Amit Sood grew up in Bhopal, India, and saw firsthand the stress and anguish caused by the leak of a toxic gas in 1984 at the local Union Carbide plant, perhaps the world’s greatest industrial disaster.
When he came to the United States in 1995, he thought the country would be one big Disneyland, with everybody happy. He was shocked at the stress he found among his patients – it seemed, given his background, as if there was no real cause for the mental pain they were experiencing.
“I realized that people can have more stress than the situation warrants,” Dr. Sood, a professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine, said in an interview.
He studied stress, its causes and how the brain works, and has developed a stress-free living program he uses with his Mayo Clinic patients. “You can choose for your brain to be in Disneyland,” he said. “You have a great amount of control on interpreting what is happening around you.” And that interpretation need not be fantasy land.
For example, he is 47. He figures he has about 15,000 days left in his life. He can spend those days stewing about things that aren’t going right. Or he can strive to make the world a better place. In doing so, he picks his battles carefully. He doesn’t sweat the small stuff. He picks battles worthy of his time (and attention).
Our mind constantly wanders, feeding on external issues to worry about. He says one study showed that we spend 50 to 80 per cent of our time with our mind wandering. At this moment, he says, two billion people have their minds wandering.
Instead, he believes we have to focus on attention training and grab control of our psyche, principles at the core of his recent book, The Mayo Clinic Guide to Stress-Free Living. It starts by strengthening our attention and giving it direction. You must become mentally and physically present in more of your life, instead of ruminating about the past or the future.
He said we can learn this from children. When he arrives home, his youngest daughter, who is three, gives him immediate attention and doesn’t try to improve him. She views him as novel, each time, and avoids judgment. “So find more novelty around you and avoid judgment for as long as you can,” he said in the interview.
He recommends that, upon awakening, you lie in bed and think of five individuals whom you are grateful are part of your life. Spend some time thinking of each person, and what you treasure. This starts the day with joyful attention, rather than a frenzy of activity, and his patients have found that can carry them through the morning in a much better frame of mind.
The exercise can be repeated during the day if you wish, while waiting at a traffic light or before heading into a meeting you fear will be stressful.
Or take time to ponder things around you anew, looking for novelty. When you arrive home, do you quickly hug your spouse, your mind still in the office, and then head off for chores or the computer? Try paying attention.
Beating stress also requires you to refine your interpretation of your experiences. As you pay attention, information comes into your working memory and when interpreted creates an experience. You need to control those interpretations. And again, he reminds us of how we deal with children: “Look at the world the way you want to look at your kids.”
We have a tendency to make quick judgments that tend to be negative as we meet new people and bump our way through life. Instead, he wants you to channel your thoughts so they are more positive and nurturing.
His program sets out five key approaches, each to be your theme on a given day of the workweek:
Gratitude: Be thankful. When things go wrong, focus on what went right.
Compassion: “Remember that an expression other than love is a call for help. If my wife is upset, it is better for me to see it as a cry for help,” he said.
Acceptance: Be open to life, accepting others, yourself and situations that you are in. All humans have flaws and are fallible. You can accept them without embracing their imperfections.
Higher meaning: Humans seek meaning. Clarify who are you, why you exist, and what is this world. Try in each moment to do things that are meaningful to you at that time.
Forgiveness: Let go, at least one day a week if you can’t forgive some people forever. “Forgiveness is for you, not for the forgiven,” he said.
The program is rounded out on Saturday with celebration and on Sunday with reflection and, if you are religious, prayer.
In time, as you train yourself in these practices, they can occur throughout the week, intertwined, helping you to refine your world so that you are living in Disneyland rather than stressland.
Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter