TK DUTES, HOST:
This is NPR's LIFE KIT, and I'm T.K. Dutes. The news can be a lot.
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STEVE INSKEEP: How will we get everyone vaccinated?
ARI SHAPIRO: Record-breaking wildfires in the West have destroyed more than 10,000 homes and buildings this year.
LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO: But the president's diagnosis has added chaos to a White House...
INSKEEP: Now, these shootings came in a night of protest after a grand jury ruling.
DUTES: It seems like there are two options when faced with all this information. Either you're oversaturated, totally plugged in, can't stop thinking about it and stressed out by it all, or you're checked out and completely ignoring it because it's all too much. Me, I'm a little bit of both.
JUDSON BREWER: Yeah, I think we should just find a nice hole and, you know, dig ourselves and just bury ourselves in the dirt for a while.
DUTES: That's Dr. Judson Brewer. He's the director of research and innovation at the Mindfulness Center at Brown University and the executive medical director of behavioral health at Sharecare. If you can't bury yourself in a hole, don't worry. He has some mindfulness tips to help you cope with the stress and anxiety of this news cycle and this year's election.
BREWER: This comes down to understanding how our minds work.
DUTES: This episode of LIFE KIT, what's actually happening in your brain when you feel overwhelmed, how to combat the feeling of restriction and some practical breathing techniques that can bring you back to the moment. Hey, Dr. Jud.
BREWER: Hey, T.K.
DUTES: Nice to be with you today. And I really need your guidance on a couple things.
DUTES: So the news, the election coming up - I'm scared. My nerves are frazzled. It's all coming at me in waves. And it seems like a really impossible time to start talking about or thinking about mindfulness. Is this even possible right now?
BREWER: So I would say one thing that we haven't been great at as a society is knowing how our own minds work. If we don't know how our minds work, we can't possibly learn to work with any of these things that you're talking about.
So worry is actually a maladaptive mechanism of our brain that was - that's kind of built on two components. One is kind of fear, and fear is generally helpful for survival, right? So if we learn to fear - I don't know. Our ancient ancestors learned to have feared the saber tooth tiger or whatever the proverbial animal was, right? It helped us survive for the future. So if we weren't afraid (laughter), we became lunch. So fear is actually helpful. Yet - and that's kind of our ancient survival brain. You can think of - on top of our ancient survival brain, we've layered this new brain literally called the neocortex. And it helps us survive in a different way through thinking and planning, OK? Now, in order to think and plan, we need accurate information. Ah, yes. Ah.
BREWER: That's the piece that's missing.
BREWER: So we - our brains simulate future scenarios based on past scenarios that we've been in and pair that with information. If we don't have accurate information, that thinking and planning part of the brain - it's still active. It's still saying, I'm going to do this. I'm going to do this. And we can say to our brain, what are you going to do? You don't know what to do.
BREWER: And what it's doing is it's starting to spin out and worry.
DUTES: What does that do to our ability to remember? - 'cause I'm finding my - I'm so scattered, more so than ever before. Is that part of - we're so filled with worry thoughts that we can't - we don't have space to remember.
BREWER: Yes, I think there are two pieces there. We've got a part of our brain called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. It's involved in working memory. So working memory is, like, keeping things in mind - if you're trying to remember a grocery list or something like that, OK? So you can think of that as analogous to a computer processor. So your computer has a certain amount of working memory space - right? - RAM - right? - random access memory. And when that gets filled up, it can't take any more information. It can't hold any more information, and it tends to freeze. You get that spinning circle of, oh my goodness, this is not good.
BREWER: Our brains are like that, too. So if our brains are filled up with a bunch of worry, then trying to hold any other information in that space is not going to - it's not going to go well.
DUTES: OK. So my solution to all of this is to check out and not participate. Like, lately, I've definitely been closing all the tabs on my computer, turning off and just - maybe just watching - like, bingeing a show on TV. But really, what can we do if we want to stay informed without spiraling into this anxiety and fear and clogging up our brains with all this random access memory that, you know, isn't helpful to us?
BREWER: So you can think of the first step as being able to map out these processes, and it's actually relatively simple. From a survival standpoint, it only has three core elements - a trigger, a behavior and a result. So if the trigger is not feeling good, which can be any negative emotion - right? - because it doesn't feel good, the behavior is this tendency to go and check out because our natural response is, oh, this is unpleasant. Make it go away, OK? So that tendency then has a result, and if that result is rewarding in the sense of it feels better than sitting with that emotional, you know, oomph or that...
BREWER: ...Stuff that doesn't feel good, then we're actually going to get in the habit of doing these things. That's the first step - is just understanding the process. So if we can see how our minds work, only then can we start to work with them.
The second step would be to really tap into our brain's reward-based learning system in itself and say, OK, well, if the brain is going to do things that are rewarding, then let's find how rewarding this thing actually is. So we can feel into this not in a way to judge ourselves because we're all great at judging ourselves and judging each other, too (laughter), you know? But we can look at this and say, oh, wow. Did that serve me...
BREWER: ...You know, in a kind way and curious? And be like, oh, that probably wasn't that helpful, and feel into that because it's the feeling body that drives future behaviors, not the thinking brain. So this feeling body is going to be like, ugh (ph), that wasn't that great. And when that happens, that's a critical point because our brain has just updated that reward value for that behavior. And if we can bring that to mind the next time we're about to do that behavior, we might be less excited to do it in the future. And with as few as 10 or 15 times of people really paying attention, that reward value significantly drops.
