To Be or To Do? By Dr. Adrianne Ahern
“There is more to life than increasing its speed.”
We often start the New Year thinking of all we want to change and to accomplish. We take stock
of what we didn't achieve last year and vow to do better. We create goals for performance. We
write affirmations about all the things we want to have. We set deadlines for all we want to put
But is life all about "doing" more and more? The truth is that we want to do or have or accomplish
those things because we think it will make us happier. But what if happiness is a state of being beyond the doing and having? And what if a different type of focus – other than the tight focus of goals and achievement – could actually help us accomplish more while enjoying the ride?
Where We Start
Too many of us have lives crammed with activities and appointments, obligations and events. We
can be and should be proud of what we can get done in a day, but what happened to the
satisfaction? Do we even allow ourselves time to bask in a task or goal completed? Do we ever
savor the deliciousness of our activities themselves? We move so quickly that often we blank out,
numb to the nuances of our interactions with others, the taste of our food, the beauty of our
Because, honestly, who has time?
We've become a culture of multi-taskers: we apply make-up while driving, talk on our cell phones
while shopping for groceries, eat breakfast and pack the kids‘ lunch while watching the news.
We've packed every moment to get the most we can into the minutes we have.
We‘ve become habituated to living our life stressed out. The symptoms of stress are like the air
we breathe—our tense jaws, face and neck muscles, our sleepless nights, our irritability and
impatience, our vague sense of worry and anxiety, our headaches and minor body aches. These
have become so integral to our lives that we have lost the sense that there could be another way.
Any of this sound familiar?
How We Keep It Going: Tense Focus
The odd paradox is that the fast paced, narrow focus on "doing" that causes us stress, also
serves as a coping strategy. Here's how it works: A negative feeling arises, like anxiousness or
fear. We unconsciously seek out distractions or actions and focus intently on them. For a short time, this focus on "doing" effectively keeps us from feeling our anxiety or fear. The busier we are, the less time or opportunity we have to truly feel negative emotions. But it's a vicious cycle: The more we distract ourselves from feeling our emotions via increased action, the more stress we
create on our systems. And, the more habituated we become to the stress itself.
Our Internal System Sends Signals
We do finally "get it." But this awareness often comes when our systems can no longer deal with
this crazy stress. We find ourselves with high blood pressure, alcoholism, diabetes, obesity,
depression, anxiety, IBS, etc, etc. We wake up one morning and realize that we are constantly
frustrated or angry, 20-30 pounds overweight, or feeling trapped and exhausted. We don‘t know
how to slow down, wind down or relax. We don‘t know how to bring balance back into our life—is
that even a possibility?
How did we get here? And, more importantly, how to we get out of here?
It's Not the "Facts" that Causes Stress
Before we go further, we need to debunk the myth that "stress is just a fact of modern life."
Stress is a perception more than anything. Though some circumstances are admittedly more
stress-prone than others, it is our perception of circumstances that truly governs our stress levels.
It's our state of focus.
Think of a time when you have been in The Zone. We've all been there. You may have
experienced this state during a crisis that required immediate action: all of a sudden you find that
you are emotionally calm, mentally focused, able to act swiftly to handle whatever was necessary
in the situation. Or you may have experienced this state during love-making: when time seemed
to slow down and you were completely immersed in the wonderful sensations and heart-
expanding emotion of those moments. You may have experienced this state while running a
marathon or after giving birth. The Zone is not reserved for peak performers.
Whatever the circumstance, you – your body, mind, psyche – do not experience stress in The
Zone. You do not have the tight, narrow focus of goal-setting, getting things done. You have a
broader, softer focus.
Can we live our lives from this Zone? This softer, broader focus? Let me offer some practices that
you might want to employ in the New Year:
Soft Focus in the Moment
Some stress is obvious: Your boss calls with an impossible project to be completed within an
impossible timeline. Your child/pet/spouse has a critical health situation. Your mortgage is due
and you don't have the funds. Your car falls apart. Your parent dies suddenly. Within the first
moments of this stressful situation, use the following exercise to rebalance your nervous system
and bring calmness, clarity, and creativity back into your life.
One-Minute Stress Buster --
1. Acknowledge the stress—the feelings of irritability, frustration, anger, boredom, fear,
2. Focus on your heart center. Shift your focus from the negative experience of the stress
to your heart center. Place your hand over this area of your body to facilitate your ability
to fully attend to your heart center. As you do this, you are connecting with yourself and
centering yourself in the moment.
3. Breathe with your heart. Imagine that as you inhale and exhale your breath is going in
and out through your heart center.
4. Activate a positive feeling—recall a positive experience that stimulates a feeling of
caring, appreciation, joy, or gratitude and breathe with attention to this feeling.
The power is in the positive experience of the feeling. This 4-step process literally stops the flow
of the stress hormone in your body and releases the vitality hormone (DHEA) which is associated
not only with stress reduction, but anti-aging, weight-loss, increased immune functioning, and
Almost every woman I work with in my workshops and seminars struggles with stress caused by
multi-tasking engendered and reinforced by our fast paced and narrowly focused lifestyles. Karen,
a 41 year-old woman who just reentered the workplace and has 3 young children. She feels
pulled in all directions and her performance in all areas of her life is suffering. Sound familiar?
I trained Karen on the exercise above. Now when she arrives at work and gets a flurry of calls
from her kids and husband, she has learned to acknowledge her feelings of irritability and
frustration in the moment. As she acknowledges her feelings of stress, she places her hand over
her heart to center herself. A deep slow breath allows Karen to experience a moment of relief
from her overactive thinking. In that moment of release, she recalls the image of her 2-year old‘s
smile, bringing a positive feeling to her heart and shifting her into a calm and creative state of
mind and body. This whole practice takes a maximum of 20 seconds. Karen has also found that
her calm has a ripple effect on those around her. As she continues to practice centeredness, she
has seen a noticeable positive shift in her boss, co-workers, spouse and children.
