Book Review: The Mayo Clinic Guide to Stress-Free Living
Author: Amit Sood, MD, MSc
Publisher: De Capo Press
Publish Date: 2014
Over 30 years ago, Time magazine’s cover story, ‘Stress’, suggested that stress was America’s leading health problem. Today, the situation has only worsened, with estimates that between 75 and 90% of all visits to primary care physicians are for stress related problems. So, if you are feeling overwhelmed by your job, family, health, or just life in general, you are not alone. Neither, as Professor of Medicine, Dr. Amit Sood, aptly demonstrates in his Guide to Stress-Free Living, is it your fault. Your brain and mind, says Dr. Sood, work very hard to keep you stressed. Turns out it’s not your brain’s fault either.
The brain, when awake, has been wired to operate in two modes – focused and default. According to Dr. Sood, when in fully focused mode, you are immersed in experience and you stop worrying about yourself; your attention is externally directed, helping you to perceive the world as novel and meaningful. Turned inward, focused thinking can be deep, adaptive, and purposeful. However, in this state you are more likely to slip into the second mode – spontaneous thought and mind wandering – the brain’s default mode. The problem with mind wandering is that it is often filled with ruminations (repetitive negative thoughts related to past and future). These ‘open files’ frequently see the past as unacceptable and imperfect, and the future as scarily uncertain. As Dr. Sood explains, “This state can postpone joy and may even predispose you to anxiety, depression, sleep disturbances, and other medical conditions.” In other words, mind wandering can leave us feeling stressed out.
The purpose behind The Mayo Clinic Guide to Stress-Free Living is to help us understand and overcome our mind’s imperfections, to improve the quality of thoughts in the default mode, to decrease the amount of time spent there, and to help us reach a place where “the quality of thoughts in the focused and default modes is indistinguishable – a continuous stream of positivity and bliss.”
The two core skills we will need in order to achieve this state are: trained attention and refined interpretations. Trained attention is focused, relaxed, compassionate, sustained, and nonjudgmental. The idea is that, with practice, this type of thinking enhances your experiences with the world. “An ordinary meal becomes a feast; a drive home a mini-vacation; objects and people become more interesting and meaningful. You treat yourself and the world with greater kindness and love.” This type of attention cures the mind’s imperfect state of restlessness.
The second skill, refined interpretation, addresses the problem of the mind’s ignorance. In order to understand and navigate our world, we must interpret experiences and events. Difficulties arise because our interpretations are often based on prejudices. And these, says Dr. Hood, “are over-generalized, self-focused shortcuts that create a rigid, often negative worldview.” With training however, one can, let go of this type of thinking, embracing differences and uncertainties, becoming more flexible so that the prejudices and rigidity give way to the guiding principles of the ‘Stress-Free Living Program’: Gratitude, Compassion, Acceptance, Higher Meaning, and Forgiveness. These five principles can help “peel off layers of stress and suffering from almost any challenge,” enhance our attention, and free us from the mind’s negative wandering. Parts 4 to 8 of the book detail what each of these principles are, and why and how we should practice them.
The Mayo Clinic Guide was touted as one of the top 10 health books in 2014. It is beautifully written with humour, compassion, and wisdom. The program has a proven track record, is grounded in the latest discoveries in neuroscience, and it offers real life skills which, through practice, can do much more than reduce our daily stress. They can help us live a more meaningful and kinder existence – something we surely all want to achieve.