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Mindfulness. That seems to be a word that gets tossed around a lot, but what does it really mean? All throughout the day, we all have thoughts and “chatter” that run through our minds. Sometimes those thoughts take us down a path that leads to feelings of stress, anxiety, or even depression and take us away from experiencing the present moment. Mindfulness is the idea of staying present in the moment and not following those thoughts that take us places we don’t want to go.
There are a lot of different ways to describe what happens when we have thoughts that take us out of the present moment. Some people call this “spinning stories,” “taking the bait,” or “pulling the yarn.” What often happens is that we have one thought that makes us feel a little uneasy. This leads to another thought, and another thought, and another thought. Before we know it, we are having intense feelings of anxiety or sadness regarding something that has not even happened yet. An example of this might be worry over not meeting a deadline. You might think, “I really need to make sure I get this done on time.” This leads to, “If I don’t get this done on time, I’m really going to be in a lot of trouble.” Then, “And if I get in trouble, I might lose my job. And if I lose my job, then what would I have? I’d really be worthless.” By the time you get to the end of this thought train, you might be feeling anxious or depressed, and you can see how these types of thought processes could quickly spiral out of control.
Think of these types of thought processes as similar to riding a bike on a very small circular track. The first thought (“I really need to make sure I get this done on time”) is like walking up to the track and picking up the bike. This is the moment where you choose to get on the bike or not. The next thought (“If I don’t get this done on time, I’m really going to be in a lot of trouble”) and the ones that follow are you climbing on to that bike and then riding around and around and around until you’re so dizzy you have a hard time knowing what’s what. But what if you never get on the bike? What if you walk up to the track, pick up the bike, but then set the bike down and walk away? This is mindfulness: making the conscious decision to stay in the present moment rather than following that thought train.
So what can you do to be more mindful? We all have thoughts that could take us somewhere we don’t want to go. This is natural human nature. When you find yourself having that first thought, be gentle with yourself. Remind yourself, “I’m pretty sure I know where this is going, and I am not going there today.” Take note of how your body is feeling, if your heart is racing, if you feel tenseness somewhere. Then refocus your mind on the present moment.
Some people haven’t learned the tools necessary to “refocus” so, to do this, they have to practice in a safe, uninterrupted, environment. While there are many ways to practice this skill, spending time picturing pieces of anxiety-provoking event while controlling your breathing can help. Close your eyes. Focus on your breathing, your heart-beat, your skin. As you focus on the smallest parts of yourself, you learn the rest is outside of yourself. Practice these brain and body exercises to develop a reflex that you control you. Things outside of you aren’t within your control (sometimes) but how you react to them can be, with practice. As your skill at focusing on yourself, and what you can control (your reaction), improves you’ll be able to exert more self-control.
You may have to refocus yourself a few times if your mind wants to go back down that path you want to avoid, and that’s ok. It might be helpful to picture these thoughts as bubbles. When you see them, mentally “pop” them, ever so gently, and return to what you were doing. They are probably going to show up again, and you can just keep popping them. Practice will improve your mental needle. Eventually over time, these types of thoughts will show up less and less often.
Just remember, you don’t have to ride that bike. The choice is up to you.
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