in question. This can often be done by losing focus on the object with your eyes as you think about your breath, then focusing the eyes again after a good inhale and exhale. If something in particular keeps coming up to distract you, write it down. Then, turn over the sheet of paper, and return to the exercise.
3. After 30 seconds to a minute, shift your attention to the right, and find another object. Bring your attention back to your breath, then stretch it out. Again, notice as much as possible. Repeat this shift of attention every minute or so until you’ve exhausted your field of vision or feel your mind slowing down.
This movement between your mind and the object of contemplation is the pulse of attention. When you’re stressed, it’s going so fast you can barely focus long enough to notice anything. It’s practically buzzing as your mind reaches out and comes back. When you’re concentrating well, it can really slow down. The only thing that’s important here is to notice the pulse of your attention. If you notice it quickening, become conscious of it and work with it. This sustained effort becomes the result!