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Professional News Articles : ON PRACTICE MANAGEMENT by Janyce Hamilton : Resolving to enjoy your life
Resolving to enjoy your life
January 5, 2002

Every January, as I toss a Snickers wrapper into the trash and promise to lose weight, I tackle the subject of New Year's Resolutions. This time, a book printed in September of 2001 by Ernest Mastria, Psy.D., is the subject. Called The Habit of Living (Ocean Publishing, Belmar, NJ), the book's first subtitle is "A Way to Calm Your Symptoms and to Feel Happy." Its second subtitle is "A Practical Guide to Reduce Anxiety and Depression, or to Simply Enjoy Life."

Who doesn't want all that?

Besides anyone who says, "Enjoy your Journey" deserves to be interviewed. I mean, while we're all whining about money and looking like hell, somebody has to save us.

Before providing a transcript of our interview, here is a partial list of telltale symptoms of someone who needs to read this book.

  • Sometimes I feel distant (distracted) from what is going on around me
  • I worry about what people think of me
  • My thinking is usually negative
  • I'm usually scattered in my thinking
  • I have trouble focusing my attention/concentrating
  • I have trouble remembering things
  • I'm tired when I awake in the morning
  • I get irritated over minor things
  • I don't think people will like me once they get to know me
  • I tend to procrastinate
  • I don't enjoy life like I believe other people do
  • I feel edgy
  • I think I'm lazy
  • When someone is speaking to me, instead of really listening, I am thinking of what I will say in response
  • I don't think I will ever be "happy"

If most of these things sound like you, you may have Reflexive Attention Diversion (RAD), according to Dr. Mastria. This is a condition of decreased attention (that is, an inability to live in the present) that "creates behaviors, attitudes and emotions that eliminate spontaneity and prevent you from living life fully." A nagging sense that something's missing or just generalized worrying while you are supposed to be enjoying yourself characterize the bad habit of RAD that Dr. Mastria's book aims to replace with a relaxed sense of enjoying oneself.

Here's my conversation with Dr. Mastria.  

OPM: How does your book fit in with New Year's Resolutions?

EM: Resolve to change your lifestyle to one that allows more personal taste and fulfillment. Many dentists have regretted chasing the carrot of wealth and success that society dangled in front of their noses. At retirement they wake up and discover the loss of time and pleasure from events that they have missed.

OPM: What percent of the general public is regularly experiencing worry or a sense of something missing?

EM: My estimate is that nine out of every 10 people suffer from this condition or bad habit. This is not to say that most people are running around bonkers, banging their heads against the wall, experiencing anxiety or panic attacks, or suffer major depression that requires hospitalization so they don't throw themselves out the window. Those are conditions that are a result of the habit in its most intense form. I'm talking about what most people experience as the habit in its less intense form--that is, they are simply not living life as fully as they are capable. Here are some examples to choose from: They may say, "yes" instead of "no" and agree to do something that they don't want. They may put down their keys when they arrive at home and need to search for them for an hour before discovering that they were on the mantel. They may believe that they offended someone at work and avoid the person the next day even though the person in no way reacted with offense. The point is that they are regularly distracted from the current event at hand, and therefore, not able to experience them fully. The sole purpose of this bad habit is to prevent the person from full enjoyment. The reflexive bad habit is built on the misinformation that contained within the taste of the individual is some inherent "badness" and if the person expresses his or her taste the badness will come out with negative consequences to follow. Whether full-blown anxiety attacks or simply not being able to say "no," the habit's purpose is to stop spontaneity, and it does this effectively. All the person can think is, "What if something bad happens?"

OPM: Why does this mild anxiety/worry/feeling down/sense of not being present plague so many?

EM: The reason why is because the habit is actually a product of the socialization process that I refer to as "oversocialization." Oversocialization occurs when a child's expression of personal taste is criticized by parents, caretakers, authority figures, peers and even the media. So I may hate CK jeans, but the commercial indicates that if I don't wear them, I'm a nerd. So, I wear them. All children will "hold back" expression when feeling a threat. Over time and with repetition, a habit or reflex is formed. Automatically, whenever the child is in a position to express (which is all the time, since mere existence requires expression, at least in attitudes), fear responses occur and the child avoids expression of personal taste. I define oversocialization as the end product of pairing expression with criticism. It is a fear of breaking rules that simply don't exist. Like believing that you'll say the wrong thing so you don't say anything at all. Or feeling out of place at a store, etc. The reason why most of us only have that missing feeling or mild anxiety is that most of us were raised with love and support. We were certainly criticized, but not to the extent of (for example) child abuse, extreme overprotection, or an atmosphere of anger and non-acceptance. If you notice, solitary animals are not neurotic, only social ones such as monkeys, cats, and dogs. The reason why is that, like us, they all want to belong and don't want to offend.

