In this VETgirl online veterinary continuing education blog, Dr. Sonja A. Olson reviews how we can take back control of our life by practicing mindful attention. This is an important step in wellbeing and building resilience in our veterinary profession.
By Dr. Sonja A. Olson
Take Back Control: Practice Mindful Attention
“Between Stimulus and Response There Is a Space. In That Space Is Our Power to Choose Our Response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” – Viktor Frankl
Our brains are amazing, complicated, busy places. The brain secretes thoughts the way that glands in the body secrete enzymes. Some of these thoughts, perceptions, and resulting actions are helpful and productive. Others not so much. How about when we get caught up in emotional reactions such as anxiety, fear, or impatience? Or when we are feeling stressed or threatened? In these circumstances, our attention becomes vulnerable, and we are less in control over ourselves and our reactions to life’s inevitable challenges.
Neuroscience research has demonstrated our brains are capable of both growth and change throughout our lives thanks to neuroplasticity. We can practice and retrain our brain such that our attention can be strengthened, and brain health optimized. Fortifying our focus and living with increased awareness gives us more control over our minds and responses. Developing mindful attention is one of the training spaces that supports heightened awareness.
Mindful attention fosters a state of objectivity to our thoughts and emotions. We can slow things down and access our higher cognitive centers to respond rather than react to circumstances. Compassionate, intentional practice on mindful attention can help us to be more prepared and effective to skillfully maneuver through the obstacle course of life.
How does this state of mindful attention work? This allows us to move from the reactionary parts of our brain, such as the amygdala, into our ‘higher’ mind, which is the forebrain and anterior cingulate nucleus. This awareness allows you to be the objective, curious observer of the actual circumstances as they are occurring in that moment in your life. Our perception of what ‘is’ can be influenced by fear, bias, habits, and/or wishful thinking. Mindful attention helps us to navigate these challenges with more skill in a safe manner. The more that we practice focusing, noticing when are getting swept away by distractions or story, and return to the original point of focus, the neuronal pathways that support improved focus and attention become more connected and established. Our brains change for the better!
When we intentionally choose to be more mindful in our interaction with the present moment, it refines and clarifies our attention. This allows us to respond with purpose and integrity when we are more fully present. This is the space that the famous author and psychologist, Dr. Frankl was pointing to in the quote in which growth and freedom to choose to occur.
As a younger emergency veterinarian, I recall being swept into the current of unhelpful and distressing ‘what if’s’ and ‘I have to figure this out and fix this … NOW!’ thoughts on critical patients. The emotions I was experiencing and picking up on from the owners and possibly my teammates would interfere with my ability to think clearly and make efficient decisions on treatment and diagnostic plans. As my experience and confidence grew as a clinician and as I intentionally practiced mindful attention, I was able to see the wisdom in slowing things down and taking the decisions for these intense cases one step at a time. I was better able to make effective and efficient decisions as a result of compassionately acknowledging emotions and physical sensations that might arise as part of my empathic caregiving self and sometimes perfectionist tendencies. It is in the objective noting combined with some intentional deep breaths that I was able to heighten my senses, focus my attention, and access knowledge needed to proceed. Being mindful is not hard is not always the tough part; remembering to be mindful can be the obstacle but the rewards are valuable.
Application of Mindful Attention: Energy flows where your attention goes
The good news is that we all have the capacity to use mindful attention to train and rewire our neural pathways. Rather than being hijacked by our emotions or carried away by disruptive thought patterns, we can have more control over our behavior and responses to challenging stimuli. How to do this? The key is to slow down and intentionally shift to what is actually happening internally and externally as the full focus of your attention. Let go of self-defeating, limiting habits, behaviors, and thinking patterns. Rather, choose to approach the present moment for what it is – lose the story, the judgement, the thunderstorm of emotions, the ‘knee-jerk’ reflex of habitual reactions.
S.T.O.P. – Focus your attention.
The S.T.O.P practice, as outlined below, is an easy to remember and use self-care practice to focus our attention, soothe the nervous system, and take back control of our body sensation, emotions, and thinking patterns. This practice utilizes your inner wisdom and the power of your breath and your 5 physical senses to anchor you to this present moment. It consists of 4 steps:
S: STOP what you are doing temporarily and invite your attention to rest on this present moment
T: Take 3-5 slow, intentional breaths in through the nose and out through the mouth with an intentionally longer exhale than inhale. Then, breathe naturally.
O: Observe your current surroundings and using your 5 senses, name and note your experience of at least 3 things that you see, hear, touch, smell, or can taste (yes, taking a mindful moment to hydrate or eat here equals extra self-care!). Scan your body and note where you may feel tension. What emotions are present in this moment – can you simply name them and raise your self-awareness?
P: Proceed with more awareness, less reactivity, and a sense of having connect with your need for self-care. This can be Summed up in an inquiry: What’s most important for me to pay attention to right now? What am I in need of in this moment?
The STOP method can be really helpful When using a slow, intentional breath pattern with a longer exhalation phase we tap into our ‘rest and digest’ regulating parasympathetic nervous system. Feeling your feet on the ground or the weight of your body in the chair connects you to your body in this moment in time. Additionally, utilizing your 5 senses to heighten your perception of what is around you and further focus your attention on your present experience decreases cortisol in your bloodstream and helps shifts brain activity into the less reactive forebrain region. Consider this practice for a centering, restorative moment when you need to bring your attention ‘back online.’
I used the STOP practice again and again as an emergency clinician to the point that it became a habit when working through the many potentially distressing cases that I would care for during a shift. Through the years, this practice came to also support me during times in my personal life where I felt anxious, upset, angry, or fearful. I was better able to keep myself centered as the ‘eye of the storm’ and respond to whatever was occurring in a more thoughtful manner and experience less emotional turbulence as a result.
Ultimately mindful attention gives us clarity and the opportunity to have increased control over our behavior. We create a more vibrant and alert space for us to be in our integrity, aligned with our values and connect with our naturally occurring compassionate state of being. The combination of these increases our potential to thrive in life, particularly when faced with challenges and upsets. It is important to note that it is the small practices along the way that build our mindful muscles. Even more importantly, we need to remember to be patient and give ourselves a ton of grace as we figure out what works for us. Get those ‘mindful’ reps in and watch your skill responsiveness and resiliency grow. In the wise words again of Dr. Frankl:
“Humans are self-determining; meaning it is your responsibility to actualize.”
1. Frankl, Viktor E. (1946) Man’s Search for Meaning. (Reprinted by Beacon Press, Boston in 2006).
You can find out more in Dr. Sonja A. Olson’s book Creating Wellbeing and Building Resilience in the Veterinary Profession here.