If you pay a little attention as you go through your week, you might notice yourself living in "What if" land. You'll know you're there because you will be having thoughts like:
I don't know a single person who doesn't have thoughts likes these, so don't feel bad if you have them! The funny thing is though, if you do have these thoughts, then you likely are making yourself feel bad. By wishing things to be different, you are doing two things:
If you can change this "What if" thinking into "What is" thinking, you bring acceptance to yourself and the situation. You are starting where you are, and not from a place of lacking (I/This is not good enough).
Examples of "What is" thinking are:
Set a reminder to check in with yourself as you go through each day, and if you find yourself "What iff-ing", change it to "What is", see how different you feel.
“You'll never get anywhere if you go about what-iffing like that.”
What happens in the privacy of our minds often remains unquestioned, we tend to believe every thought we have. Why is this a problem? Because our thoughts are so easily influenced by our moods.
Imagine this scenario: You didn't get a great sleep last night, then, in work, you're told you didn't get the pay rise you had requested. You walk down the street at lunchtime and see a friend on the other side of the street, you wave but she doesn't respond. Given your already crappy day what are you likely to think? "I must have upset her"; "She must not like me any more"; "She's so rude!"
Now imagine this scenario: You slept like a baby last night and bounce in to work feeling energetic. You meet with HR and they tell you you got the pay rise you requested and they thank you for the great job you're doing. On your way to lunch you see a friend across the street and you wave, she doesn't respond. In your good mood you might think: "Ah she mustn't have seen me"; or "Gosh that's not like her to pass me, I must check in with her to see if she's ok".
When we are in a negative mood, our thoughts can follow suit. Negative thoughts lead to a more negative mood, and the cycle continues. The opposite is true for the positive mood and thoughts.
Remember this as you go though your day, and see if you can hold your thoughts lightly, question them to see if they are really true, or if they are a reflection of your mood. Questioning your thoughts gives you back control over your day, and stop the cycle of negaitivity.
"In mindfulness, we give our thoughts less importance. We know that while our thoughts can be useful, they can also be deceptive and unhelpful. One of the benefits of practising mindfulness is that your thoughts begin to take their proper place in your life. They become the servant and not the master."
The 3 Minute Breathing Space is a fundamental part of all mindfulness programs. It trains us to step out of the auto-pilot mode we spend so much of our time in, and see where we are at inside.
Checking in with our internal weather in this way opens up the opportunity to make adjustments as necessary. If we find we are stuck in thoughts of the past, or worries about the future, we can reconnect with the present moment. If we find some areas of the body are holding tension, we can invite the breath to relax those areas.
Set a reminder on your phone or smart watch to pause for a 3 Step Breathing Space at least 3 times a day, and if you feel a strong emotion, see if you can remember to use the practice.
Step 1 - Become aware of your inner experience in this moment.
What thoughts are in your mind? As best you can, see them as mental events, don't get involved with them. Label them, 'thinking'.
What feelings are present? Acknowledge whatever is present, and if it's unpleasant, try to turn toward it, and not away.
What sensations are in the body? Quickly scan the body to see what you notice, are there any sensations of tightness or contraction?
Step 2 - Focus your attention on the breath at the abdomen.
As best you can, focus on the sensations in the abdomen as it rises and falls with the breath. Remain here for at least three full breaths. If the mind wanders, gently and kindly bring it back to the breath.
Step 3 - Expand the attention to the body as a whole. Expand the attention again to include the body in the room and any sensations of touch or pressure on your chair or the floor. Gradually begin to open your attention to sounds in the room, the feeling of the air around you, and when you're ready, open the eyes and continue with your day.
"The breathing space sets us up to encounter life in a different frame of mind, coming fully home to the present, rather than just giving ourselves a break from thinking." - Teasdale, Williams, & Segal
The average person has 48.6 thoughts per minute, most of these are an analysis or running commentary on what is happening in each moment.
Our thoughts colour the facts of a situation–whatever is happening in the world can be made better or worse by the thoughts we have about it.
An example I can give from my work with clients is when someone is experiencing a depression or anxiety, a common thought can be: "There's something wrong with me, if I was normal I wouldn't be having this anxiety!". Imagine how much worse this thought makes the person feel.
