Two years ago as I sat in a lecture room at Genrose, the mental health arm of St. Mary’s Hospital in Rochester, Minnesota, the director of the residential addiction clinic told us we were in for a treat. Dr. Amit Sood, an internist who incorporates a wealth of wisdom from Eastern medicine into practice for Mayo Clinic’s Complementary and Integrative Medicine program, is sought after for his executive-oriented lecture series on connecting the mind and body through the ancient art of mindfulness. The integration of Eastern medicine into Western hospitals and clinics in recent years mirrors a trend of post-modern medical realism: That is, we simply don’t have a pill or a procedure for everything, and never will, and drawing on the intangible powers of our mind to connect with bodies and each other on the spiritual, metaphysical level raises a font of healing that may bridge the gap between God and the limitations of science. Dr. Sood is among the growing number of practitioners in the U.S. who seek to distill the best of the old world and infuse it into the evidence-based state of the art.
We were eager to meet this Dr. Sood, an unassuming Eastern Indian man with a mustache. He seemed calm and genuinely happy, despite a demanding international speaking schedule squeezed between shifts in the hospital. He explained how evolution has wired us to react to stressful stimuli with a fight or flight response, which in most cases, is grossly disproportionate to situations called for in modern reality. A creditor calling about a past-due account shows up on our caller ID, and we get a shot of adrenaline big enough to help us out-run a hungry lion. We reach for the phone to ask a girl to the dance, and our palms sweat like we’re stuck on the tenth-floor ledge of a burning building. Things that can’t kill us often feel like they can.
His tips for living in the moment, a major aspect of mindfulness, included looking for something you’ve never noticed before on your morning walk to work, and when you get home from work, hug your spouse as if you haven’t seen them in ten years. But as a pathological worrier, what hit home for me most about his lecture was the concept of ‘scheduled worry time.’
In a nutshell, the practice of having scheduled worry time involves setting aside a small, definite amount of time each day or each week to actively worry about everything your life that needs to be worried about. During those 30 minutes a week or five minutes a day, you make the tough phone calls you’ve been putting off, respond to emails containing bad news, open the bills you don’t want to open, and confront whomever you need to confront. The rest of your time, you actively dispel worrisome thoughts the moment they arise and immediately refocus your attention back to
whatever is right in front of you – that is, unless the thing you’re worrying about requires immediate action, such as someone pointing a gun at you or a co-worker collapsing near your desk. By actively engaging in this practice, we in theory begin to see a reduction in habitual worrying and become more effective both in the moment and more effective at addressing our problems during worry time. New neural networks form in the brain, he told us, and that can lead to long term physical health benefits, such as reduced production of the stress hormone cortisol, which in turn can make things like losing weight and getting better sleep easier. All of those things, and more, contribute to us actually looking and feeling better; from there, we realize better self esteem, become more effective at work and maintaining healthy relationships, and wind up in the upward spiral toward life satisfaction – all from a simple change in the way we manage worrisome thoughts.
Of course, like changing any habit, this practice takes practice. It takes constant self reminders to put thoughts that break out of the worry box back where they belong – until WE have decided to address them. I’m just beginning to practice this technique in my own life and brain, and I can feel it working when I put forth the effort. Happy people live in the present. Right now, I’m holding a half empty (oh, wait, half full) cup of iced tea. The summer humidity is condensing into little cool beads that make the clear plastic look like the surface of a semi-opaque shower door, and the beads that grow big enough are falling to the base of the cup, forming a watery ring – that slightly tries to hold on to the cup when I pick it up to take an icy sip.
Onward and Upward, Kirk Klocke