By Nicolas Gurley
As babies, we focus a lot of our attention inward, toward our internal needs
(hungry, thirsty, too hot, too cold…) and express our distress over internal cues so that these needs can be tended to. As we grow older we usually move away from this inner focus, as we get so overwhelmed with the external cues that life throws at us. This can be particularly true for those of us who live in large metropolitan cities like New York. There is just so much going on on the outside that you completely ignore what is happening on the inside. This is why it is never surprising to hear New Yorkers say things like “I haven’t eaten anything since breakfast, I’m starving!” or why you only realize how badly you need to go to the bathroom until you are shuffling with the keys to the front door of the building. These examples however, are rather marginal compared to other possible consequences of ignoring your internal cues. Frequently ignoring the messages from within until they become so overwhelming that ignoring them any further is not possible can lead to roller coasters of feelings and high anxiety, which can lead you to feeling drained or depressed.
Professor Zindel Segal and associates found in a study at the University of
Toronto, contrary to popular belief, not all of your attention relies on the frontal lobe of the brain. This is only true for your external attention, whereas attention on our internal cues relies more on older portions of your brain that are linked to the limbic area of the brain, similar to animals. This limbic system, that is linked to sensation and integration of physical experience, supports more direct access to emotions, while the frontal lobe remains more concerned with your conceptual self.
Pretty much everybody prioritizes outward attention. When we talk about
attention, we usually mean “paying attention” to traffic, work, a conversation, the television by using the frontal cortex of our brain. As we spend most of our time focusing on these things we are ignoring a whole world of activity going on inside of us. Yet it is this internal activity that usually impacts how we are feeling or what kind of mood we are in. It is why you can be feeling perfectly content despite being squeezed into a subway car during rush hour traffic, or why you can be feeling angry and sour despite being in the park on a beautiful spring day.
There are a number of activities that you can work on to help quiet your mind to
reduce the overwhelming feelings and anxiety, such as breathing exercises, yoga, or meditation. Learning to quiet your mind will additionally help you to engage in rational thinking so it is easier to adopt a more reasonable outlook. If you find the process of quieting your mind and examining your thoughts to be difficult, you are not alone. We are here to help you develop the processes you may need to better differentiate between your two attentions and thereby enable you to acquire a more tranquil state of mind.