Attentional Fitness Exercises for Worry and Insomnia

by Daron Larson 

Learn how to take breaks from your story and get more rest

Most of us feel certain that we think and worry more than most people. When our minds are busy in the middle of the night when we'd rather be sleeping, it’s easy to convince ourselves that some personal flaw is to blame.

There have been many times in my life when I’ve been sure that some problem I was struggling with had a solution that would be obvious to someone else. This is especially true when I’ve had to make an important decision. The answer seems to be waiting for me to earn it through strenuous thinking, considering every angle, and weighing every possible outcome of my potential choices.

Our minds crave problems to chew on. But all that thinking can get in the way of resting. Part of what drove me to explore mindfulness more rigorously was an experience I had on vacation in New Mexico. I was hiking in a beautiful desert, soaking in hot mineral baths, and getting massages. in spite of all the delicious exogenous luxuries, my mind was busy trying to solve the challenges waiting for me back at work.

I haven’t transcended the impulse to get caught up in worse-case scenarios since that time, but over the years I've learned to recognize and remember that I have options. Before I was completely at the mercy of my reactions. Now when something is eating at me I can give into it and let it drive the show, I can use it as a way to get more intimately familiar with the interplay of my thoughts and feelings, or I can intentionally focus on unrelated sensory experiences while the mental and emotional waves churn in the background. 

This is not because of some genetic talent. I’m a natural born worrier from a lineage of habitually anxious fretters. My people have been torturing themselves with their imagination for centuries. But just as I made a conscious decision to cultivate healthier habits of eating and exercise, I’ve decided to change my relationship to what it feels like to be alive through the consistent development of my attentional fitness. 

Anybody can do this, but it will look different in each person. Some of us are driven more by our feelings while others rely on reasoning and logic. My goal is to introduce possible exercises for you to explore based on your interests and what you are most likely to practice. My other goal is to break down some of the common obstacles that convince people it’s not possible to erode these habits.

Most of these obstacles relate to having unrealistic expectations about what the exercises should feel like. People attend a meditation class hoping to feel relaxed or to turn off their thoughts. These are realistic long-term outcomes, but I’ve never found it productive to shoot for them. It’s better to focus on the exercises themselves and let the results reveal themselves in their own time. Don’t get me wrong. The results can blow your mind. But anxiously anticipating them will prevent you from experiencing them. Part of the game is simply savoring subtle shifts as we get better at noticing them. 

Think of someone who has decided to quit smoking. The smoking has become a deeply ingrained habit with many negative consequences, but it provides reliable hits of short-term comfort. When people decide to stop smoking, we know that they face a significant challenge. They will experience some benefits right away, but to really impact their health, they have to learn to forego numbing of the spikes of physical and emotional urges by experiencing them without acting on them -- hundreds and thousands of times.

Do you think making this kind of change is worth it in spite of the high degree of challenge? Have you experienced something like this challenge in your own life? Consider how you might advise someone who was asking for encouragement in the midst of developing new habits. Consider what have encouraged you enough to commit to something for the long haul.

Mindfulness strategies can be powerful, but they are not quick fixes. They require consistent practice. We are drawn to the promise of immediate relief. We long for a pill that can bring relief. But these interventions typically address the surface or symptoms of deeper issues. Mindfulness addresses suffering at this level -- at the root of the problem. What lurks at the root stimulates the proliferation of all the compelling story problems we find so irresistible. 

Mindfulness is not therapy or a replacement for therapy or other interventions. It is, however, a tool that can strengthen the potential benefit of other strategies. Therapy is concerned with the personal narrative. Mindfulness is interested in the composition of these stories, what they are comprised of: images, sounds, and feelings.   

When we start paying attention to the direct experience of our lives, we start to make some fascinating observations. Without direct awareness, we unconsciously move towards comfort and certainty and away from discomfort and confusion. This happens at all levels: from relationships, careers, and deciding where to live and vacation, to the moment-by-moment experience of breathing, moving, eating, and even thinking. It's fascinating how rarely we pause to evaluate the effectiveness of these aims.        

  • What’s the impact of my urge to avoid physical and emotional discomfort?
  • How does my relationship to ambiguity and confusion impact the experience of my life?
  • Do I feel at home in my life as it is right now or am I waiting for a future sense of well-being that is just around the corner? 

Changing our relationship to worry and insomnia can lead to profound insights into these questions and begin to set the stage for experiencing the freedom that comes with having options rather than feeling doomed and trapped.

Options for Relating to Worry and Insomnia

Bringing mindfulness to any experience means intentionally modifying your relationship to it. Adult humans mainly experience their life as if it were a narrative. It feels like each of us is the main character in a story. We remember what has happened in the past and imagine what might happen next. We evaluate ourselves and the world around us. When we are practicing mindfulness, we temporarily suspend the preoccupation with interpretation and meaning.

