In the last blog, I touched upon how too often we pay too much attention to the things which frighten us or we want to avoid. Obviously not wanting to be knocked down by an oncoming car is an important thing to avoid but, the alarm system that evolved from prehistory, while extremely effective, is not always best suited to dealing with modern-day life.
Focusing upon what we want to happen is a subtle perceptual shift that can take the stress out of a situation and more likely to bring about the change we seek to happen in a more enjoyable manner.
I know that this sounds like being a little bit of a tree huger type thing but, enjoying the moment, and focusing on a routine, gradually changes how our brains are set up to notice things. Psychologists call these perceptual filters.
An example of this might be a time when you were going to buy a particular car or item of clothing. Once decided you point out to a friend what you are about to buy. What happens next is what is really interesting. Strangely all of a sudden you now notice the object of your attention, the same make, model, and or colour but, it’s not one, all of a sudden you can’t stop seeing them.
This isn’t just synchronicity or some form of dark magic, the information was always there, it is just that your brain had filtered it out up until this point, deciding that it was irrelevant, drawing unnecessarily upon our already taxed conscious attention. Now that it is relevant, your brain lets you see them again. The question is, are we missing out on much more of the world around us simply because of how we perceive things?
When I was lecturing I enjoyed pointing out to my students that despite our supposed superiority as a species, we are more similar to the animals around us than we care to acknowledge. Often exhibiting very similar mannerism and behaviour traits.
A great example of this is a classic scene from the original film, Jurassic Park. One of the kids is trapped in an upturned car, wafting a light around, when a T-Rex takes an interest. Geoff Goldblume tells the girl to switch the light off and stop moving, stating that its brain only detects threats or moving objects.
I remember thinking at the time, what a dumb animal. The interesting part is that we also use a similar operating system! We are geared up to pay more attention to danger, a moving object, or what is novel or out of the ordinary, just as the T-Rex. Fortunately, we still use this operating system. From an evolutionary perspective in psychology, it makes absolute sense that such a system should continue to evolve with us.
Just imagine, traveling back in time, wandering around on the Serengeti with a system that only notices the good and beautiful, gazing wondrously up at the pink fluffy clouds passing overhead at sunset, or stopping to smell the blossom on a tree. We would have died from predation being such easy prey. The point I am trying to make is that paying attention to the negative has served us well in terms of our survival (which is why this gene has been passed on through the millennia) and now, in more modern times it helps to sell newspapers, click on that button or keep us glued to the news listening to the craziness around us.
Being aware of what we are paying attention to can be vital to our health and wellbeing and help us reset our perceptual filters, for example, taking the time to more closely examine the route cause of the worry can help us realise that perhaps it was not something worth worrying about in the first place or more importantly we have no way of meaningfully changing the outcome.
For this I refer to the wise words of Baz Luhrmann’s song, “everybody’s free to wear sunscreen“ – ‘worrying is as effective as trying to solving an algebra equation by chewing gum…!’ Unless of course, you have some form of Jedi mind force, the object of your worry will be blissfully unaware of your angst, it will continue to exist, irrelevant of how much or how long you worry for. So what can we do?
The question is, why do we still have what is essentially a hang over from prehistoric times? After all, it is highly unlikely that we are to encounter a T-Rex roaming the high street, yet our alert system, guided by our perceptual filters still persists.
Interestingly modern populations can still experience the same level of threat despite the significantly increased safety that surrounds us. Clearly incidents of threat are still evident in our environment today and our heightened response serves us well, in the main. Carelessly step out onto the road and we all very quickly feel our heart pounding in our chest as we jump back to the curb as a car passes too close for comfort.
Similarly, the same holds true in far more innocuous situations, where real physical harm is absent e.g. social media or a ‘Daddy Longlegs’. The key here is ‘perception’ and what we think of as being a ‘real’ threat. In these situations we continue to pay attention to the cause of our consternation, reaffirming we are under threat which in turn helps in keeping our system on high alert. Not only is this wearing, but each successive response also comes about with lower levels of a perceived threat until we eventually snap at pretty much anything.
Worrying is useful but remember what it’s purpose is. It is simply there to help you respond quicker to a situation, in moderation, worry is adaptive, normal, a part of everyday life. Excessive worrying and obsessing about things leads to maladaptive responses. It has even been shown to lower your immune system just at a time when you really need it functioning at full capacity.
A practical method of helping to calm our alert system is to breathe! In general, when someone is anxious their breathing can be quite rapid and shallow. Think of an animal in distress, quite often it will be panting. Breathing deeper and slower is the only thing which taps into a system that is part of our subconscious and breathing through our nose has proven to have some intriguing results both for everyday life and sports performance.
Dealing with the every day, when carrying out chores or reading, engaging with light exercise like a walk or watching TV notice how you breathe – in general, we use our mouths when really we should be breathing in and out, through our nose. A couple of vital things happen here by doing so. Breathing through the nose slows the number of breaths we take in a minute. Not only does this have an extremely calming effect upon us but we end up using more of our lungs.
The additional bonus is that we also have a molecular compound in our nose which, when breathing in, expands the structures in our lungs making us way more efficient at using oxygen helping to clarify our thought processes.
Next time we will be writing an article on the amazing effect nasal breathing has upon physical activity. In the meantime have a go and see if you notice any difference.