So much of our stress and the impact it has on us is begins not in our surroundings but in our thinking. We think that our circumstances are the cause of our stress, but research tells us that the more potent determiners of stress response are internal, in our habits of mind. This helps to explain why some people are more easily stressed and others seem to stay calm and focused even in distressing circumstances.
The good news is this: we can improve our habits of mind as they relate to stressful circumstances. If we can change how we think and what we believe about our circumstances, we can reduce stress and be more resilient in them. One area in which we can improve our cognitive responses to stressful circumstances is that of attention and focus.
Attention is the ability to tune out information, sensations, and perceptions that are not relevant in the moment. It allows one to focus energy on information that is important. Managing one’s attention can increase the likelihood of achieving a “flow state,” a feeling of energy, focus, and enjoyment in the process or activity.
How can one manage one’s attention to stay focused, more productive and less stressed in the difficult passages of life and career? Here are a few tips from various experts.
- Develop your mental focus through meditation techniques such as grounding (being intentional in appraising your immediate surroundings and situation), prayer (in the moment or extended experiences), “biofeedback” (taking stock of your physical situation and responses), relaxation techniques, and the like.
- When distracted or feeling the rising of stress responses, take a moment for deep breathing exercises, thought-stopping exercises to halt negative self-talk, and utilizing productive self-talk like “stay focused,” “just three more and your finished,” “you got this,” or “you can do this.”
- Focus on one thing at a time and avoid the trap of trying to multi-task. Research shows us that we generally cannot multi-task and trying to do so weakens attention and diminishes performance. These can increase stress responses in us.
- Unplug; take a break from checking your phone, especially when focus is required. Turning off your phone (or the sound) will give you periods of uninterrupted focus while doing important, prolonged, absorbing activities.
- Take regular breaks from prolonged focus to move get exercise, clear the mind, and manage distractions. Then return to your attentive, focused state and get stuff done!
What are the benefits of limiting distractive habits of mind and action in the moment? Again, the research indicates that doing so can improve a person’s experience of the following resilience factors:
- Focus – the ability to sustain concentration, attention, and effort while experiencing reduced distraction.
- Curiosity – the desire to know; inquisitive interest in others’ concerns; interest leading to curiosity and creativity.
- Flexibility: The capability to adapt to new, different, or changing circumstances; being present in the moment and responding to a situation by changing or persisting with behavior consistent with one’s values.
Image via author, Dark Canyon, Bears Ears National Monument, Utah.