How we view the world is coloured largely by two things: how we feel on the inside, and our evolutionary bias toward scanning for danger.
Maybe you have noticed that if you're feeling a little blue, your daily interactions and activities will tend to feel flat and dull. Or if you're feeling anxious, they may seem to be tinged with an unnameable fear.
You might also have noticed how we hold on to the one negative comment but quickly forget the five positive ones. This is a genetic pre-disposition from our hunter-gatherer days, when we were constantly on the lookout for things that could eat us, and, our need to be accepted as part of the group as there is safety in numbers.
These are two good reasons to not trust the first interpretation your mind offers you, and to actively seek out other ways of seeing a situation.
An example might be when you send a message, and you see the two blue ticks that tell you it's been read, but your friend doesn't reply. You might instantly think: "Oh no! What did I do to offend her??" - but don't accept that. Come up with at least 2 other ways of interpreting the situation. Maybe your friend got distracted; maybe she was just about to go into a meeting; maybe her phone ran out of battery just then.
If you find it hard to come up with other ways of seeing something, ask a friend to help you, or pretend a friend has asked you for help. Give it a try, and see how it feels!
"In effect, the brain is like Velcro for negative experiences, but Teflon for positive ones. That shades “implicit memory” – your underlying expectations, beliefs, action strategies, and mood – in an increasingly negative direction....But you don’t have to accept this bias! By tilting toward the good – “good” in the practical sense of that which brings more happiness to oneself and more helpfulness to others – you merely level the playing field." - Dr. Rick Hanson
The clocks changed this weekend, so we have darker evenings, and we saw the first real signs of winter after a mild autumn. This can be a challenging time of year for some, with less sunlight, and bad weather can make getting outdoors less fun. Some of us can experience more isolation and lower mood at this time of year, and we need to take a little extra care of ourselves in winter months.
Here are a few things that can help:
"What good is the warmth of summer, without the cold of winter to give it sweetness." - John Steinbeck
When's the last time you had a good laugh?
Sometimes, adult life can become very serious, with too much work, too many bills, all those things to get done, all the people to look after—and all that before we watch the news!
It's important to remember that life can also be fun, and one of the purposes of life can simply be to enjoy it.
This week, take a look at your schedule and see where you can insert some fun. It doesn't have to be a big commitment, even setting time aside to watch a show that makes you laugh (I go for Benidorm on Netflix, don't judge me), or playing a silly game with your kids, or having lunch with a light-hearted friend can do the trick.
Much like the Two Wolves we talked about last week, remember to feed the Fun Wolf, the Responsible Wolf gets enough to eat!
An old Chief and his grandson sat in the shade of an ancient tree, staring at the river below.
The elder looked troubled.
Softly the boy asked: “What is the matter Grandpa?“
The old man frowned and said: “It is as if there are two wolves fighting in my heart.“
"Tell me about the wolves?” said the boy.
“Well, one is a nasty, vengeful, aggressive wolf and the other wolf is gentle, forgiving and peaceful.“
The boy thought about this and then asked: “Which one is going to win?“
“Ahhh, my boy….“ replied his grandfather and his face lit up “That’s easy …… the one I feed.“
I look at this little story and apply it to where I put my attention. If I allow my thoughts to wander into the past, and bad things that may have happened, or wrongs people have done to me, I am feeding the wolf of hurt and anger.
If I am reading all those negative stories online about Brexit, climate change, who is richer and prettier than me, I am feeding the wolf of fear, helplessness, and inadequacy.
However, if I am out for a walk with a friend, taking in the beauty of the countryside and chatting, I am feeding the wolf of connection and joy.
If I choose to do a meditation, some yoga, or a gratitude practice then I am feeding the wolf of self-care and self-love.
We are what we do, and each day is another opportunity to feed the right wolf.
Check in with yourself regularly this week, and see which wolf is growing fatter.
"Whatever we put our attention on will grow stronger in our life." - Maharishi Mahesh Yogi
This practice lets you take back control of your ‘monkey mind’. Often our minds are darting around from one place to another and it can be difficult to focus. You might have noticed yourself that your thoughts tend to wander off to the same places, perhaps to something bad that happened last week, or something you’re worried about in the future. Spending too much time in the past or the future not only steals from what is happening right now, it can also feed depression or anxiety.
A practice such as this one strengthens your attention muscle, so you can make better choices about where to put your attention.
Aim to do this several times a day for the next week. (It may help to set a reminder on your phone.) Each time you practice, know that you are doing a little more to break the habits of your automatic thinking, and take control of your life.
“Most people don’t realize that the mind constantly chatters. And yet, that chatter winds up being the force that drives us much of the day in terms of what we do, what we react to, and how we feel.” ~Jon Kabat-Zinn
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."
With the change in season, many of us undertake a change in ourselves too. We sign up to a class to learn a new skill, embark on a new diet to shed a few summer holiday pounds, decide to take a break from alcohol until Christmas.
Whatever your change might be, it may come along with a nagging voice that says: "Catch yourself on, remember the last time you tried? You lasted a week and gave up!".
Predicting our own failure can stop us in our tracks, and become a self fulfilling prophecy—we tell ourselves we'll never finish what we start, and so, we prime ourselves to drop out.
What about if we did the opposite? What about if we were to tell ourselves that this time, we will do it. AND, really feel that in the body. Picture yourself on the last day of the pottery class taking home your wares. Picture yourself feeling lighter and brighter in those jeans that haven't fit since before the summer BBQ's.
When I say 'picture it' I mean let your mind daydream there for a while. What does your body feel like in this daydream about your achievement? Is your posture different? Perhaps you're standing a little taller and breathing a little more deeply? Are you smiling? Do you feel a sense of pride well up in your chest at your job well done? What else do you notice in this daydream?
What you're doing here is breaking old habitual neural pathways and introducing new ones. Even by imagining fully that something is true, the body and brain will believe it, as it isn't that great at knowing the difference between a thought and reality.
There have been studies done on how people who just imagine themselves working a set of muscles, actually strengthen those muscles. Your mind is a powerful tool, use it to your advantage!
Set a reminder to do this daydream exercise every morning, just for a few minutes, and before your desired change activity. This will keep your intention strong, and reinforce those new neural pathways.
“By taking just a few extra seconds to stay with a positive experience—even the comfort in a single breath—you’ll help turn a passing mental state into lasting neural structure.”
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
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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