We often fail to recognise the impact our thoughts have on our emotional well-being. It's pretty easy to recognise when you are feeling a negative emotion, after all, it feels bad. We feel tense, irritable, stressed-out. Sometimes, we recognise our behaviours that are associated with these feelings. We withdraw, stomp around, or pace the hallways. But what about our thoughts?
Actually, it all starts with our thoughts...
Wait, what? Our thoughts come first? Well, yes, according to CBT, or Cognitive Behaviour Therapy theory. This idea suggests that it's our interpretations of situations that lead to a particular feeling and set of actions. Helpful, realistic, coping-oriented thoughts or interpretations lead to helpful, realistic, coping-oriented feelings and behaviours. And vice versa. Extreme, unhelpful thoughts, that overestimate how bad something is or how likely it is the bad thing is going to happen (or overestimate how bad something was that actually happened), lead to extreme feelings, and extreme behaviours. But what does this have to do with being present?
Being "present" means being in the here and now.
Having our attention focused on our experience right in this moment. Connecting with what is actually happening right here, right now. It's a concept called "Mindfulness", and it's making it's way into many therapy rooms across the globe. But why is is helpful to be mindful? Well, think about when we are having those stressed thoughts. The ones about last week, or yesterday, or this afternoon, or next year. When we spend time up in our heads, time-travelling with our thoughts, it takes us away from what is right in front of us. The important things. The things that bring meaning, richness, and connection to our lives. Our children. Our gardens. What is on our dinner plate. Well, these things bring richness to my life. Whatever brings richness to your lives is what you might want to spend some more time engaging with.
So, how does one be present?
Well, there are lots of ways actually. But a good place to start is to think about your five senses. Sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell. Your senses tell you about this exact moment. What you hear is occurring right now. Not yesterday. Not tomorrow. This very moment. Same for the other senses. I like to show my clients an activity called the 5,4,3,2,1 game, to help them start to connect with their present experience (and disconnect from their time-travelling stressed thoughts). It involves noticing 5 things you can see, 4 things you can hear, 3 things you can touch, 2 things you can smell, and 1 thing you can taste. You CAN mix up the order, but I find this version works well.
Try it now. And next time you are eating dinner, or in the shower, or going for a walk. And notice whether that experience added richness and meaning to your life. Then recognise that now, you have the ability to be present and connected with the here and now. There are heaps of other ways to add richness and meaning to your life. Reach out to your therapist to find out more.
Olivia Boer is a Clinical Psychologist and Director of Healthy Mind Centre Launceston, a private psychology practice in Launceston, Tasmania.