“How’s your summer going?” I recently asked another parent at our neighborhood park.
“Good!” he quickly responded. I waited a bit because his face looked less certain than his immediate response.
“No, I mean, good. Everything is good! Kids are good. I’m good.” He went on, clearly second guessing his answer in real time. We both started laughing.
“I think I get it,” I responded. “There is a lot of ‘good’ for sure. But what a wild ride we’ve all been on.”
“That’s for sure” he interrupted, deciding this was a better description of his feelings. “We are okay! But between large scale crises and the pandemic lingering on… I kind of feel like something is always looming that I need to brace for. I find myself being distracted, even when I’m just hanging out with my kids.” He motioned to his kids playing on the playground and concluded, “So theoretically good…but I’m clearly not 100% on board.”
A few seconds of silence elapsed while we both took deep breaths.
“Yeah,” I responded. “Our nervous systems are going through a lot.”
That persistent looming feeling? Hypervigilance.
The reality is that the pandemic has put our “threat detection system” on overdrive for more than two years now. To be clear, many adults and kids alike relied on hypervigilance long before the pandemic as they navigated everything from family crises to racism to economic uncertainty. But the pandemic has put our alert systems into the red zone, meaning that we are more attentive to potential risks in our environment. For short spurts our alert systems do a good job of keeping us alive. Ongoing hypervigilance, however, can also create the feeling that both real and perceived threats are constantly looming making it difficult to be present and experience ease.
It makes sense that some of us are struggling to let our guard down this summer because:
- We know from experience that big, life altering bad things happen.
- There are plenty of bad things still happening (and technology puts them in constant view).
- We are wired to pay attention to these bad things for our survival.
- We tend to filter out or ignore things that aren’t consistent with our view.
It’s no wonder then that low-level agitation as well as looming or “sped-up” feelings can get in the way of our capacity to be present and at ease, even if we logically know that in the moment we are relatively safe.
The cost of ongoing hypervigilance isn’t just negative feelings. It can distract us from our relationships and contribute to burnout. Moreover it’s easy to inadvertently pass our anxiety along to our kids. In addition, if we stay in this reactive state for prolonged periods of time, it can take a toll on our physical and mental health. In other words, being present and grounded are not just nice; they are essential to our capacity to stay engaged and healthy.
Paying attention to the present.
The reality is that stress and crises aren’t going anywhere. But putting our nervous systems through constant vigilance-anxiety loops is not going to help us grapple with the very real challenges in front of us.
Here’s how the loop tends to work. When we are anxious or fearful, we tend to pay more attention to information related to threats. This puts us on high alert for information that we perceive to be essential to our survival, telling us, “Hey! Watch out!” As we focus on information related to threats, our anxiety escalates even more. In turn, this further intensifies our vigilance and selective attention. Pretty soon, that looming feeling is constant.
The good news? Assuming relative safety, we can help manage our anxiety by paying attention to other things around us.
“But mindfulness doesn’t work for me.”
My conversation with the parent in our local park landed on the mutual understanding that experiencing ease and presence might not just happen automatically. If it didn’t show up on that beautiful day in the park in the heart of summer, it was going to require more deliberate action.
“I don’t know though,” this parent admitted, “I’m just not good at mindfulness and I’m not sure my kids love it either. We tried one of those apps and I just ended up telling them to be quiet the whole time so we bailed.”
We laughed together, acknowledging that creating additional anxiety loop about not being good at mindfulness was not the path to presence. Research does show that mindful meditation can help ease anxiety, depression and even pain. And getting started can take a little time and practice. But guided meditation is not for everyone. All kinds of cultural practices can help us ground ourselves in the moment, from dancing to humming to singing to movement practices.
“I get that,” I responded. “That’s why we’ve been trying this practice of ‘active noticing in our family.’ It’s something I can more easily invite my kids to join too.”
Social psychologist Ellen Langer has been studying mindlessness and mindfulness for thirty five years. She argues that while rigorous meditation or yoga practices can be great, they aren’t the only ways to access the benefits of mindfulness. Instead, she invites us into “the simple art of noticing new things.”
Langer says that when we engage in active noticing we bring ourselves into the present moment (the opposite of anxiety, which tends to fast forward our thinking into uncertain futures). This is no small thing. Langer shares, “When you actively notice new things, that puts you in the present, makes you sensitive to context. As you’re noticing new things, it’s engaging, and it turns out, after a lot of research, that we find that it’s literally, not just figuratively, enlivening.”
We need enlivening practices right now – for ourselves and for our kids.
All of this does not mean that we should just put our heads down and ignore or sideline the very real stressors in our families, communities, or country. Instead, this time demands that we have the capacity to keep focused on these challenges over time while still engaging meaningfully with the people we love. For example, tackling the systems that produce racial harms at our kids’ school will take persistence, time, and energy. Admittedly, the “art of noticing” might not immediately solve the big problem. But it can give us the presence and perspective to keep moving towards it. Cultivating the skills we need to experience presence and connection amidst ongoing challenges is essential. There are many paths towards this goal and research indicates that actively noticing is one of them.
Want to try it? It’s simple. Here are some ideas to get you started:
- Notice five new things about your child today.
- Look at your child’s face and notice how it moves as they show emotions.
- Listen for four new sounds in your environment.
- Notice five new things about your partner, friend, or neighbor today.
- Invite your kids to go outside and discover new things close to your home that they have never noted before.
- Try something new (doodling, cooking) and share five new things about how it makes you feel.
- Pay attention to a few new tastes or smells about your food while you eat it.
Whatever the brain does a lot of, is what the brain gets good at.
Active noticing works best when we make it a consistent habit. The more that we practice the art of noticing, the more easily we can draw on it when we are distracted, activated, or overwhelmed. Notice that you are distracted and impatient at the park with your kids? Try noticing new things about how they are playing with each other. Taking a walk? Instead of looking at your phone, notice new things about your surroundings.
Hypervigilance might be designed to keep us alive but it is far from enlivening. At its worst, it can make us sick. But it can also narrow our perspectives, limit our view, and disrupt our capacity to connect. If we are going to be present to our kids and engage in the future as it unfolds, we need to practice noticing new things.