Reducing Stress and Improving Focus through Mindfulness

In our culture, we tend to derive our sense of self-worth from how busy we are. In a Washington Post article titled “Why Being Too Busy Makes Us Feel Good”, staff writer Brigid Schulte and author of Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time, states that “Busyness [is] not just a way of life but a badge of honor…. Even as neuroscience is beginning to show that at our most idle, our brains are most open to inspiration and creativity,…we resist taking time off.” The downside includes stress, lack of sleep and an inability to focus. Emotional Intelligence author, Dr. Daniel Goleman’s research at Harvard focused on methods that counter the impact of stress. When we feel trapped by stressful circumstances and negative emotions, he recommends the technique of ‘mindfulness’. Writing for LinkedIn Pulse, he says, “Mindfulness allows you to look at what’s going on in your mind from the balcony. You can see, or become aware of the ‘I’m trapped’ feeling. If you can get to the point where you notice that you’re trapped, you’re less trapped already. You can remind yourself, ‘there I go again’, which helps you detach yourself from difficult thoughts, which lead to difficult emotions. After some practice, you’ll build a muscle that’s strong enough to ward off emotional distractions.” Dr. Goleman states that self-regulation is key to emotional intelligence and people who manage their emotions are able to recover more quickly from stress.

In this six-minute video, Dr. Goleman guides the viewer on how to slow down and deepen breathing to relax the body.

The four key skills of an emotionally intelligent leader are as relevant in our personal and parenting lives as they are in the workplace: self-awareness, self-management, empathy, and relational skills.

Jeremy Hunter, faculty member at the Peter F. Drucker School of Management, has produced a downloadable reminder chart that provides simple techniques on how to stay focused in order to counter emotional challenges in everyday life, such as:

  • Feeling distracted and scattered
  • Feeling annoyed by difficult people and situations
  • Feeling physically worn down by too much tension, rushing through meals, staring at screens
  • Feeling stuck, where a solution to a problem keeps evading you
  • Feeling frustrated with lack of progress in yourself and others

Dr. Wendy Hasenkamp, in her research at Emory University, studied contemplative practice and found four basic moves in the mind’s workout for focused attention:

  • Bring your focus to your breath.
  • Notice that your mind has wandered off.
  • Disengage from that train of thought.
  • Bring your focus back to your breath and hold it there.

Repeatedly practicing simple mental routines can strengthen the brain’s circuitry and improve its executive functioning. However, it’s not as easy as it sounds. Inevitably, the mind wanders off to some other thought. It requires active attention (mindfulness) to notice that your mind has drifted, and a mental effort to go back to the breath. Dr. Hasenkamp’s research demonstrates that “the medial prefrontal cortex, a part of the default mode network that is particularly related to self-focused thoughts, which make up a good portion of mind-wandering content can be de-activated more quickly by those who practice contemplative processes such as meditation…Thoughts become less sticky because your brain gets re-wired to recognize and disengage from mind-wandering. If you’ve struggled with rumination (re-living a negative experience over and over), or stressing (unproductively) about an upcoming event, you can appreciate how being able to let go of your thoughts could be a huge benefit.”

The findings indicate that the ability to focus is like a mental muscle; the more we work it, the stronger it becomes. Improving focus can help parents fully engage with their children and temporarily put aside the conflicting demands of technology, email, work problems and other distractions.