You Feel What You Focus On

It was high tide, and the waves were enormous, crashing against the shore. My family and I were spending a weekend at Cape May, and every day the beach had been glorious—sun, waves, sandcastles, the works. This one day, though, the waves were the biggest I’d seen—and it brought two totally different reactions from my two kids.

Ty, who’s seven, saw it as a big adventure. The waves were bigger than he was, but he couldn’t stop giggling as he jumped into each one. He watched the bigger kids doing it, and he followed right along, for hours, loving every minute.

Kaya, though, was terrified. My husband Stephen and I tried to shift her focus—“Look how many people are out there having fun! How can we jump each wave? What else can we do? You’re fine, you’re perfectly safe!” But she simply could not see past the fear.

It was such a clear example of a simple but powerful truth: you feel what you focus on.

Which means that you have the power to change your feelings, by choosing what to focus on. This applies to situations at work, home, in relationships, in business—even a tiny shift toward something more positive, more productive, will change your feelings.

Ironically, soon after Cape May, Kaya wanted to do a ropes course at the mall near our house. It was high—six stories, and yes, it had carabiners and harnesses, but it was over the hard mall floor! We went, and at first, all I could think was how terribly far I’d fall in the event of some emergency. But, luckily, I’d been thinking about this focus-feelings link. So I tried it—I turned my attention to where my feet went, what my hands were doing. And then I was in the zone. I was the slowest one there, but I finished.

Kaya, though—you should have seen her! She loved it, and she was amazing at it. I think it’s because she has great balance, it’s just a natural gift of hers. Also, she’d done it before with her babysitter Claysey, whom she adores, so she felt confident. Her focus wasn’t on the height or the danger. It was on the fun she was having, and her own capability to navigate the course. 

Now, it’s tempting to say, “Well, she should have just focused on the fun at Cape May.” But, as we all know, it isn’t always easy to make that shift. Especially when you’re upset (and she was UPSET). That’s how I feel when I’m trying to make a big decision—overcome by anxiety. I know I can take deep breaths, stay calm, ask powerful questions—but I don’t feel like I can. Physically and mentally, I feel paralyzed.

But why? If it’s just a mental switch, why can’t we just shift from a negative focus, into a positive one?

Turns out, it isn’t just mental. Your body reacts to extreme stress by stimulating the hypothalamus, which activates the “fight or flight” response. Instead of the prefrontal cortex being in control (that’s the part that thinks, reasons, strategizes), the hypothalamus takes over, pumping your body with cortisol, which can make you feel paralyzed, threatened, and stuck in “survival mode”—making it really, really hard to make intelligent, positive choices.

In a nutshell, extreme stress changes your body chemistry. That’s why it can feel so hard to make that mental shift—because it isn’t just a mental shift.

To counteract this, then, you need a physical response, not just a mental one.

And what better physical response is there than exercise?

Even a simple movement may have a huge impact. Close your door and do ten push-ups, or get out and walk or run, if you can. It’ll not only moderate the release of cortisol, but it’ll start to regulate your endorphins and serotonin—meaning, you’ll feel better. And you’ll be able to make better decisions, from that place of calmness and reason.

Because stress causes a physical and mental reaction, you need to counteract it with a physical and mental solution. Exercise first, then reason and decide. (A great way to do that is to ask powerful questions—read more about that in last month’s blog.)

So, when you experience extreme stress, remember that a chemical reaction is going on in your body. Don’t react when you’re in that stage. Be good to yourself, physically AND mentally. Then, when you’re ready, shift your focus. Your feelings will follow.


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