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Stuck in autopilot? Here are some ideas on to get out of that rut
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by Elise Oberliesen
Updated Sep 19, 2022
Do you feel stuck in a rut? What if you could get out of autopilot mode and create the second adulthood you’ve always wanted? Truth is, you can. Yes, it’s easier to do the same ol’ thing you’ve always done rather than to try something new. The hard part is deciding how to break free from familiar habits. With activities such as walking meditation, restorative yoga, journaling and travel, you can start to uncover the true life you really want to live, instead of the one you think you should.
Consider these four ways to get off the merry-go-round and start living your dream life.
1. Practice walking meditation to become mindful
Try walking meditation to clear away mental chatter. The trick is to start paying attention to all your surroundings — from chirping birds or the hum of a city bus rushing by to the way your feet hit the ground — as you walk, says Sara Lazar, an assistant professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School and an associate researcher in psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital. “Start with 10 or 15 minutes. The purpose is to set an intention of staying in the present moment” and not letting your mind wander, Lazar says. In a study published in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, Lazar and colleagues found that yoga and meditation practitioners show slower rates of decline in intelligence, which includes abstract reasoning and problem-solving, than do nonpractitioners. Walking meditation helps you slow down and quiet your mind so that you can observe a situation, rather than react to it, Lazar says. She also points out that meditation promotes fluid intelligence, which helps people solve problems in new, creative ways and with less frustration.
2. Try restorative yoga to release tension
Consider relieving tension with restorative yoga, a practice that uses props, like foam blocks and bolsters, that support the body, says Kerry Temple-Wood, a yoga instructor and owner of 63rd Street Yoga Studio, in Niwot, Colo. With each pose, pay attention to your breath, especially the exhale, because it connects the mind to the body, Temple-Wood says. “The long, deep exhale tends to settle you into your body and helps shift the mind out of autopilot,” she explains. A small Danish study published in November 2015 in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine suggests that breath work can increase positive temperament — and that can create favorable effects on character development and self-awareness. Start by lying on your back with your legs up the wall, a gentle pose that suits people of nearly any fitness level, Temple-Wood says. Holding these gentle restorative poses helps relieve tension because you’re “not pushing muscles beyond what they’re able or ready to do,” she notes. Plus, with regular practice, people often report more awareness or mindfulness that helps them handle stress better.
3. Grab a journal to reveal your hidden thoughts and desires
Find some of your favorite pens and a blank journal in which to record your thoughts. Making time to develop a daily journaling practice can help you discover big and small ideas. When you put pen to paper every day, Temple-Wood says, it helps dislodge deeply buried thoughts. “Writing and using a pen gives the subconscious mind a vehicle to find inner expression, versus the rational mind that says, ‘I should do this.’ ” Journaling often provides you with “reflections and kernels of truth” or “hidden gems,” she adds. Be on the lookout for thoughts about whether to leave a friendship or pursue career yearnings that nourish your soul. Keep track of your emotions, too. An August 2016 study, in the American Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease & Other Dementias, suggests that caregivers who journal about their emotions draw more meaning out of their lives, compared with those who write about nonemotional topics.
4. Fire up the passport to boost creativity
Immerse yourself in a new culture to expand your worldview and get your creative juices flowing. Research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggests a correlation in people between increased creativity and traveling abroad and living in a different culture. “Our work shows that those individuals who adapt their perspectives and behaviors to the new cultural context, or learn deeply about the new culture, are the ones who get the lasting creative benefits from living abroad,” lead researcher William Maddux wrote in an email. Remember, though, that simply making exotic vacation plans won’t cut it, according to Maddux. Really experiencing a new culture exposes you to a new way of life, traditions and learning opportunities. Of course, not everyone can afford to pick up and move to a foreign country, but there are ways to immerse yourself in a different culture without spending your life savings. Ken Budd, author of The Voluntourist, notes that you can volunteer abroad with various service organizations for as little as one or two weeks. The upside: You'll not only help others, but you’ll connect with locals and experience a country far more intimately than you would as a tourist.
• “Fluid intelligence and brain functional organization in aging yoga and meditation practitioners,” Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, April 2014. In this study, researchers conducted behavioral tests and analyzed the brain patterns of 16 yoga practitioners (average age 49), 16 meditation practitioners (average age 54) and 15 participants with no experience in either yoga or meditation (average age 52). They found that the yoga and meditation practitioners had less decline in fluid intelligence — which is involved in adapting to new environments and engaging in abstract reasoning — and had more efficient and resilient functional brain networks than the control group. Read the full study.
• “Measure of Significance of Holotropic Breathwork in the Development of Self-Awareness,” The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, December 2015. In this study, 20 participants (ages 25 to 56) participated in four sessions of “Holotropic Breathwork,” which consisted of one- to three-hour periods of guided hyperventilation and deep over-breathing paired with music and some voluntary bodywork and concluded with mandala drawing. The researchers report that, according to temperament tests given before and after the sessions, the nine participants who were new to Holotropic Breathwork underwent positive temperament changes and the 11 participants who had experience with Holotropic Breathwork underwent positive changes in character. Read the full study.
• “Finding meaning in written emotional expression by family caregivers of persons with dementia,” American Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease & Other Dementias, September 2016. In this study, researchers asked 91 participants (average age 60.9) to write continuously for 20 minutes at three scheduled times during one week. Fifty-seven caregivers were instructed to write about their deepest thoughts and feelings about caring for a family member with dementia, while 34 caregivers wrote about non-emotional topics related to care, such as nutrition and food preparation. Based on an analysis of questionnaire responses, participants who wrote about their emotions showed more ability to draw meaning from their caregiving. Read the full study.
• “Cultural borders and mental barriers: The relationship between living abroad and creativity.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, May 2009. The researchers analyzed the results of five studies investigating the relationship between creativity and living abroad. Participants in the studies included 446 master’s of business administration students at a U.S. university and 177 undergraduate students at a university in France. Across all five studies, the researchers found that living in (not just traveling in) and adapting to other cultures was associated with greater creativity. The research does not indicate whether these changes are permanent or temporary, and the researchers cannot rule out the possibility that people who are already creative are simply more likely to live abroad. Read a summary of the study. (A fee is required to access the full study.)
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