DUTES: Yeah. So I guess you could do that with the news you take in, too. The news is what's giving me the trouble - the constant updates, the one channel pitting people against each other. And, you know, it's just a lot. So I can say, OK, well, I've watched this amount of news, and how do I feel? And now I'm escaping from this news, and how does that make me feel? And I need to know how both of those things make me feel so that I can decide whether I need to - I want to participate, right?
BREWER: Absolutely. And you're actually touching on this third step. So after we see how unrewarding the old behavior is, we can then bring in what I call the BBO - the bigger, better offer.
DUTES: All right.
BREWER: And that BBO can be as simple as not watching as much news. So simple experiment that anybody can do - what's it like to constantly be checking the news all day and setting our phones so that we get an update with any breaking news and all that? How does that compare to checking the news maybe once or twice a day?
DUTES: Let's kind of get into what's the real big-ticket item. And maybe you can give me a BBO for that - right? - a big better offer for this presidential election.
DUTES: No matter what side you're on, it's going to be a stressful time for folks. You know, we're in this pandemic. Folks are having to vote early, mask up. Like, it's kind of nerve-wracking just to stand in the line, let alone vote for whoever you want to vote for. Do you have any stress-reducing tips for folks that want to make a difference with their vote but are just really stressed out by the whole idea of going outside, standing on a line, just - and the whole process?
BREWER: Here, we can bring in and think of it as the fire extinguisher, so to speak, if we're going to use that analogy. I like some simple mindfulness practices. For example, there's one called five-finger breathing, and it's basically like this. You want to do it together?
DUTES: Yeah. Let's do it.
BREWER: OK, so take one hand and hold it up. Spread your fingers apart, and then take the index finger of your other hand and place it at the outside base of your pinky, OK? And as you breathe in, just trace up your finger, and feel what your finger feels like, and feel your breath at the same time.
BREWER: And pause at the tip, and as you breathe out, trace down the inside of your pinky.
BREWER: Pause at the base. As you breathe in, trace up the outside of your ring finger.
BREWER: Pause at the top. As you trace down...
BREWER: ...Breathe out. As you trace up the outside of your middle finger...
BREWER: ...Breathe in. Pause, and as you breathe out, trace down the inside of your middle finger.
BREWER: OK, we're going to stop there. But you can imagine we could do all five fingers for five breaths. We could do back from our thumb to our pinky for ten breaths. And what that does - I don't - well, you tell me. What did that feel like just to do that?
DUTES: I feel extremely relaxed already, and we only did three fingers. And I'm imagining if I was on line somewhere, even at the post office, I could do this if I can catch myself. But to get to the five-finger breathing, how do we know that we have to do it? Like, how do we know in our bodies that we have to go from, I just snapped or I'm about to snap, to, I need to fix it?
BREWER: Yeah. So there's a common element there, which is this feeling of contraction or closed-downness (ph), right? And I say it's common because this is common to frustration. It's common to anger. It's common to anxiety - you know, to all these things. It's just - we just feel contracted, you know? It's like, I'm going to explode. So at any level of contraction, we can kind of think of that as a mindfulness bell that says, ding. Oh, I'm feeling contracted, or I'm closing down, right? Even that act of closing down can be an awareness spell that says, hey; this might be a good time to bring in an awareness practice.
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BREWER: And it can even be - it can even start with something as simple as just anchoring our awareness in the present moment. So if we're feeling so contracted or feeling so anxious that our body just feels red hot, we can actually anchor ourselves in simply hearing sounds and get curious. Oh, what do I hear around me? And that anchoring externally is still anchoring us in the present moment but helps us anchor in a place where it's not that raging forest fire.
DUTES: Thank you so much.
BREWER: Thank you.
DUTES: So to recap, Step 1 - notice how you feel when you get riled up or feel anxious about the news or really anything.
BREWER: So trigger, behavior, result. What is it? So if it's anxiety, what's the trigger? What's - you know, worry thinking tends to be the behavior. What's the result of that?
DUTES: Step 2 - ask yourself what you got from that behavior.
BREWER: What's it feel like to get riled up? What's it feel like to get frustrated? How does this feel, right? And we can start to update that reward value in our brain.
DUTES: Step 3 - and I love a prize - we got to find that BBO, the bigger, better offer.
BREWER: Just to use the example of divisiveness versus connectedness. We can just feel into and remind ourselves, what's it feel like when I'm divided, whether it's my own family or community or country? What's it feel like when I'm connected, when we're all here together with a common cause, which is, you know, health and happiness?
DUTES: And finally, remember your five-finger breathing.
For more NPR LIFE KIT, check out our other episodes. We have an interview with meditation rock star Tara Brach and another on how to start a creative habit, plus tons of other episodes on parenting, personal finance and health. You can find those at npr.org/lifekit. And if you love LIFE KIT and want more, subscribe to our newsletter at npr.org/lifekitnewsletter.
This episode was produced by Clare Marie Schneider. Meghan Keane is our managing producer. Beth Donovan is our senior editor, and I'm TK Dutes. Thanks for listening.
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