|Eleanor Roosevelt said that if she could ask a fairy godmother to give a child one gift at birth, it would be curiosity.
Most of us don’t think of curiosity as anything special. It’s like a backup singer to the Beyoncé of our bolder emotions. It’s in the background and easy to take for granted.
We make profound scientific discoveries and innovations. Think of penicillin, iPhones, and Snickers Bars
We have more pleasant experiences and emotions.
Being interested in our moment-to-moment experience can even quell anxiety.
“Of all of our human capacities, curiosity is at the top of my list of the most essential,” says Judson Brewer, a psychiatrist, neuroscientist, and author of “Unwinding Anxiety: New Science Shows How to Break the Cycles of Worry and Fear to Heal Your Mind.”
How Curiosity Quells Anxiety
Brewer says our capacity to become interested in our anxiety is one of the most effective ways of diminishing chronic cycles of worry and fear.
Instead of getting caught in anxiety-provoking rumination, Brewer counsels his readers to become curious about their direct experience of worry. Doing so not only interrupts habitual patterns, it also offers the brain a reward and widens our tolerance of anxious thoughts, emotions, and sensations. The more we can tolerate the discomfort of our anxiety the less we brace against and the readily it moves through us, bringing the spin-cycle of worry to a halt.
Knowing the different flavors of curiosity
Brewer notes it’s important to distinguish between the urgent, need-to-know-now curiosity that often contributes to our anxiety and the wide-eyed wonder that soothes frayed nerves.
To stay open and interested, Brewer suggests repeating a simple mantra of “Hmmmmm” whenever worrisome thoughts and agitating sensations and emotions arise. I’ve found it helpful to add a rejoinder to Brewer’s refrain by saying: “Hmmmm. That’s interesting.” Doing so seems to beckon more wide-eyed wonder.
You also can use curiosity to guide your attention directly into the physical experience of anxiety, exploring the sensations that accompany it and further disentangling yourself from the mental whirl of worry that keeps us stuck.
Do the sensations of anxiety, for example, show up as tightness in your chest? If so, where do you feel the tightness the most- to the right, the center, or the left? (If moving attention directly into the physical sensations of worry is too much you can always shift your attention to neutral places in the body such as the hands or feet or even to the sounds around you.)
In many ways, curiosity is the essence of mindfulness. But even if you aren’t particularly mindful or don’t meditate, you can always follow your curiosity to lead you to new discoveries, more joy, and greater ease.
All of which makes me want to accept the gift of curiosity and let it take center stage.
A version of this blog originally appeared on eMindful.com