Even in small situations like the person in front of you at the coffee shop nabbing the last scone–you might be tempted to say to yourself "Oh that's typical, I never have any luck" - take a moment to see how it feels to tell yourself that. It doesn't make you feel good, does it?
What helps is to become more aware of what stories you're telling yourself during the day, here's a short practice to do several times a day to help:
"It's amazing to observe how much power we give unknowingly to uninvited thoughts: 'Do this, say that, remember, plan obsess, judge.' They have the potential to drive us quite crazy, and they often do!" - Joseph Goldstein
When you notice yourself getting caught up in your thoughts or emotions, pause for a minute, and take a couple of belly breaths, then:
You just moved out of story and emotion, and made contact with what is actually here right now. This practice is grounding and calming, and a nice reminder that right here, right now, everything is ok.
"Awaken to the mystery of being here and enter the quiet immensity of your own presence."
A simple way to calm down from a stressful event, or during an anxiety attack, is to use something you always have with you–your breath.
When we are stressed the Sympathetic Nervous System is activated, this is the body's ancient method of helping keep us safe; if we met a predator in the old hunter-gatherer days, we had 3 options: to fight them, flee from them, or freeze (play dead). We are no longer hunted by wild boar, but the body responds in the same way to any perceived threat, real or imaginary. The same systems are activated whether we are in a fender bender, or a friend blanks us on the street.
You can probably tell your Sympathetic Nervous System is activated if your heart rate has sped up, your breath has quickened, and possibly your limbs are tingling or shaking (they're ready to sprint to safety!).
In the old days, once the threat disappeared, the Parasympathetic Nervous System would kick in and restore balance. This system reduces the heart rate and blood pressure, returning the body to a relaxed state. Now however, our faster pace of life can have us in a low level of stress, making it more difficult for the Parasympathetic Nervous System to do it's thing. We can add to this by keeping the threat alive in our minds, replaying the scenario over and over in our heads. The body doesn't know the difference between a thought and reality, so it responds in the same way, activating the Sympathetic Nervous System active against the perceived threat.
A simple way to calm down is by making the exhale longer than the inhale. Doing this, you consciously activate the Parasympathetic Nervous System, telling the body it's safe to relax, the threat is gone, all is well.
If you count the breath as you go, your mind is kept busy and doesn't have time to go over the event, keeping it alive in your thoughts.
The next time you find yourself feeling stressed, or after an upsetting event, thy this:
"If prolonged, however, the stress signals whizzing through the body wreak havoc. Besides maintaining a mental feeling of constant stress, the extra epinephrine and cortisol damage blood vessels, increase blood pressure and promote a buildup of fat. So, while the fight-or-flight response serves a purpose, you don't want it switched on all the time." - Live Science
If you stop and look it it, you might realise that many of our problems come not from events themselves, but our thoughts about those events. For example, if I apply for a job and don't get it, it's pretty crap in itself, but, my thoughts will then jump in and make it much worse. I might think: "I'm such a failure for not getting that job, nothing ever works out for me, life is shit!", instead of the more rational: "There were 200 people going for this job, so the chances weren't that good that I would get it, I know I don't have X skill that they were looking for."
Inside our own heads we tend to give ourselves the worst deal, and no-one can hear us do it, so we get away with it all day long. If a friend was listening in on our internal conversation, they would intervene with a less negatively biased, and more rational, and kinder version of what we tell ourselves, and we'd probably feel a lot better as a result!
If we want a more peaceful and happy life, we need to get better at challenging our own thoughts, and choosing more wisely what to believe. Here are a couple of questions you can use to help you do that:
"Thoughts simply aren’t facts, they are mental events that pop up in the mind and are dependent on our mood." - Elisha Goldstein
Self-trust is good thing. It can help us act more confidently and wisely in daily life, it can reduce anxiety and indecision, and it allows us to make better choices for ourselves based on our own needs, and not what others want of us. But, it depends on which part of yourself you trust.
