Are your thoughts mainly related to the past, the future, or are you fully immersed in the present?
I was challenged by one of my class members this week to mention the Clangers in my next blog post – so here goes!
For those of you who don’t know, the Clangers was a stop-motion animation TV programme from the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. If you have never seen an episode, met the soup dragon, or want to relive a bygone time, I strongly suggest that you look it up on YouTube.
Warning: I managed to spend a very enjoyable evening immersed in the joys of early children’s television, when one quick episode morphed into several hours of delight!
Of course, reminiscing about the past can be fun. Unfortunately, incessantly referring to things which have already happened, especially if they had a negative impact, can make us sad and depressed and stop us enjoying what we have now.
Getting our mindset stuck in the past can manifest itself in many ways:
- Continually beating ourselves up about the mistakes we have made or times we have failed.
- Being a victim of something which happened a long time ago i.e. You were told not to do any exercise as a child due to your heart condition, but even now you have been encouraged to do so by your consultant, you are fearful about what might happen.
- Dwelling on whether we could have changed an outcome if we had said or acted differently.
- Worrying about recurrence of old health issues i.e. You were hospitalised three years ago, and now suffer anxiety about the possibility that you will end up in hospital again.
Repetitively going over old ground, especially if it leads to unsuccessful patterns of behaviour, can be a real throttle on our ability to enjoy life. Recognising that we have these limiting habits and beliefs is the first step.
It is not just the past which influences how we think and act. Projecting ourselves into the future can also hold us back if we are continually worrying about things which haven’t happened yet. One book I read recently called this ‘catastrophising’, when our minds instantly expect the worst-case scenario wherever we come up against a situation which unsettles us.
I know that I have been a victim of this at times, and I think can be particularly hard to enjoy the present when you live with a long-term health condition. There can be a natural awareness that things can go wrong at any minute, and those health challenges can be unpredictable.
Yet there is no point in worrying about things which haven’t happened yet, and perhaps never will.
Grade your fears
There is a balance to be had. It is not necessarily a bad thing to consider all the possible outcomes, but I find it useful to grade each of them in terms of their likelihood of occurring.
As an example, I am currently suffering with a rather wonky heart rhythm, an unwanted consequence of the emergency open heart surgery I had earlier this year. I am under medical follow up, and have every confidence that it will eventually be resolved, but that doesn’t stop my mind occasionally running away with various scenarios.
If I gave you a glimpse of one possible thought process, it could go like this.
Ahh, my heart rhythm is acting up again.
What if it doesn’t stop?
What if I need to go to A&E?
What if I need to take some new medication to control it?
What if I need a pacemaker?
What if the surgery goes wrong and I end up with more problems?
What if I then couldn’t work whilst it was getting sorted?
What if I have to close my business as a result?
What if I then lose my house because I don’t have any income?
Can you see how one little thing can suddenly became a monster in my thought process? How did I go from having a bit of a wonky heart rhythm to fearing I was going to lose my house? This was neither rational nor helpful, and certainly does nothing to ease my symptoms.
These thoughts are all ‘what if’s’ and not a reality yet, so it is my anxiety about them occurring in the future which has the potential to drag me down.
Most negative thoughts involve either the past or the future, and focussing on our anxiety tends to make it worse. Luckily, I recognise when I am getting into that spiral of negativity, with each of my thoughts becoming increasingly bleaker, so have a number of techniques which I use to break the cycle.
Firstly, I find it beneficial to grade the likelihood of each of these options really happening. In doing so, I can rationalise that each in turn is less likely to occur. By the time I get to the bottom ‘catastrophic’ scenario, the chances are probably less than 1: 1,000,000 of it occurring……and more to the point, I know that I would find a way to cope if it did!
By thinking like that, I take away a lot of the power from that fearful emotion and make it smaller in my mind.
Many things we feel anxious about haven’t even happened yet, and that thought process takes up a lot of energy which could be productively used on making the most of life in the present. I have some other tips and tricks which work for me.
One of the best self-help strategies for dealing with a run-away thought process is mindfulness. Now, I will be honest and say that when I first heard about mindfulness many years ago, I thought that it was a highly spiritual, new-age, woo-woo thing, which people did sitting around a camp fire whilst wearing ‘ethnic’ clothes!
In fact, mindfulness is something which we can all practice, anywhere and at any time. It is all about bringing our attention into the present moment, and noticing what is happening around us. As I am typing this, I can look out of the window and observe the clouds moving slowly through the sky, the ivy blowing gently on my shed roof, and a sparrow sitting on the telephone pole preening its wings.
I am not forming any particular judgement about what I am seeing, or labelling it as good or bad, but simply bringing my attention into the present.
It is very easy to let our mind be constantly somewhere else, with an internal dialogue which take us out of the current moment. How often do we, for instance, get into the car and think ‘I bet the traffic is going to be terrible’ or ‘when I get there I must remember to do so and so’. How about just being aware of our surroundings as we drive, the luxury of having a car, or appreciating the view.
Focus on the present
When I find myself feeling anxious, I try to do something else which demands all my attention. I have an adult colouring book which I like to use, as it takes just enough concentration that I can’t easily think about anything else.
Other times, I will ride my bike, go for a walk, or practice some yoga – anything to increase the positive endorphins and sense of flow which come from a rhythmical gentle movement. That act of bringing energy into the body is often enough to cause a change of mental state, and allow me to flip into a more positive mindset.
Some people listen to a favourite piece of music, meditate, start baking, watch comedy on TV, or an activity or hobby particular to them which brings pleasure.
The five-minute rule
Another favourite of mine is to allow what I call the five-minute rule – a concept I borrowed from Hal Elrod, author of The Miracle Morning, a book I thoroughly recommend.
Whenever I recognise that I am fearful or in a negative mindset, I allow myself exactly five-minutes to ruminate with those emotions, to experience them fully, and to feel angry, irritated, sad, fearful or whatever.
Then I draw a line under my thoughts, refuse to indulge myself further, and instead find something more positive to think about in the present moment.
Recognising that I have only five minutes of negativity or fear forces me to really experience those emotions rather than allowing them to fester and slowly eat away at my self-esteem, optimism and hope.
Negative thoughts can be like a tumour which spreads and spreads if you don’t deal with it. For me, confrontation is far better for my mental health than allowing them to go on and on, taking me away from any pleasure from the things I can enjoy in the here and now.
I find this technique is amazingly effective. It doesn’t deny that my feelings are real, or try to completely squash them. Instead I get to experience them in fast forward, minimising their long-term impact, and then allow myself to get back to the present with more space and opportunity to move forwards constructively.
I am pretty sure that you as my readers will have other little tricks you use to be present in the here and now. I welcome your feedback, as it is the best way for us to learn from each other.