  • We notice what it is like to see instead of thinking about what we see.
  • We notice what it is like to hear instead of thinking about what we hear.
  • We notice what it is like to feel physical and emotional-type sensations in the body without concern about their significance.    

When we realize that we are worrying, we have a choice.

  1. Stay caught up in the story itself
  2. Try to directly observe the components of thinking and worrying
  3. Attempt to let the mental activity play out, but in the background of your awareness

When we worry, we are focused on finding a resolution. Our energy is gobbled up by the urge to solve the problem. We might even notice that our imagination is traveling in loops.

When we are trying to untangle the components of worry, we might observe that there are mental images, verbal thoughts, and emotional sensations in the body that are influencing each other. We can try to highlight one component at a time and observe it for a few seconds or we can get curious about the interplay between them.

Sometimes we’re also able to let the thoughts wind down on their own by deciding to give them less direct attention. This gets easier with practice, but is always challenging because of our taste for getting wrapped up in dramatic memories and fantasies. We can use sights and sounds around us and sometimes sensations in the body (such as the breath or relaxation) to anchor our attention leaving less left over to fuel our thoughts.

When we find ourselves alert in the middle of the night, there could be some of the same types of sensory activities occurring. In this situation, however, we have to decide whether to stay in bed and keep trying to sleep or get up and find a way to pass the time. Either way, we tend to also imagine the impact of the sleeplessness on our ability to carry out our responsibilities the next day.

This counterintuitive approach has proven effective for me and many of my students:

  1. Drop the goal of unconsciousness
  2. Adopt the goal of getting some rest
  3. Develop the ability to notice restful states in a variety of sensory modalities

If there is a problem on your mind when you are awake in the middle of the night, jot a note to yourself with the plan of working on addressing it during the day. Then devote your attention to finding and savoring rest. The nervous system responds to this approach and you can eventually become an expert at building a momentum of rest that can accumulate in much the same way that activity can build up in the mind when we’re engaged in thinking. 

With each of the following ideas, try to stick with one for ten-to-twenty minutes before abandoning it. This will help you avoid allowing the exploration to be driven by impatience and panic. If you get bored, investigate your experience of boredom for restful components to exploit.

Recognize Visual Rest (SEE REST)

TRI CITY DRIVE-IN, Hiroshi Sugimoto, 1993

TRI CITY DRIVE-IN, Hiroshi Sugimoto, 1993

One place to look for rest is in the visual field. If your eyes are closed, see if you can find the place behind your eyes where visual thinking seems to occur.

If there are a lot of images, try to become less interested in their meaning and instead try to become familiar with where they are and how they behave: the play of light and form on a two- or three-dimensional screen.

If you notice that the screen is blank, bring as much attention as possible to savoring this restful state for a few seconds at a time.  

If you have a vivid visual imagination, experiment with opening your eyes and using a soft gaze to look out at your environment -- trying to spread your attention broadly instead of zooming into any one object. When you work in this way, you are drawing attention away from the mental screen which can sometimes settle or go blank in response. If you notice this happen, try to savor the instance of rest in the visual aspect of the mind. 

Recognize Auditory Rest (HEAR REST)

Waveform Necklace by Berlin-based designer David Bizer

Waveform Necklace by Berlin-based designer David Bizer

Similarly, you can explore restful states related to hearing in order to get better acquainted with the relationship between listening to sounds and silence as well as listening internally and externally.

I recommend beginning with exploring your environment for sounds. See how many different sounds you can notice while relaxing your interest in the sources of the sounds and refraining from deciding whether you prefer them or not. You will likely be aware of both of these aspects, but try to emphasize the activity of sound itself over your interpretation of it. Let the interpretation be secondary and occur in the background of your awareness.

You can extend this exploration beyond your room into other parts of the house or building. You can even listen for sounds occurring outside. If you experience any momentum in your ability to concentrate, begin to notice whether your verbal thinking is active or quiet as you are absorbed in savoring an external sound. If you notice a break in your internal monologue, try to savor the restfulness of mental quiet for as long as it lasts.

You can also try to listen for silence in the space around you and see what impact that has on your body and mind.

Recognize Physical and Emotional Rest (FEEL REST)

Focus on Relaxation

Focus on Relaxation

Most of us are a bit more familiar with exploring restfulness in the body. We know that it is possible to intentionally tense and relax a muscle. Take advantage of any experience you have using this approach. Simply let your attention be drawn to a restful sensation anywhere in the body, regardless of the size, spread, or intensity. Consider all rest equal and enjoy.

You can also experiment with the breath. The exhale is particularly rich with relaxing sensations. Try to ride out every exhale. Mine each one for instances of relaxation.

