The Power of Paying Attention

14 07 2011

Amy Blackshire

Do you ever go through your day feeling uneasy, but are not sure why? Or do you find yourself thinking about going to the gym or making a meal plan and all of a sudden your heart starts to beat fast? If so, I encourage you to practice something called mindfulness to get to the bottom of those emotions and the thoughts that trigger them. It isn’t uncommon that many of us may have developed negative associations with nutrition and exercise over the years as a result of failed diet attempts, criticism from others, or even from ourselves.  The good news is that we aren’t destined to think and feel negatively about health behaviors forever.  By tuning in to our emotions and thought patterns, we can start replacing negative thoughts with more positive and encouraging ones that will be more conducive to meeting our goals.

Mindfulness, put simply is a present-centered awareness in which each thought, feeling, or sensation that arises is acknowledged without judging whether it is good or bad, but instead is accepted with compassion from our inner self. Some researchers have hypothesized that the human brain produces more than 230,000 thoughts per day! Obviously we aren’t going to notice each of them, but certain thoughts do tend to stand out among others depending on the ways we have come to perceive the world through our past experiences. Given previous failures, it is no wonder that the thoughts we sometimes pay attention to are the negative ones that go something like, “Why am I wasting my time, I’m never going to successfully lose weight, and if I do, I’ll probably just gain it back like I did before”, or “I can’t control my cravings, I don’t feel like exercising, this might just not be for me”.

I encourage you, (and I’ll be doing the same) to practice recognizing and tuning in to those thoughts when they occur (and have compassion for goodness sake!). Our brains aren’t broken or destined for failure, instead we have just developed patterns that our thoughts tend to follow. With practice we can get better at recognizing the  patterns that have developed over the years, and then we can start letting out a little giggle, and saying to ourselves, “Okay brain, I know all too well the path you are trying to take me down, and I feel compassion for you because I understand that we have had failed attempts in the past, but I know that I do deserve to be healthy, happy, and full of life, and this is the path I’ll be going down, so when you are finished with the negative thinking, I invite you to join me. I’ll be at the gym!” This may sound funny, but give it a try! When you recognize negative thinking patterns and have compassion for them, they start to lose their power and you can more easily shift your focus toward engaging in the tasks that are conducive to meeting your goals. This doesn’t just apply to healthy living, but to all aspects of our lives!

The more you practice shifting your focus away from negative thoughts and toward engagement in regular exercise and healthy eating, the more those behavioral pathways are strengthened. This is what we call a habit, and your thoughts will follow. You can use your new mindfulness techniques to tune in to the positive thoughts, physical feelings, and emotions that arise when you are exercising, planning for healthy meals, and eating your vegetables. You may hear your mind saying things like, “I feel really proud of myself for persevering during those hard times, and I’m certainly glad I did because I feel like a strong woman/man right now! Or maybe you will hear, “You know what, I really do deserve to live a healthy and happy life. I’m excited for this new lifestyle. And you know what, I am good at it! I love the energy I’m experiencing, I’m smiling more, and I’m truly living life.” Now you can let out a giggle and say, “Okay brain, now we are on the right track!”

We may not understand exactly how or why the brain and body work the way they do, but we do know that making a commitment to and taking time to observe faulty thought patterns is the first step toward change. Be sure to make it a point to tune in and notice the positive thoughts that are occurring as well, as these will snowball! Remember, learning to notice your thoughts and redirect them will take time, so regard each negative thought as an opportunity for practice.




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