Can you remember what curiosity feels like? Anything we get curious about we have to get closer and pay more attention to. Curiosity draws us in. It’s a courageous attitude, also one we all have from childhood. Learn to be with your thoughts and sensations in a particular way that isn’t as bad as anxiety by bringing an attitude of curiosity into the moment.
In the very moment when anxiety is being injected with curiosity we may already making anxiety less awful. That’s one of the non-judgemental qualities of mindfulness.
Put this into practice with the following simple exercise.
Stress testing curiosity
- Find a comfortable position in a quiet place where you’re able to concentrate for a minute or two without being distracted.
- Notice whether you feel any stress or anxiety right now?
- If you’re not feeling stress or anxiety at present, let’s see whether you can remember a recent episode of being at least a little bit anxious or stressed. Recall how it felt at the time and work on that feeling.
- What sensation can you feel most strongly in your body right now that’s associated with stress or anxiety?
Describe how it feels by using short phrases such as tightness, pressure, contraction, heaviness, restlessness, shallow breath, burning, tension, clenching, heat, cold, butterflies in the stomach etc.
- After becoming aware of the particular sensation stay with it for a second whole-heartedly (or with courage).
- Now let’s be curious: is it more in the right side of your body or is it in the left? Is it more on the front or in the back? Left or right? Back or front? Just explore the opposite sides? Pick the one where the sensation is the strongest.
- When you were picking one of these what did you notice? Check in with your body. It’s totally irrelevant what you’ve picked.
It’s about the investigation itself. Was there anything noticeable about being curious in which side of your body the sensation was stronger?
How was it?
Some people experience that stepping a little closer to the sensation instead of trying to block it has lessened the intensity of it. Do this stress test any time you become aware of being caught in an anxiety habit loop. It may increase your natural capacity to be aware of what’s happening in your body and your mind in any given moment.
If you’ve noticed that being curious even for second helped you stay with your sensations longer than in the past you’ve taken a huge step toward changing your relationship with anxiety. Curiosity is a built in human behaviour that leads to unwinding, connecting and joy. The instinct of seeking has been with us from the first days of our lives.
Not all rewards of our habit cycles are the same. Habit loops are usually driven by external behaviours and hence rewards. Meaning that we depend on something outside of us to make us feel better. We turn to food, drinks, alcohol, drugs, shopping, our phones to distract or numb us briefly.
Internal behaviours and rewards are inside of us. Always available. Feel anxiety coming on? Get curious what it exactly feels like? Where is it in your body? Then learn to notice the internal rewards that follow curiosity naturally. Acknowledge that little bit of unwinding if it happened. Pause for a moment, feel how mind and body relaxed and strengthen the new action generated reward this way.
We can change our brain – we can change ourselves
Tapping into curiosity utilises the Reward Based Learning System in our brains. We can now replace one type of behaviour with another. We’ve replaced doing something with simply being in a natural state (the state of being curious). Over time the power of internal reward overcomes the power of the external reward. Being rather than doing. This is what mindfulness is all about.
We replace our habitual behaviours of distracting ourselves with a healthier action that makes us more resilient. The same process helps us step out of a habit that locked us in before. We shine light on the ‘unhealthy mind habits’ with kind and curious awareness. This is how we can unlearn maladaptive behaviours and replace them with more helpful ones.
(Adapted from psychiatrist and neuroscientist Judson Brewer Md PhD)