According to a very interesting study, most people (especially men) don’t really enjoy sitting alone…quietly…just thinking. They tend to get caught in negative thought cycles, called rumination.
Perhaps that’s why so many Americans reported spikes in anxiety and depression during the coronavirus lockdowns…since we had much more downtime, alone with our swirling thoughts!
Well, the good news is, there’s a simple, five-minute, daily habit that can reduce rumination, improve your mental focus, and even increase the size of certain areas in your brain!
Let’s jump right in…
Most people don’t enjoy quiet alone time
In a series of 11 related studies, researchers with the University of Virginia (UVA) asked participants to sit alone quietly with nothing to do but think for anywhere from six to 15 minutes. Some participants were instructed to think about whatever they wanted. Others were given a “thinking prompt,” such as going out to eat or playing a sport. Then, the participants answered questions about their experience.
Many of the first studies involved college students, most of whom said they didn’t enjoy the “thinking period” at all—and found it hard to concentrate.
So, in a later study, the researchers recruited participants from a broad selection of backgrounds, ranging in age from 18 to 77 years. They suspected that older participants might do better sitting alone quietly.
But here again—they found that even most of the older adults did not enjoy the quiet alone time.
Next, the researchers took a third approach…
They again had the participants sit alone quietly during a 15-minute “thinking period”—with the added option of giving themselves a mild electric shock by pressing a button during the session.
(All participants had been given a sample shock earlier in the study. And all of them had reported they would pay to avoid this shock again!)
Well, when they had to sit through another 15-minute “thinking period,” 67 percent of men gave themselves at least one shock. And 25 percent of women did the same!
In their summary, the researchers suggested that people have a hard time controlling their thoughts—and perhaps cannot steer them in “pleasant directions” when left alone. So, researchers suggested people practice mindfulness meditation to help them gain better control of where their mind takes them.
Mindfulness can help ward off dark thoughts
You may never have been stuck in an empty room for 15 minutes with nothing—except your own thoughts—to keep you company.
But over the last 18 months, all of us have had to endure a similar kind of forced isolation…thanks to all the government-mandated lockdowns. And that forced isolation probably explains, at least in part, why so many people report feeling more anxious and depressed than ever. It also probably relates to why so many people are having more trouble sleeping.
Fortunately, as the UVA researchers suggested, practicing mindfulness meditation CAN help. Plus, even though it takes just five minutes, it can help you gain control over your thought patterns throughout the entire day!
And perhaps most impressively, one recent study found that mindfulness can even boost BRAIN DENSITY in the hippocampus (the area of the brain responsible for learning, memory, and emotion regulation). It can even reduce activity in the amygdala (the area of your brain responsible for anxiety and stress). All in just eight weeks!
So, here’s a short, five-minute mindfulness program that you can easily work into your daily routine:
- Sit in a comfortable position with your eyes closed and take a few deep breaths. (Perhaps outside in Nature, while soaking in some vitamin D-boosting sunshine. Or next to your fragrant annual fall flowers.)
- Think of what you want for your life. Is it health? Peace? Love? Hold that thought and repeat to yourself silently, “May I be healthy.” (Or peaceful, happy, etc.)
- If your mind wanders, gently bring it back to your wish for yourself.
- After a few minutes, picture someone you care about.
- Repeat that same wish silently for your loved one, while holding his or her image in your mind. “May you be healthy, peaceful, happy, etc.”
- Now picture someone you don’t have any feelings about—maybe the person who was in front of you in the grocery store line—and direct the wish to them.
- Next, think of someone you have negative feelings toward. Perhaps an obnoxious relative, annoying neighbor, or a difficult co-worker. Then direct the wish toward them.
- Lastly, direct the wish toward the whole world: “May everyone, everywhere be healthy, peaceful, happy, etc.”
- Slowly open your eyes and return to your day, keeping this expansive feeling of benevolence with you.
Of course, this process can be repeated with different mantras and intentions—and for different people or causes. The purpose is to take the time to be present and focus on positive thoughts.
I think you’ll find the result to be quite calming and will help you gain some perspective on what really matters the most to you. And—if you ever find yourself stuck with your own thoughts in an empty room…you may just find the experience entirely enjoyable!
You can learn much more about the health benefits of mindfulness meditation, as well as other drug-free therapies, in my book with Don McCown, New World Mindfulness.
“Social psychology. Just think: the challenges of the disengaged mind.” Science. 2014;345(6192):75-77. doi.org/10.1126/science.1250830
“Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density.” Psychiatry Res. 2011;191(1):36-43. doi.org/10.1016/j.pscychresns.2010.08.006