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You lay there, tossing and turning at night. You look at the clock. 45 minutes have passed. “I have to get to sleep,” you think. You calculate how much time you have left before you have to wake up. Then you get angry with yourself. You want to sleep more than anything, but you can’t. Why?

Isn’t it weird that we set goals, know how to achieve them, and still fail? This may be due to a psychological concept: Ironic process theory. It was developed by Harvard psychologist Daniel Wegner. The idea is we have two processes going on in our minds when we try to focus on our goals.

The Seeker and the Patroller

The first mechanism is called the operating process. It directs your focus to helpful thoughts that help you achieve your goals. Think of it as your seeker. The second is called the monitoring process. It guards against unhelpful thoughts and alerts your seeker if it finds thoughts unrelated to your goals. Think of it as your patroller. But when your mind is under strain, your seeker is weakened. When your seeker is weakened, it can’t respond to your patroller. Thus, unwanted thoughts leak in.

For instance, if you are trying to be happy, your seeker searches for thoughts related to happiness. Your patroller works in the background, guarding against thoughts unrelated to happiness. If your patroller finds unhappy thoughts, then your seeker has stumbled. The patroller alerts your seeker to search for happy thoughts again. But if you are tired or stressed, your seeker will continue to falter.

Your seeker takes up more mental energy than your patroller. You have to make a conscious effort to call on your seeker. But your patroller is automatic. It continues to find unhelpful thoughts. Those thoughts can pervade your mind when your seeker is tired.

You want to stop your goals from backfiring. The key is to keep your seeker nimble by reducing mental overload. If your mind is under stress or pressure, then your seeker is weakened.

In an experiment on sexist attitudes, participants suggested words to complete partial sentences. For example, participants listened to someone say, “Women who go out with a lot of men are…” and were asked to complete the sentence (e.g., “popular”). For some tasks, they were asked to give an immediate response. For other sentences, they were given 10 seconds to reply.

In the high-pressure situation where they had to give quick answers, men and women were more likely to give sexist responses. When people are in stressful situations, their seekers are less able to find goal-related thoughts. Their patrollers found unwanted thoughts, alerted their seekers, but the seeker was too strained to find helpful thoughts. You want to reduce mental overload so your seeker continues to work.

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Resuscitate Your Seeker

Breathing techniques can help your seeker find goal-related thoughts. For many of us, mental overload is due to stress. Most of us know our emotional states affect our bodies. But studies show that changing our bodies can affect our emotional state. A simple way to get control of our bodies is through breathing. Researchers have found that emotions have different breathing patterns. For instance, anger and fear are linked to fast and deep breathing. People who are relaxed breath slowly and deeply.

If you want to be relaxed and strengthen your seeker, then breathe like a relaxed person. Researchers found that not only does your state of mind change your breath, but your breath can also change your state of mind. Researchers asked participants to change their breathing patterns to match the emotions of anger or joy. They found that those who were told to breathe in certain ways felt the emotions that matched those breathing patterns.

Moreover, research shows that breathing works for reducing stress in even the most anxious of states: Trauma. That's a good indication that it can work for the average person. Researchers taught military veterans with PTSD breathing-based meditation. They experienced reduced PTSD symptoms and anxiety. The calming effects of breathing-based meditation reduces mental overload. Breathing can give your seeker a boost.

Our minds are vulnerable to overload. But if we are swarmed with distractions, stress, and pressure, our goals backfire. Our patrollers find unproductive thoughts and alert our seekers. But our seekers are too strained to respond. To strengthen our seekers and heighten our focus, we have to reduce mental overload. Otherwise, we’ll continue to stare at our alarm clocks wondering if we’ll ever fall asleep. 

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Philippot, P., Chapelle, G., & Blairy, S. (2002). Respiratory feedback in the generation of emotion. Cognition & Emotion, 16(5), 605-627.

Seppala, E. M., Nitschke, J. B., Tudorascu, D. L., Hayes, A., Goldstein, M. R., Nguyen, D. T. H., Perlman, D., & Davidson, R. J. (2014). Breathing-based meditation decreases posttraumatic stress disorder symptoms in military veterans: A randomized controlled longitudinal study. Journal of Traumatic Stress.

Wegner, D. M. (1994). Ironic processes of mental control. Psychological review, 101(1), 34.

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