How Paying Attention Differently Can Boost Your Mental Well-Being

Published On: March 31, 2023Categories: Blog, Inspiration, Mindfulness

How Paying Attention Differently Can Boost Your Mental Well-Being

Put simply, mindfulness is paying attention in the present moment, and doing so can have profound effects on your wellbeing. According to the Mayo Clinic, mindfulness exercises can help reduce stress, anxiety, and depression, enhance your mood, and reduce negative thoughts or other distractions. Now, you may be thinking, “I’m already paying attention in the moment to so many things… my work, my family, trying to keep my house clean… how can paying attention to anything else reduce my stress?”  This, of course, is a fair question.  So, let’s unpack how we “pay attention” when the going gets tough and explore how paying attention differently could help you discover these transformative benefits.

Take a moment to reflect on a time when you got a piece of news that was disappointing or worrying. Maybe you received feedback at work, read some medical test results, or even just read a news article that left you on edge. What was your immediate reaction to this news? Did you notice changes in your body, like an increase in your heart rate or a small dose of adrenaline shooting through your system? Did you feel any strong emotions, such as frustration or fear? What were your next few thoughts? Did you begin to think about all of the potential ramifications of this situation in your life or that of your family? Did you even find yourself thinking about the worst-case scenario that this situation could result in?

If any of this happened to you, you’re not alone. This is your body’s natural response to a threat, thanks to your brain’s amygdala and built-in “fight or flight” system. This system is quite helpful when someone cuts us off in traffic and we need to take quick and forceful action to avoid an accident. But this same system also engages in a similar way when we experience concerning situations that are not immediately life-threatening, and it can send us into a whirlwind of thoughts, emotions, and body changes that keep our stress and anxiety levels high and our mood low over a longer period. And, in these situations, we don’t have the benefit of a quick recovery from the potential threat, like we do when the dangerous driver who cut us off is no longer in sight.

So, how can paying attention differently help us keep all of this in check, especially when life can sometimes feel like it is brimming with potentially disappointing news? Well, our body’s “fight or flight” system is based on appraisal—or the way in which the human brain quickly determines whether something we experience should be considered a threat. For example, we may think we see a snake on the ground and jump back automatically, only to find it is a harmless garden hose. Our brain tends to err on the side of caution as a survival instinct—and it has a “negativity bias” that keeps us focused on the things that we perceive could be harmful to us. So, this is how hearing feedback about your work performance or reading a frightening news headline or worrying test result can lead to hours or even days of ruminating and worst-case scenarios. We aren’t sure if we’re dealing with a garden hose or a venomous snake, so we become preoccupied with dealing with the potential threat—we pay very close attention to it, oftentimes to the exclusion of everything else.

This is where paying attention differently can make a difference. Once we recognize that our brain and body operate this way and this is a factor in what’s driving our level of stress, anxiety, depression, negative thinking, and so on, we can change what we pay attention to—and balance out the negativity.  Here are three ways we can do this:

  • Look for contrary data. When all signs seem to point to imminent doom, look for other signs. We often draw conclusions based on limited information, and when we narrow in our focus on the threat at hand (thanks, amygdala), we often no longer see the bigger picture. Reflect for yourself, “What else is true here?”—or do some digging (e.g., searching online, asking friends or colleagues, etc.) to find information or alternative perspectives that indicate that the sky is not necessarily falling.
  • Savor positive emotions throughout each day. Positive emotions researcher, Dr. Barbara Frederickson with University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill, has studied the ratio of positive emotions we need to experience to balance out the negative ones which tend to dominate our daily experience. To balance this, she recommends savoring—or paying close attention to, lingering on—positive emotions experienced throughout the day, even something as simple as enjoying your morning coffee.
  • Notice how (difficult) thoughts come and go. Paying attention to the fleeting nature of your thoughts and emotions can keep a difficult situation in perspective. See if you can notice how a certain thought arises in your mind, only to be replaced by another thought (e.g., one moment you are thinking about a work issue and the next you’re thinking about what you’re going to have for dinner)—and take comfort in knowing that no individual thought stays forever. Also, do you notice that when you’re tired, you tend to feel more “stuck” in difficult thoughts and emotions, but after a good night’s sleep, you might feel a bit less concerned and more hopeful? Paying closer attention to your tendencies around how your mind and thoughts work, especially when you know they’re under the spell of the amygdala, can help you take difficult thoughts a little more lightly.

Getting good at interrupting your brain’s negativity bias and “err-on-the-side-of-caution” appraisal system takes time, but with practice and enhanced awareness, it can be done. Eventually, you’ll notice the moment your mind begins to jump on the train of catastrophic thought and pull yourself back before your amygdala has a chance to take over and ruin your day. This kind of mindful awareness—of paying attention—gives you the flexibility to bring your attention to the things in your life that bring you joy, ease, and hope, in any moment you choose.

Want to learn more about mindfulness and begin some mindfulness exercises yourself? Join a group class, like our weekly ZOOM Mindfulness Meditation on Tuesdays at 6:30PM for YMCA facility members. Visit the YMCA of Greater Houston’s website for more information or to join the Y today.


About the Author

Wendy Saunders is a Certified Teacher and Facilitator through Emory University in CBCT® (Cognitively-Based Compassion Training) and SEE Learning®, a K-12 educational program designed to build social, emotional, and ethical competencies through attention training, compassion cultivation, and trauma-informed resiliency skills.  Wendy is also a facilitator of the Community Resiliency Model (CRM) ®, a program of the Trauma Resource Institute, the Founder of Compassionate Leader, LLC, and has worked with thousands of people in business, non-profit, education, and healthcare organizations across the country and internationally to cultivate mindfulness, compassion, resilience, and leadership skills.