Some of the happiest moments of my life were spent on my grandmother's porch. On a halcyonic Cape Cod bay, I always felt safe there. It wasn't just the epic view and summer sun; it was where she was -- reading, debating politics, emphasizing the essential nature of an afternoon nap. My Grahm passed six years ago, but I can go to the porch every day if I choose.
Whether you work too many hours or you are a parent at home with kids who just won't leave you alone, we all need a break. Most of us are in need of a vacation, but we just don't have the time.
Thankfully, our brains are made to help. You've heard for years that we only use a percentage of our brains. Not at all true. What's true is that we don't know how to consciously use our brains to take advantage of our best experiences and use them to make every 24-hour period happier and healthier.
Your brain has a memory center where every single experience is stored. Your brain has a thinking center, which, like a librarian, can pull up those memories and focus on them any time you choose. Most of us have never been taught how to take advantage of using our memories to reduce stress and, as a result, enjoy where you are right now more fully.
The technique is called O2, and it's a simplification of what's been used to help those recovering from the worst traumatic stress.
The first step is to open the pathway between the alarm in your brain, which produces the chemicals you experience as stress, and your frontal lobes, the thinking center you can use to focus on anything you choose.
The reason this is so important is that if you don't let your alarm know that you're in control of what you want to think about and feel, it will keep flooding your body with stress chemicals like adrenaline. That's when you feel on edge. That's when you feel out of control. There is nothing wrong with you in these moments; your brain just has you on automatic pilot like an animal reacting to its surroundings.
You can open the pathway by taking a few breathes, slowing down, closing your eyes and listening to your surroundings. It doesn't take much, just a few seconds of intentionally paying attention to where you are at this very moment.
When you open the pathway, you won't instantly feel better. In fact, you might feel worse. Instead of ignoring stress, you just noticed that you are stressed, maybe even really stressed. But don't worry, it is noticing of what you're really feeling in the moment that proves your thinking center is online.
With your thinking center online, now you can choose to switch your focus from reacting, from feeling stressed, to whatever thoughts and feelings you want to experience. To orient is to choose what is most important to you right now and only think about that idea, image, or memory. In the case of a two-minute vacation, it is closing your eyes and remembering the look, feel, smell, and even taste (who doesn't like a drink with an umbrella) of the place you most love to relax and refresh.
Here's how it works. Whether at your desk, in the library at school, or you escape to a closet in the house to hide from the kids, create a few minutes where all you have to do is imagine where you love to be.
Open the pathway by listening to the sounds surrounding you. Or, breathe deeply twice. You might prefer to loosen your shoulders and wiggle your toes. In each case, choose to be where you are.
Orient on the memory of your favorite vacation. For me, I like to go back and forth between watching an osprey dive for its dinner and sipping a gin and tonic with my Grahm. She always has something to say about the expedition to the dunes we'll take in the morning or how rare the sunset will be in a few hours. Just making the space to remember, my day always resets and recenters.
Most of us live so alarmed these days because we're chasing the real -- kids, work, household duties -- and imagined -- I must do more, be more, make more -- needs of life. The world may continue to be more chaotic and confusing; the best news is that your brain is ready to help you stay grounded and whole if you choose to use it.
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