Experiment. Be creative. Try to establish a momentum of noticing (or creating) and savoring restful states in the body. 

TIP: If your attention gets pulled to an active state (visual thoughts, sights, verbal thoughts, sounds, physical aches, or emotional-type sensations), see if you can find any place in the body that has relaxed in response to it. Our attention tends to be pulled toward comfort. Distractions are comforting. Get clever about recycling distractions and using them to your advantage in your pursuit of rest.

Finding and Creating Rest in Your Mind and the World Around You (SEE REST, HEAR REST, FEEL REST)

Once you have a general familiarity with the restful states within the various sensory modalities, you can also try letting your attention float freely among them.

Remember, there will always be activity somewhere. I continue to be amazed by how much sound can be present in what we consider to be a quiet room. The same is true with our minds and bodies. It is not the aim of this exercise to insist that there be rest everywhere in and around you. Instead it is to get better at teasing out the rest that is available at any given moment.

Being able to identify and enjoy restful states helps strengthen skill with equanimity. This means that with practice, you get better and better and allowing mental images, internal conversations, and physical and emotional sensations to come and go without getting as tangled up in them.

Options for Working with the Active Feeling States

When you work with restful states, you might be surprised to discover how often emotional sensations in the body are behind the scattered or discursive thinking. For many people, it tends to be easier to notice the thinking process than the related emotional activity related to it. However, as you develop your palate over time for detecting aspects of emotional-type sensations, occasional windows of opportunity will present themselves. 

When you are able to identify sensations in the body that seem to have an emotional flavor, try to get curious about these aspects:

  • Location and geometry: size, shape, spatial distribution
  • Flavor: clear, ill-defined, pleasant (interest, joy, love, gratitude, humor, erotic, peaceful), unpleasant (anger, fear, sadness, embarrassment, impatience, disgust, hopelessness)
  • Intensity: level of activity (mild, medium, strong)
  • Stability: unchanging, flowing

When you are feeling overwhelmed, try to steal a few minutes to try to tease out specific flavors. See how many are present. I have consistently found that the more emotionally overwhelmed I am, the more flavors are present  and not all of them are unpleasant. They seem to bounce off of and intensify each other. Attempting to untangle them and to get better directly acquainted with their unique aspects, one at a time, can begin to decrease the aggregate intensity level.

It’s also important to realize that simply noticing an emotion physically and allowing it to play out can be just as cathartic as externally expressing it. This means that you don’t have to breakdown on live television with Oprah for the expression of your emotion to count. Very often others won't even notice that you are letting yourself feel your feelings. We can develop skills around expressing emotions internally that can be liberating. We can notice the experience of anger when confronted by hostility while maintaining our composure. I also find this fun and easier to do while watching movies. 

If you are able to detect movement or change in the emotional-type sensations in the body, you can tune into the waviness as a way of soothing strategy. Imagine having the option to allow waves of fear or sadness to massage you rather than torment you. This is possible with practice. The nervous system knows how to do it and seems to enjoy it.

When the feelings are particularly intense, try moving back and forth between an active state in the body and any restfulness you can find there  a few seconds savoring the activity, followed by a few seconds savoring rest. Back and forth. Take your time. Try to maintain a comfortable pace. This can significantly strengthen your ability to get better at literally feeling your feelings.

WORTH NOTING: Most people who think they are good at feeling their feelings either have very intense feelings or get really good at describing their related thoughts about them.  

A lot of the time we spend worrying amounts to trying to think our way out of feelings that need to be felt rather than fixed.

PRACTICE IN LIFE: Check in with yourself at random points during the day to see if you can detect any emotional flavors that are coloring your experience. What is it like to feel them in your body? Nobody else needs to know. It can be appropriate to restrict expression externally in social situations, but we want to be careful to avoid developing habits of restricting their expression internally. We don’t have to externally express emotions all the time, but we want to have the capacity to feel them as they appear and release them as they go away. Otherwise we're hoarding a psychological house full of feelings to sort through later.

Celebrate Practice Over Performance

Give yourself credit for any and all of your efforts. Try not to turn mindfulness into one more thing to feel badly about. Emphasize the fact that you gave it your best shot regardless of how an individual practice period played out.

Treat yourself like a child who is interested in learning to play the piano. What encouragement would you give if a child who is experiencing frustration during a specific practice session  or even over longer stretches of time (days, weeks, longer)? How would you try to urge the realistic adjustment of expectations and remind the child about the potential benefits that have become closer as a result of all the discouraging attempts?

You can obviously modify this analogy to fit your own experience, but see if you can trick yourself into being your own best supporter instead of your own worst critic. Don't wait for the world to give you what you need. Give it to yourself. Now. And do what you can to get some rest.


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