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Our ability to optimally and effectively accomplish tasks and activities is significantly related to our ability to place our attention on that which we select and re-direct our attention as needed.
A commonly discussed and important skill in order to be at our best in any, and all, domains of life is our ability to focus. Unless we are able to maintain our concentration on the task at hand, it is significantly more difficult, if not impossible, to complete our activities, whatever they may, to the level of our potential. There are many recommendations for improving focus and the related skill of refocusing when we become distracted.
Prior to discussing pertinent skills, strategies, and the polyvagal perspective on this important topic, it is first important to better define what is meant by focus, refocusing, and the related terms of attention and awareness. These terms are not necessarily consistently used or defined, even amongst experts in the field. For the purposes of this discussion, definitions for each will be described so that the principles can be more completely understood as it applies to each trait, even if the specific explanations for each trait may differ to a degree. When it comes to the practical application of these terms and the process by which to develop the pertinent skills and strategies, there is much greater consensus.
Amishi Jha, PhD is an expert in the field of mindfulness based attention. Her book, Peak Mind: Find Your Focus, Own Your Attention, Invest 12 Minutes a Day, provides a well described and evidence-driven foundation to the understanding of these traits and methods by which to improve proficiency in these skills. In her book, Jha describes two main forms of attention, specifically a narrow based concentration, such as on a particular activity or task, and a more broad perspective such as awareness of our own physical or emotional state. The process of focusing, or applying the narrow form of attention, is typically a choice that we all can make. Essentially, we choose that which we would like to place our attention upon. The skill becomes the ability to refocus, or redirect our attention back to that which we choose, when we become distracted.
The process of refocusing, or re-establishing our attention, on the task at hand should be explained in more detail. This ability actually consists of two necessary and independent processes. Both are required and neither is sufficient on its own to accomplish the overall skill. The first is the broad-based attention, or awareness, of our own biological state, particularly related to where our focus or attention is at the present moment. This allows us to determine whether or not we have our attention placed upon the desired task or activity. The second step is the re-directing of our attention back to the task at hand, if we have determined that it has shifted to another object of attention. As discussed above, placing our attention on a particular activity or task is a conscious choice. For this reason, once we have determined the actual object of our attention, it then becomes an intentional process where we place our attention and, therefore, is within conscious control. It should also be apparent, that we are not able to exert this intentional choice without first identifying the location of our focus and attention. This process is an essential skill that can be trained and developed.
As the process of identifying the object of our focus and attention is a skill that is dependent upon self-awareness, the next consideration is how best to develop and optimize this skill. The ability that we are developing for this process is that of awareness. Specifically, it is an awareness of self and the object of our attention. Mindfulness meditation provides a powerful method by which to train, develop, and improve our awareness skills. Regardless of whether we are performing mindfulness of a single object of attention, such as the breath, or a more open contemplative practice whereby we notice the thoughts that arise in our mind, we are developing the skill of noticing without judgement. Once we have identified that which is of interest, we are then able to make an intentional choice related to that object of attention. To follow the example of re-focusing or redirecting our attention, once we have used our awareness skills to identify the object of our attention, we can then implement a conscious decision to redirect our attention as needed.
The skill of awareness can be developed through a formal mindfulness meditation practice, as previously outlined in the form of either focus on a particular object or sensation or through an open contemplative noticing of thoughts. In addition, this ability to be self-aware can be developed through an informal practice in which we identify and notice sensations and events both internally and externally as we experience our daily activities. This can take many forms but requires being present in and identifying what is occurring in the current moment. A combination of formal and informal practice is quite possibly the ideal.
Now that it has been described that attention and focus are deliberate choices and the ability to refocus and re-direct attention is a combination of the skill of self-awareness followed by the intentional decision to place our attention in a given location, we can consider what factors may impact our focus and attention. Jha describes that the quality of our attention is negatively impacted by stress, poor mood, and perception of threat. Each of these can independently degrade our attention and frequently act synergistically to more substantially cause a deterioration in our attention. From a polyvagal informed perspective, it is noted that each of these factors are important cues of threat, risk, or uncertainty that would cause our biological state to shift towards sympathetic and dorsal vagal states. This implies that our focus and attention may be improved, at least as it relates to performing our current task and activity, when we have sufficient ventral vagal activation. In addition, the process of identifying the object of our attention and subsequent deliberate choice of where to direct our attention requires prefrontal cortical activity. Tasks requiring these processes are less effective in the midst of sympathetic and dorsal vagal states. This explanation then informs the understanding that our focus, attention, and ability to refocus are all likely enhanced in the ventral vagal state, particularly as it pertains to skill and activity performance.
The polyvagal informed perspective can then provide additional strategies by which to refocus and better apply our attention on the desired task or activity. This approach would include the self-awareness of the object of our attention but also add the recognition of our biological state and application of skills and strategies to shift our state towards a more ventral vagal dominant state, if necessary. Once this has been accomplished, we can then more readily identify the current object of our attention and make the intentional, deliberate decision of where to place our focus and attention.
The polyvagal informed Practices of the Healthcare Athlete promote health, wellbeing, and sustainable high performance. The pursuit of these goals requires, in part, the ability to place our attention on the task at hand and to redirect our attention when it becomes distracted towards other objects, as inevitably occurs to us all. By developing the skills and strategies described above, particularly within a polyvagal informed paradigm, we are best positioned to optimize our attention and re-direct it as necessary.
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Jha, AP. Peak Mind: Find Your Focus, Own Your Attention, Invest 12 Minutes a Day. New York: HarperOne; 2021.