Imagine what it would feel like if you had all the time in the world. How much pressure would that relieve? And what if you could also feel happier, while your stress and physical pain were relieved?
A new study done by Northbay Hospital and UC Berkeley finds that a simple practice of awe can make us feel that sense of timelessness. Not only that, awe can reduce stress, loneliness, and depression. Awe even relieves pain. While "The Awe Study" has not yet been published, authors Jake Eagle and Michael Amster, M.D., wanted to share the practice that helped healthcare workers and community members alike during the coronavirus pandemic.
It might seem like a funny time to be talking about awe. 2020 and early 2021 have brought us a shocking variety of sickness, death, and civil unrest. Feeling the inspiration and amazement that awe brings seems out of reach given what we are living through. But it’s worth considering because the research findings on what awe can do for us are impressive.
Summer Allen writes about “the mysterious and complex emotion known as ‘awe’” in a white paper because the science of awe is relatively new. “Awe experiences are self-transcendent. They shift our attention away from ourselves, make us feel like we are part of something greater than ourselves, and make us more generous toward others.”
Awe expands our sense of time.
And that’s important, because of how it changes us. Awe makes us feel happier and increases our positive emotions. Even better, awe makes us more curious and creative and brings feelings of connectedness with a greater desire to help others.
But the most impressive impact of awe experiences is the way it changes our perception of time. And best of all, awe changes the way we feel time. Time actually expands, and our normal mundane concerns fade. Jake Eagle believes this is the key feature of awe. It is that sense of timelessness that makes us feel more patient, and that patience brings our best attributes to the surface.
Awe also helps us savor our feelings and physical sensations. Eagle points out that one of the characteristic signs of experiencing awe is a tingling going up our spine, which also helps us connect with our physical selves.
And absolutely key for our ability to function under pressure: awe produces higher-level cognitive processing. We have more open-minded and deeper insights.
In other words, people who experience awe benefit tremendously. According to one paper, “Awe-inducing events may be one of the fastest and most powerful methods of personal change and growth.”
However, awe is a state that we often believe can only be reached after years of meditation and a spiritual journey. “Yes,” Eagle, a therapist who lives in Hawaii, told me, “there is a myth in counseling and therapy that we have to work really hard to get to a point where we can experience things like awe. It’s really not true. Awe is available to all of us, and it’s available most of the time.”
The Awe Study
Eagle and Amster conducted their research study at Northbay Hospital in cooperation with UC Berkeley in 2020. “The Awe Study” looked at 128 healthcare workers and 221 community members during the COVID-19 pandemic. Participants were asked to use a simple intervention designed to help them experience awe for 10-15 seconds three to five times a day.
After 21 days, participants reported statistically significant improvements in stress, loneliness, physical symptoms, and symptoms of depression or anxiety. They also reported increases in emotional wellbeing and mindfulness. Of note, the impact on symptoms of depression was greater than on anxiety, which is probably because the pandemic is so anxiety-provoking.
Amster, a pain specialist in the San Francisco Bay Area, was expecting the study participants to experience more wellbeing and decreased anxiety and depression. But the awe practice did far more than he thought it would. “I was blown away by the benefits experienced by my chronic pain patients in the study. Many of them reported a significant decrease in chronic pain,” Amster told me. “This was pain that I was never able to help with medications, injections, or surgery. One patient shared how the awe practice stopped her migraine headaches that used to send her to the emergency room for an injection of morphine.”
Not only was Amster amazed by the mental and physical health changes in his patients, he was delighted by changes in himself. “The awe practice has transformed my clinical practice,” he said. “It is helping me create a larger context for the power of the physician-patient relationship.” Having an easy-to-learn tool that he can share with his patients and practice with them for 30 seconds feels wonderful. And later his patients come to their appointments excited to tell him about their moments of awe.
What’s remarkable here is that the method in the study is so easy. It’s something we can all start using right now to improve our own well-being and expand our sense of time.
The A.W.E. Method
- Attention: Turn your full and undivided attention on things you appreciate, value, or find amazing.
- Wait: Slow down and pause.
- Exhale and Expand: Amplify whatever sensations you are experiencing.
You can do this with anything. Consider your hands. They are pretty amazing: just think of all the things you can do with them and what they make possible for you. Turn your full attention on them and pause. While you pause, keep focusing on your hands and then amplify whatever you are feeling, physically or emotionally. If you don’t feel awe right away, keep noticing, waiting, and breathing until you do.
You will know when you are experiencing awe because of the physical changes. You might feel goosebumps, shivers, chills, or a release of energy. You may feel more alert and notice your vision is clearer. You may find yourself taking deeper breaths. And your facial expression may change, with a smile, wide eyes, raised eyebrows, and a relaxed jaw.
Whatever you feel is fine. And according to "The Awe Study," doing this a few times a day could start to make a real difference. Hopefully, soon we’ll be able to say the same thing as Dr. Amster: “The awe practice has added a deeper dimension to my personal life. I feel like the state of peace and being that I sought for over 30 years as a meditator is something I can find in just a few breaths. I am able to instantaneously change my state of consciousness and experience profound presence and peace that filters throughout my entire day.”