We assume that focus is natural and easy to accomplish by just wishing it. But, for many of us, our personal experience may be the opposite. It is rare to hear discussions about what focus means or how to focus. Focus can have two major meanings. There is the meaning of sustained concentration to get a task done. The other meaning is to be absorbed in any activity without distraction. There is the concentration that we need to drive, and the concentration that we need to study for a test, or for any other activity that requires sustained attention. Much like a camera lens, focus helps us to sharpen our concepts and absorb information. Focus literally helps us ‘capture’ information and internalize concepts so that they become part of us. Focus is necessary to connect with the world both in an abstract and physical sense.
Apart from Depression and Anxiety, another major mental health challenge of our times is lack of focus. Whether diagnosed as ADHD or ADD, lack of attention or focus means that our brains are deprived of certain key chemicals or neurotransmitters that help us stay on task for longer periods of time. Many find that they always feel behind their task list. As a society, we desperately need mental health awareness, preventative health, and community-based initiatives to deal with the huge problem of distraction. In the meanwhile, most of us believe that crying is a sign of emotional instability and yawning means that we are not paying attention. The facts are that crying is a serotonin release that helps us clear our emotionally overloaded nervous system and stabilize our emotions. It helps us clear the mind and think clearly. Crying may be one of the healthiest things to do when we are triggered. Contrary to cultural beliefs, yawning doesn’t mean disengagement or boredom. It means instead that our nervous system has switched from flight/fight mode to rest and digest mode. In this mode, our focus may actually increase, because our stress hormones are lower. In a state of lowered stress response, our brains can often absorb more and retain more.
To focus means to hold our attention on one thing. At a time. Focus looks like this: Thought. Pause… Thought. Pause…. Deeper Thought. There are supposed to be empty gaps in between of nothingness…or what is called automatic thoughts or stream of consciousness.
Here’s an example about the reality of our focus:
Overloaded thoughts aren’t efficient, helpful or accurate. They are jumbled up like a box of jigsaw pieces that has been shaken for a while. Our brains are able to hold only 5-6 things at a time. And unlike other muscles in the body, putting more thoughts in doesn’t make it more efficient. What helps our focus improve is to take thoughts out. Just like decluttering our homes, decluttering our brain is a necessary function to stay in control of our lives.
Below is a simple but fabulous meditation exercise that increases brain cells, strengthens neural networks and deletes redundant thinking. It is very helpful for building focus, and enhancing problem-solving ability that we need for higher brain activities required in education and exam scenarios.
Countdown Exercise – This is a 10-minute practice to train your brain to focus
1. Be in a physically comfortable place. Lying down or sitting are both fine.
2. Practice 4-7-8 breathing pattern (inhale count of 4, hold count of 7, exhale count of 8 for 2 minutes) You can also substitute with another breathing pattern of your choice, such as box breathing, or 6:1:6 etc.
3. Close your eyes or with your eyes open, Imagine the number 50.
4. Imagine the number 50 disappearing. Then imagine 49. Make it disappear.
5. Continue watching numbers appear and disappear from 49-to 1, until all numbers are gone.
6. Rest for a couple of minutes then continue with your day/evening.
You can practice this focus exercise prior to sleeping or at any time in the day. Daily practice will give the best results.
Author: Saima Shah, MBA, CHT, RTC
As a therapeutic counsellor, it is my job to help people find new and healthier ways to cope and adapt to challenges.