As you scramble to get yourself ready for the workday, a good, refreshing cup of hot coffee is all you need to hit the ground running. Your plans are foiled, however, when you discover the coffee maker is broken. This situation distracts you from the cold weather, and when you finally leave the house to start your commute, you have failed to leave time to defrost your car. After waiting 10 minutes for the ice to melt off your windshield, you leave late for work. Your stress intensifies, and by the time you get to your challenging, high-stress work environment, you find it difficult to focus on the task at hand.
Although you may be tempted to explain your inability to concentrate due to workplace distractions or the scarcity of time, stress can also interfere with your ability to focus. This loss of focus can, in turn, create more stress about your inability to get work done.
Experts agree that the best way to fight this vicious cycle is to change the things your mind is focusing on, either through various “focus-shifting techniques” or mindfulness exercises like meditation. By interrupting the body’s fight-or-flight feedback loop, temporarily occupying your mind with something other than the source of your stress can increase productivity and significantly reduce anxiety.
The Physiology of Stress
Although stress begins in the brain, people experience anxiety and other stress-related mental health problems in their bodies as well. We are all familiar with the rapid heartbeat, tense muscles and rush of adrenaline accompanying certain anxious moments. But did you know these aren’t the only symptoms of stress overload? If you find your mind shifting from topic to topic every few seconds, or if you realize you are inexplicably restless, you may be experiencing stress-related anxiety.
But why does your body feel these symptoms of stress? The answer lies with the fight-or-flight response, a series of natural, physical responses to tense moments initiated by the brain’s emotional center, the amygdala.
The amygdala contacts the brain’s command center, the hypothalamus, which preps the entire nervous system to make split-second decisions by flooding it with cortisol and adrenaline. These chemicals inhibit essential cognitive functions, like memory. Long-term cortisol exposure damages the brain and may cause Alzheimer’s. As Clinical Psychologist Stephen Fabrick summarizes it, clear thinking, creativity and problem-solving skills have to suffer when we’re under a great deal of stress. Therefore, paying attention to the physical warning signs of stress is the first step towards cultivating healthy mindfulness.
Since long-term stress is bad for your physical and mental health, developing healthy coping mechanisms is essential. One means of dealing with stress is the technique of “focus-shifting,” or disengaging from the source of your stress for a while by focusing on something else.
There are several fruitful approaches to focus-shifting, the easiest of which is to distract your brain by undertaking a simple, rewarding activity not requiring a lot of complicated thinking. You could, for example, watch a video from your favorite YouTuber or declutter your room. Alternatively, if you prefer stimulation to distraction, you can also practice focus-shifting in response to stress by directing your brain to something challenging but of minor importance, such as a book or a puzzle game.
To maximize the effectiveness of your focus-shifting tactics, try balancing your focus-shifting periods with longer, productivity-oriented work periods. This technique, known as the Pomodoro method, involves making deals with yourself. You could, for example, decide that for every 25 minutes of focused work, you will reward yourself with a 5 minute break. The length of your breaks and work periods is up to you, but experts agree you should limit your focus-shifting periods to 20 minutes. Longer periods of focus-shifting often result in distraction, derailing the necessary problem-solving activities that initially caused you stress.
Another approach to mitigating stress is called mindfulness. Originally a Buddhist concept, mindfulness can be thought of as the opposite of multitasking. It is the discipline of focusing on the events of the present moment and accepting these events without passing judgment on them. Though it may sound more spiritual than clinical, mindfulness was pioneered as a treatment for mental illnesses like major depression by the University of Massachusetts’ Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn and has been shown to prevent relapses of depression, as well as the physical symptoms of anxiety.
Learning to be mindful is a fairly simple process. Begin by “centering down:” sit cross-legged on the floor or a straight-backed chair. Next, focus on your breathing, the feel of the air going in and out of your lungs in particular. Once you’ve narrowed your focus to your breathing, widen your focus to more “outward” sensations, such as sounds and feelings. If you start to feel panic again, return your focus to breathing. This is the gist of the mindfulness process, although other calming activities, such as going for a walk or playing piano, can be integrated into your routine. Try to make mindfulness a daily habit, spending at least 20 minutes working on these basic steps.
Taking Back Your Mind, One Day at a Time
Stress and concentration have a close relationship: the other tends to decrease as one increases. If you find that symptoms of high stress impair your ability to focus, consider the focus-shifting and mindfulness techniques examined here as means to help you triumph over the anxieties of daily life.
Whether you look to mindfulness or focus-shifting techniques, remember that taking back your mind from stress is a process: you might not feel results right away, and if you don’t, don’t give up! Stress is an inevitable part of life, but through practice, everyone can learn to process it in a healthy manner.