Retraining Focus: From Narrow (stressful) Focus to Open (stress-free) Focus
Learning to master our nervous system, the seat of which is the brain, is the hottest topic today.
Scientists are attempting to unlock how our brain works. We know that the brain has brainwaves
of different frequencies and we know when our brain is generating alpha waves we feel relaxed,
yet alert, energized and refreshed. We can train ourselves, our brains, to slow down and relax
and yet remain alert—and we can do this by intentionally increasing the amount of alpha in our
Try this experiment: Right now, become aware that you are focusing on the words on this page.
Now, allow yourself to imagine the space between you and the words on this page. Focus there,
on the space between you and the page. Sitting right where you imagine that you can sense–
taste, smell, hear, feel and see—the space between and surrounding you and this magazine. As you open up your attention to the wholeness of your experience your brain begins to generate
alpha. What difference do you feel? Are you suddenly more relaxed, broader, and clearer? Go
back to the narrow focus on the words on the page. What are the sensations, thoughts?
Research shows short term effects of generating an alpha state are positive changes in mood,
less tension and anxiety. And, long-term effects can include improved memory, clearer thinking,
and increased creativity (for more information go to www.OpenFocus.com).
When we pay attention in a flexible way— where we are aware of the periphery of our experience and are using all our senses to experience our surroundings—we are more alert, creative,
productive, spontaneous, and we experience less stress.
New Year’s Daily Practices
Learning to generate alpha waves is as easy as finding your breathing rhythm and paying
attention to how you to pay attention.
Our lives have become frenetic. How can a busy person find time to include a new practice in
their busy lives? Ask yourself, ―Do I have time for balance in my life? How valuable would it to
finally achieve my New Year‘s resolution? Is it important to me to feel less stress and more
creativity—to reach a higher level of performance at work?‖
The secret to finding time for these practices is to throw out all your preconceived notions about
how one should practice and where the practice should take place. Use the moments at a traffic
light or while sitting in a waiting room. An easy time and place to begin this new practice is in the
# 1 Breathe into Alpha:
Sitting quietly, become aware of your breathing
Feel as your breathing comes to a calm and natural rhythm
Sitting right where you are imagine the space between you and the objects around you—the door,
the wall, the ceiling, artwork, etc.
Imagine the space surrounding you
As you imagine the space surrounding you, your brain is generating alpha waves
Imagine the space around your heart
Imagine you are able to breathe with your heart—as you inhale and exhale imagine your heart is inhaling and exhaling with you
Imagine the space surrounding and permeating your heart as you breathe with your heart
As you breathe with your heart and the space surrounding and permeating the heart,
acknowledge that your brain is generating alpha
Imagine the space around your brain
Imagine you are able to breathe with your brain—as you inhale and exhale imagine your brain is inhaling and exhaling with you
Imagine the space surrounding and permeating your brain as you breathe with your brain
As you breathe with your brain and the space surrounding and permeating the brain,
acknowledge that your brain is generating alpha
Acknowledge how you are feeling in this moment
Imagine that you will practice this exercise each day.
Be creative with this practice—for example, you can train your facial muscles to release tension
by imagining the space between your eyes…between your temples…between your cheek bones...
and between your jaw and nasal cavity, etc. The longer your brain is able to create and sustain
alpha waves, the longer you will experience the benefits of alpha—increased energy, focus and
The mind likes to attach itself to something—an idea, a thought, a problem. The suggestion to imagine the ‗space‘ around you does a few things—it gives your mind some ‗thing‘ to focus on and it shifts your experience from ‗thinking‘ to ‗sensing.‘ When we are sensing, we are not
thinking. As we focus with our senses, the brain generates alpha and we are giving our brain a
#2 Journal to Set Your Right Brain Free
In an article titled, The Health Benefits of Journaling, Maud Purcell writes, ―The act of writing accesses your left brain, which is analytical and rational. While your left brain is occupied, your
right brain is free to create, intuit and feel. In sum, writing removes mental blocks and allows you
to use all of your brainpower to better understand yourself, others and the world around you.‖
Figure out a time of day where you can scribble your thoughts. Start by writing for just five or ten
minutes at a specific time each day, maybe right before bed or with your morning coffee. The
minutes you spend journaling will make the other minutes and hours of your day much more
productive and more relaxing.
For those of you who have not journaled before, do not try to make your journal a brilliant literary
work! Don't worry about penmanship, punctuation or grammar! Let your thoughts about anything
and everything flow onto the paper. Just sit down, put pen to paper, and trust the process. If you
still feel stuck or self-conscious, try the following to get yourself started:
Write about what you see in front of you
Write about what you see in your peripheral vision
Write about what you smell, taste and hear
Write about how you feel physically, emotionally
Write about someone you love
Write about a happy memory or fun experience
Write about your favorite time of year or favorite place
Oscar Wilde, 19th century playwright, said: ―I never travel without my diary. One should always
have something sensational to read on the train.‖
I encourage you to follow these practices to enhance your all around experience of all that you do
and all that you have. By accessing these more relaxed, more productive and creative mental
states regularly, you just might actually achieve your other New Year‘s resolutions for the very
first time as well! As Marcel Proust wrote:
"The real voyage of discovery consists of not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes."
Byline:Dr. Adrianne Ahern is a peak performance psychologist and author of Snap Out of it Now! Her innovative tools, including neurofeedback, inspirational lectures, and life-changing workshops
offer practical tools and techniques to train our brains to work for us, not against us. For more
information, please visit: www.SnapOutofitNow.com.