OPM: Why do so few people report feeling mildly pleasant or at least in an emotionally neutral state most of the time?

EM: We all have our moments. We feel pleasant when we are in familiar situations so that we know how to behave. In unfamiliar situations or ones in which we place too high a value, the habit gains strength and we are aware of our discomfort. Remember, the habit is a style of thinking and behaving that is always with us, 24 hours a day. Sometimes it is strong and we are uncomfortable, and sometimes it is less intense and we almost feel good, but we never quite get there as long as the habit is pulling us in, away from the present and spontaneous expression of personal taste, so that even "mildly pleasant" may be difficult to attain.

OPM: We've all been that person or with that person who in the middle of an expensive meal or sitting down at the theatre about to watch something so eagerly anticipated and are thinking about how "This isn't what it should be" or "I should be so happy now and I'm irritated" etc. Time and again, we say "carpe diem" to each other, but can anyone really be capable of fully living in the moment every day?

EM: The reason for the person's disappointment at an expensive dinner or at the theatre is that he or she is aware that they are not in the present and are not fully experiencing the moment. They may not be aware of the condition/habit as I have just explained it, but they are aware of its effects. The purpose of the habit is not to allow full, spontaneous expression (verbal, thought or acted), especially in a situation that the person may enjoy. The result is tension, pulling back. The irritation comes from the habitual thought that you are trapped and controlled by an ongoing monotonous lifestyle that can't even be removed when you are doing something you really want (this is when the habit really pulls you in), and the result is anger. Everyone is capable of living in the moment and feeling true happiness. It is how we were born. It is an automatic behavior like breathing is. Yes, I do live in the moment. I handle what is happening in front of me. I'm relaxed, comfortable, and happy. It is really easy. You can be skeptical, although I think you have a good understanding of the theory. I can tell by your questions. People's skepticism is the result of the habit style of living that many of us have experienced for so long. We become used to it, like our left arm, so that we can't believe that a happy lifestyle is possible, but it certainly is. Infants are very close to the present, which is why they're so happy. At least until we get our hands on them and screw them up, which is usually around the age of four or five. Then you can see the cloud of inattention over their eyes.

OPM: Did you come up with the term for this habit, "Reflexive Attention Diversion"?

EM: Reflexive Attention Diversion is my term. First, the habit is a reflex like a knee jerk or an eye blink so that it cannot be controlled. Attention directed outward, toward the world, is the first step in the sequence of the habit, and the diversion of attention from the present and its conversion into negative thoughts is the trigger for symptoms. I pay little attention to symptoms; all of my intervention is focused on attention directed toward the world. The result is Reflexive Attention Diversion (RAD). RAD is the problem to solve not symptoms, symptoms occur after attention is diverted.

"Attention Training" is also my term and my unique method of intervention. I build a distinct and separate habit of increased awareness by teaching the individual to increase attention outwardly.

OPM: Your tools of Attention Training involve four points: 1. Being oriented (conscious and deliberate knowledge of time, surroundings and things happening around you); 2. Use of five senses (as many as possible to direct your attention to your environment); 3. Be active (walking, phoning, watching, baking, doing something to focus on one's surroundings); 4. If you can't see it, don't think it. In practice, if I start trying to do all four points throughout the day, is this all there is to it?

EM: Attempting the four points is hard the first few weeks. Do it as much as you can. Moment to moment it becomes easier to focus out and blow away the negative thoughts. If you are consciously and deliberately performing the four points, you are likely not to get pulled inside your head with thoughts. It takes about three weeks to build the new habit strong enough so that the bad one's resistance decreases. As well as you can, ignore the distracting thought and push out toward the world. See lights, watch people talk and walk, even if you must mentally speak to yourself to describe what is happening in the moment. Remember, you can only feel discomfort when you lose your focus. The problem is this: When you listen to the bad habitual thoughts, or pay attention to symptoms, you are literally decreasing attention that should be directed toward the current environment. Your intelligence decreases and you are feeding attention to the distracting thought, having it become bigger and stronger. Get in contact with the environment. As you look at the negative thought, your intelligence becomes weaker. You can't see, hear, smell, touch, or taste as well. Now another problem occurs: without enough information arriving through the senses, you will feel "out of control" of the situation. Now, most disastrous, with your intelligence decreased, the important characteristics of the ability to see differences and adjustment to these differences decreases. Now the negative thought has been fed enough attention that it is huge and your intelligence is weak. Anxiety follows. At all costs, try not to look at the thought and focus out. But, if you get blindsided, try to stimulate your senses and keep doing this until you get enough attention focused out. Go to the ladies' room and splash some cold water on your face, go outside and focus on the clouds and feel the breeze. Go inside to your table and focus on your date, the people around you, the music, the taste of the food, and (this is key) slow down your thinking. Again, even if you have to mentally relate to yourself, do it and keep doing it until the thoughts recede.

