Sometimes our minds take us for a very unpleasant ride. We start thinking about worst-case scenarios, about all the horrendous things that could happen, terrible tragedies that could befall us or those we love. We imagine conversations that might take place, making ourselves sick as though this interaction were real, and happening now. You can raise your blood pressure with your thoughts alone.
Maybe it’s because some primal part of us is still on the alert for predators. Negativity bias has been studied at length. Our ability to recall negative experiences is greater than our ability to remember positive ones, and this has been a major survival skill we’ve needed from the beginning of time. How to stay out of harm’s way, and how to use our past experiences to recognize and try to avoid danger in our future? Is there a saber-tooth tiger around the next corner? Are we going to have to run for our lives? Will we be able to find enough food to feed our families? Whatever the reasons, the mind can get snagged easily on the negative, even though most of us can go to the store to buy our kale, and are unlikely to find ourselves on the wrong side of a hungry tiger.
It’s not just mortal peril we obsess over. We’ve extended this sense of imminent danger to include ways we’ve been slighted, wronged, betrayed, and disappointed. We can focus on all the things we don’t have yet, and wonder why other people have them. We can dwell on all the ways we don’t measure up, all the mistakes we’ve made, all the dire consequences we’ve brought down upon ourselves.
If you find yourself spiraling in this way, chances are you’re feeling vulnerable, and one of the best ways to disrupt the cycle is to turn your attention to your breath. I know that sounds absurdly simple, and it is. It’s just not easy to catch yourself, but when you do, when you become aware that you’re in the midst of self-created agony, try placing one hand on your heart, the other on your belly. Slow down and deepen your breath, seeing if you can fill your belly first, and follow the inhale up into your chest. If this is new for you, being horizontal might be helpful, but you can definitely do this at your desk if you need to. Hold the inhale in for a beat, and then exhale slowly, emptying your chest first, then your belly, and hold the breath out for a beat. Focus on a complete out-breath. Then inhale again. Repeat the cycle several times. If you feel very anxious, see if you can go for sixty breaths. In this way, you’ll calm your nervous system; you have the power to do that. By focusing on your breath, you’ll train your mind on something real, something that is happening in the now. You’ll become present.
With presence, you can start to choose different thoughts. You can remind yourself of everything you do have. Maybe you have dreams, gifts to share, ideas that are particular to you, and grow from your own experiences in this life. Maybe you might remind yourself of some of your good traits, some kind things you’ve done. You might think about all the ways things could go right. You could imagine a conversation you want to have, and you could envision it happening with love and compassion. When we come back to the now, we also give ourselves the power to choose one thought over another, and then we can pick the thoughts that will strengthen us instead of weaken us. We can imagine for ourselves and for our loved ones, all the amazing scenarios that might unfold.
Your life is made up of moments. Worrying about what might happen in the future won’t change anything, it will just rob you of this moment. Dwelling on what’s already happened won’t change anything, it will only rob you of this moment. In this moment, there is the potential for whatever is real for you right now: joy, peace, grief, heartache, rage, envy, shame, fear, hope. There’s enormous power in being with what is, and in not allowing yourself to spiral into your past or into your imagined future. When you “stop the tape”, you give your mind a rest, and everything works better with rest. Then you might find some clarity, and an easier time figuring out what the next right step is.
Sending you love,
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