Unhelpful Thinking Styles (7)
This is my last blog in my series on unhelpful thinking styles – and it’s about taking one day at a time and living in today. Our minds have a tendency to ‘time-travel’ – so much of our thoughts can be about things from the past or concerns about the future.
Have you ever had occasions where you are doing something mundane such as chores around the home, brushing your teeth or eating lunch and barely realise what you’re doing or taste what you’ve eaten because your mind has been thinking about other things?, Perhaps those thoughts have made you feel angry or anxious, but there’s nothing you can do about them because the issues are either in the past or might never happen?
Many years ago I saw an interesting quote written on a wall in a pub restaurant that said “You can’t change yesterday, but you can ruin today by worrying about tomorrow”. This has much wisdom in it, but I think it can take quite a bit of practice to learn to live in today.
Of course there are lots of difficulties that are too devastating and difficult to be simply managed by trying to focus on the present – that’s not what this blog is intended for. This is about general niggles and concerns that tend to upset us, but that can we can learn to overcome by being more focused on the here and now.
Time-travel thoughts can occur for many reasons. Firstly, our minds like to be active, hence why we can reach for our phones to entertain us with games or social media whilst we’re waiting in a queue or on a bus/train, so if we’re doing something routine that doesn’t require much brain-power then our minds can easily wander.
Secondly, there are advantages and disadvantages to our human brains – we have the capacity to ruminate and re-visit past situations as many times as we like and also think about the future and what choices we might make or what potential problems we might encounter. Whilst this can be very helpful for learning from mistakes, improving current life situations or making sensible plans, it can also cause us to feel regret, shame or anger about the past or make us feel anxious or hopeless about the future.
Thirdly, if there are issues from the past that aren’t yet resolved emotionally, such as bullying, neglect, abuse, broken relationships and bereavement then these can leave you with all sorts of negative emotions and unhelpful beliefs about yourself and affect how you see your life both now and in the future. If this is the case, then I would recommend that you consider counselling to help you work through these difficulties.
So how can we learn to live more focused on today? Well if you imagine your days as a very big pile of sticks – each stick represents a day. If you try to carry all of the sticks – all of the concerns of each of your days, it can feel incredibly heavy – the more you try to carry the heavier it gets and the more you feel you can’t cope. Whereas if you learn to just carry one stick a day – just focusing on and managing today’s activities and concerns – this is far lighter and more manageable.
So if your mind starts to time-travel – then the first step is to recognise it, for example – ‘aah, there I go, getting annoyed about being kept waiting by my friend who’s always running late’ Then reminding yourself – ‘actually, that was yesterday, they apologised and I have to remember that no one’s perfect and there’s no need to go back over it again and upset myself.’ Then focus your mind back on the present – on what you’re doing right now. Perhaps even focusing on what’s around you – what you can see, hear, smell, taste or touch to help bring your mind back to the here and now.
Also reminding yourself that you only need to think about today’s concerns and demands – what you need to do today and that’s all. Tomorrow’s activities are for tomorrow only.
These new ways of thinking are like a skill – it doesn’t come easily at first – it takes time and effort to learn to remind yourself of the suggestions above and focus on the now…I know I’m still learning and am trying to take my own advice.
But if after reading this you feel that there are issues in your life that are weighing too heavily on your shoulders – either from the past, present or concerns for the future, then please get in touch – it can be very helpful to share these with a professional counsellor.