To live in the modern industrialized world means that our senses are constantly flooded with an onslaught of noise and information.
Technology has brought us the smartphone and instant access to the Internet. Social media feeds flood our minds with a sea of images and information that we have never before needed, but now compulsively check every few minutes. The media promote ideas and values that are not necessarily our own; facts that are not necessarily true. Societal pressures tell us that we need to be more of this and less of that, and continue to push more information and products on us than we could ever need.
Whether we realize it or now, our attention is constantly being hijacked. And it’s costing us in many ways.
Perhaps the most dire result of attention hijacking is that we are losing the ability to pay attention to ourselves.
Our attention has gone wild on everything around us but our own inner experience. We rarely pause to turn our attention inward to observe the subtle thoughts, feelings and sensations occurring within our own bodies at any given moment.
Go the gym, the one place specifically designated for self care, and you will find most people absorbed in their phones, TV, or checking out other people. When external distractions hijack our attention, we become disconnected from our own inner experience. And when we disconnect from ourselves, it becomes much harder to stay in charge of our stress and our lives.
However, it’s a struggle to turn our attention inward when fighting against so many other tantalizing distractions. Our attention is constantly being pulled away from ourselves and fragmented into a thousand directions.
Fragmented attention sets the stage for emotional reactivity and unhealthy relating because we are no longer connected to our inner world, where we find stability and inner knowing. Instead, we are drawn into a world of superficial relating, based on external values that have been imposed upon us.
For example, the beauty industry is notorious for setting the standards for what is considered attractive by the cultural mainstream. With advertising and media messages targeting the public 24/7, it is no wonder that young girls internalize these outside influences as their own beauty ideals. Many girls then fail to appreciate their own natural beauty if it does not align with the culturally endorsed standard. They essentially become disconnected from their inner selves, confused by external messages that have hijacked their attention away from sensing their authentic truth and individual value.
When we no longer pay attention to our inner truth and values, but instead pay attention to outside messages, there is a disconnection between our actual and ideal selves. We react to that disconnection with stress, feelings of unhappiness, judgments of being less than worthy, and other forms of reactivity that disconnect us from our inner truth, where authentic happiness and peace truly live.
Our attention is no longer our own - it is the hottest commodity being vied for by advertising agencies, social media platforms, record labels, production companies, and millions of others trying to make a profit off of our misdirected attention.
With that said, we’ve become used to consuming mass amounts of data, and have in fact become quite efficient at it. And because this is now the norm, we rarely give ourselves a chance to step away from it all. We don’t give ourselves a chance to reset to a baseline of relaxed, quiet stillness. (In fact, the deficit of quiet stillness has given rise to the Digital Detox movement, where people find opportunities to unplug from technology and "disconnect to reconnect.")
Furthermore, the less we pay attention to ourselves and our relationships, the more we forget how to have healthy relationships with self and others because without self-awareness, we default to reactive behaviors. And as our relating skills deteriorate, our emotional reactivity continues to grow.
We see this evidenced in U.S. youth who report high levels of anxiety, depression, and loneliness (see this article) and are increasingly lacking the essential social skills needed for success once they step out into the world as adults (see this article). It’s a vicious cycle in which people lack the social skills to relate and so, overwhelmed with stress, they choose to withdraw into isolation; in isolation, the social skills that could draw them out of stress and into connection with others continues to deteriorate, and so they become more alone and stressed out than before.
To get out of stress, we need to reclaim our attention to find inner connection and restore our skills for healthy relating with self and others.
So What Can We Do? A Call to Reclaim Your Attention
To reclaim our hijacked attention, we must learn to pull a U-turn on our focus.
By practicing mindfulness and self-awareness techniques, we can start to harness our attention and develop our ability to focus once again on our inner experience. Thus we can redirect our attention away from the noise and static, back into the clarity of our inner connection in the present moment. This skill brings us back into balance, self-connection, and allows us to regulate our reactivity.
In order to regulate your reactivity, first learn to be aware of yourself when you are having a reaction. Then use your mind-body self-regulation skills to calm yourself down in the very moment that you are being confronted with the person or situation that is causing you to react, or go into fight or flight mode.
Once you have this knowledge, it becomes clear that when our attention is fully absorbed in things, people, or situations outside of our own inner experience, this makes us more likely to engage in behaviors that drive us into isolation and separation from other people.
Instead of getting pulled into external distractions, we can learn to anchor our attention back within ourselves. Turning our attention on ourselves is the first step to getting back in control of our lives.
"With teen mental health deteriorating over the years, there's a likely culprit." November 4, 2017. https://theconversation.com/with-teen-mental-health-deteriorating-over-five-years-theres-a-likely-culprit-86996
"Have Smartphones Destroyed A Generation?" September 2017. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/09/has-the-smartphone-destroyed-a-generation/534198/
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