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Why Attention Matters For Stress Management & How To Train It

At the heart of my Stress Resilience Blueprint is a set of five core skills that form the foundation of the ability to recover quickly and easily from stress, upsets and set-backs. One of these might have been surprising: attention and focus. Surprising because it's not that obvious what it's connection is to emotional resilience and well-being. So in this article I'm going to articulate why it matters, and then suggest a few ideas for training attention and focus.

There are a number of parts to my answer, and I'm going to start with the connection between attention and general emotional well-being.

Attention & Well-being

Researchers used a phone app to sample people's experience at random points during the day. They interrupted them to ask, first, are you paying attention to what you're doing right now, and second, how happy are you right now? What they found was a clear correlation between being focused (paying attention in the present moment) and well-being.

Why should this be so? When you're not paying attention, or when your mind is wandering, it tends to end up reviewing either past memories or future expectations, in a rather self-referential way. And it seems that emotionally-salient material has a gravitational pull on the mind – not only that, but especially negative emotional material. (It seems the brain has a bias towards the negative – known as the negativity bias.) So you go over bad things that happened, perhaps thinking about what you should have said and done, but reliving the pain. Or, you think about things that might go wrong in the future, and what it'll mean – again creating painful experience that wouldn't be there if you were focused in the here and now.

Attention & Flow

The opposite of this kind of mind wandering is flow, which I described in an earlier article in this series.

A flow state is an experience of effortless absorption in the present moment's activity. Flow is a major component of well-being in the models of Positive Psychology, which I discussed in this article.

Attentional Filter

Another part of the answer to why attention matters for stress resilience is to do with the way attention operates: like a kind of filter. That is, we see what we are primed to look out for by our current preoccupations – and again, our current preoccupations tend to gravitate towards things coloured with negative emotion. In psychology this is known as attentional bias, and is an example of a cognitive bias, which I talk about in an article coming later in this series.

In stress and anxiety, we're preoccupied with what might go wrong. We look out for signs of things going wrong, and we often find them, especially when it comes to feelings in the body that might portend anxiety. For example, sufferers of panic disorder are hyper-vigilant for signs of panic, such as heart flutters or shortness of breath. Because the mind works as a sort of experiential simulator, this actually makes it more likely.

In depression, people tend to ruminate on bad memories. Bad memories associate to other bad memories – and not good ones. When all you can see of the past is how awful it was, you expect more of the same, and so there arises a pattern of hopelessness.

Attentional Style

It's not only what you pay attention to that counts, it's how you pay attention. The mind-body connection implies that your style of attention has implications for your biology and brain function.

One way you can pay attention is like a spot-light: your attention is like a narrow beam and the mind sort of grasps hold of whatever it finds in this tight focus. The opposite of this is a broad, open, receptive and even accepting kind of attention.

The former (narrow attention) is associated with stress, and by its nature it brings with it a physiological arousal, a mini “fight-or-flight” response. By contrast broad open receptive attention is calming.

How To Train Attention

Clearly it's going to be useful if you can shift your attention into-present moment, broad, open, receptive focus – not the whole time but a lot of the time.

Attention is like a muscle in a sense – it can be trained in this direction.

One of the best known tools for training attention is mindfulness. Mindfulness trains a stable focus, one that doesn't wander off so easily, and perhaps more importantly it trains an open, warm, curious, accepting kind of attention.

There are other tools:

  • Cognitive Bias Modification is a technique developed to counter attentional bias, with research-proven success.
  • BrainHQ is a computer-based form of brain training that focuses on attention but also other cognitive functions such as memory, processing speed and even social skills.
  • Neurofeedback is brain-training that works at the level of the brain rather than cognitive functions. It's a form of biofeedback – it works by measuring brain activity and feeding this information back in real time. There's good evidence neurofeedback can help ADHD.
  • Biofeedback can also help attention, but more indirectly than neurofeedback, in part by supporting mindfulness training (at least in my way of thinking).
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