We are all made up of many parts, and they tend to reflect what's going on inside and outside of us. If I'm in a hurry I can be impatient/dismissive Claire, if I'm feeling insecure I can be miserable/defensive Claire (she's not much fun). If I am in a good mood I am kind and generous Claire.
Trying to remain consistent in life, and the choices I make is pretty challenging with all these different selves at the steering wheel on different days!
Making a simple decision like going for a walk every day becomes a roulette depending which part of me is in charge of getting off the sofa and putting my coat on. Impatient Claire sees it as just another thing to squeeze into my day and does something 'more important', Miserable Claire thinks it is all pointless so doesn't bother, Kind/Generous Claire dances around the walk no bother (if only she was around every day...).
There is another part of me that I can trust consistently though. Sometimes, it speaks so quietly I have to strain to hear it, sometimes, I can be too caught up in being annoyed or sad or busy to listen for it, but as time passes, and painful lessons are learned, I have come to realise the importance of it.
It's the part of me that sits back and observes all my other selves squabble over what's best for me, and, when I choose to listen, offers me the most loving response.
Daily meditation is how to hear it. When I meditate every day, the volume of the other parts of me dims, and I get to hear my own steady inner wisdom.
This part of me is loving and kind, patient and forgiving. It wants the best for me, and waits calmly for me no matter how many times I ignore it, mess up, or repeat old mistakes. It knows me well, and will show me the way, whenever I choose to ask.
See if you can sit in awareness every day. Try not to strain or reach for your inner wisdom, just see if you can quieten enough to make room for it. Notice what comes. You might find some real self-trust.
“We have all a better guide in ourselves, if we would attend to it, than any other person can be.”
When we decide to make change in our lives it can be tempting to think that it will happen overnight, and we will all of a sudden be new and better versions of ourselves. Life isn't a TV movie though, and the reality can be quite different.
Change comes through choosing to do something differently every day, over and over, until the choice becomes less of an active process, and more of a natural habit.
This isn't very glamorous, I'll admit. I remember one of my tutors sharing this idea when I was training, and I was so disappointed, I wanted it to be more instant, more profound, more dramatic! But much of life isn't dramatic, it's lots of normal little moments put together one after the other.
If we take a minute to look at this, we can see the huge potential for little changes offered to us in a day, if we can change our attitude to celebrate the little wins.
Whatever you are trying to change, celebrate each small decision that contributes to that change. Every time you choose an apple over a cookie, a walk over the sofa, a minute of mindfulness over the pull of worry or rumination, clap yourself on the back for taking another step forward. This is change in action.
“Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes courage is the little voice at the end of the day that says I’ll try again tomorrow.” - Mary Anne Radmacher
One of the major contributors to anxiety is the habit of worrying about, or trying to predict the future. We might think we are being sensible, we might think if we can plan ahead enough we can prevent things from going wrong, and keep ourselves and our loved ones save from harm.
Of course, a little bit of forward thinking has it's uses--e.g., if you're going on holiday get travel insurance, regularly check your car tyres, oil, and water (or get your Dad to do it like I do...:)), eat healthy foods and take some exercise. Taking actions like these make sense, they help put your best foot forward.
However, many of us can stay stuck in a place of fortune telling, and this actually has the opposite of the desired effect. It's tiring, stressful to mind and body, and it can have us in such a state of fear that we become afraid to life life to the full. Th irony is that being stressed out, exhausted, and fearful will make the world seems like a more dangerous and dark place, so it's actually making your fears come true!
This week, take a mindful pause several times a day (I set a reminder on my watch so I don't forget), and check in with your thoughts.
If you find yourself fortune telling, STOP.
Ask yourself if there is anything practical or helpful you can do to help whatever you are thinking or worrying about.
If there is, do it, or make a note to do it later.
If there isn't, let it go. It's robbing you of the present moment, and this moment IS your life.
"How much pain have cost us the evils that have never happened." - Thomas Jefferson
The Weekly Minute is a blog I write each week with the aim of providing legitimate tools to help promote positive mental health.
The collection of short, practical mindfulness and therapy tools for self-reflection and self-improvement, can equip people to take their mental well-being into their own hands, and improve their quality of life.
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