The bad habit is strongest during free time when you can truly do as you like and be yourself. Even deciding to do nothing is a decision from your taste, or being around pleasurable things because you like it and it may feel good. How much the bad habit interferes with you equals how much of the new habit you still need to learn. Remember, repetition is what is necessary. How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice.

OPM: If anyone could live in the moment it would be a child, yet you are working on another book called The Habit of Childhood. Is it true that some kids are unable to relax and live in the moment and have fun? Why is this happening? What can parents and other caring adults do to not nurture negative habitual thoughts in kids?

EM: We are born with the automatic ability to have contact with the world. However, by the age of four or five, we have socialized and oversocialized spontaneity and expression of taste out of the child and have produced a conforming, make no waves, functioning member of society.

The preventive essentials are not to use anger or guilt in differences with a child. Instead, create an atmosphere of tolerance of differences of opinions. Offer your opinion but support the child in the choice he or she makes. Allow the child to make choices and decisions and inform the child of the consequences of each behavior. Follow through on consequences 100%, but always without anger. This program allows the child to learn that differences of opinions are points of view rather than angry acts. This has been happening to our kids since time began. We think that criticism expedites situations; actually, it produces more problems than the time saved. Differences of opinions and expression of taste should be encouraged, not suppressed.

OPM: You are also writing The Habit of Relationships. What's going on with your concept and love?

EM: There's another place where you may really be yourself and the bad habit of distracted thinking is there to stop it -- in the closeness of relationships. Closeness to me is not intimacy or sex -- closeness is openness. Openness is the condition where both individuals are able to express to each other without apprehension. After some familiarity, the habit gets in there and has the individuals mind-read, thinking that the other is unaccepting of their point of view, taking differences personally, as angry acts and criticism. This situation builds anger and avoidance in the couple. I have a four-point program to consciously alter the habit communication between the members. For that information, you'll have to read the book when it's finished.

OPM: Do you practice Attention Training? How do you know if you need a tune up?

EM: My connection with the present is automatic. I can't think differently. I find it stupid to worry, so I can't do it. Nor can I feel anxiety or clinical depression. I certainly react to real situations but I am more patient than many others. I can do many things at once without feeling overwhelmed or stressed. Basically, I'm a real happy person who enjoys a wide range of activities. I can tell you about my clients. They had anxiety attacks, major depression, bipolar disorder, weird behaviors and much more. All of them changed within three to five sessions and most were completed within 10 sessions. They finished symptom-free, relaxed, more intelligent, and, most importantly, happy.

One last thing. The first three weeks or so are a real battle. This is because the body knows how to distract real well. It is best to have the four points on your mind all the time so that focusing out is in your brain before the old habit creeps in. Be persistent. If you are, you will see that in about three weeks, it will be easier to focus out and that the negative thoughts are less intense. The bad habit can't be stopped, it must be tapered off. 

Conclusion

What is important to know is that it is never too late to change. The hesitancy that a 50-year-old feels is the same as that experienced when he or she was an 8-year-old. Besides, we're not changing the old habit. It can't be touched. It's a reflex, remember? We're building a new one that excludes the triggering of the bad one. The key is to be motivated, systematic, and repetitive.

It is never too late to find happiness.

[I'm sure this is true. I just need to re-read the above or make it into a little cheat sheet as I just forgot the whole thing. I was busy worrying about my deadline. Oh, and I¹ve got to call that new babysitter for next week. And when will I shake this cold ? I'm so tired. I keep thinking I should have another cup of coffee and a donut with sprinkles. . . time to do it. Ah, happiness. Too bad I'm gonna hate myself tomorrow morning when my face has puffed into a perfectly round beach ball.] 

For more information on Dr. Mastria's book or seminars, visit http://www.attentiontraininginstitute.com.

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