‘Where are my keys? My glasses? My wallet? Where was I going just now?’ These are questions that we ask ourselves all the time, to check-in, to make sure that we know we have what we should and are still headed in the right direction. They help us to orient ourselves because the events of daily life are always nudging us off course. ‘Where is my mind at this moment?’ is another orienting question, but one that we don’t usually ask as often.
The mind has a mind of its own and no matter where we put our focus it inevitably moves on to something else. That the mind does this so automatically is perfectly consistent with many other bodily processes that also happen outside of our conscious control. For example, we don’t typically know how to grow hair and fingernails, the body just does it. Thinking happens similarly: You can decide to think about something specific, like the name of your teacher from grade 3 or the route to a particular store, but as soon as you release control of your mind, it will take off somewhere all on its own.
The challenge for people who struggle with anxiety, worry or depression occurs because the body’s fight-flight alarm and defence systems activate all by themselves, depending on what the mind happens to be thinking about. When the mind is off in the future, thinking about difficult things that might happen, the body feels fear. When the mind is back in the past, thinking about difficult things that have already happened, we feel emotional pain. These physical and emotional reactions can occur even when there are no actual threats or dangers in front you in the present moment. This is the same process that allows you to almost taste or smell your favourite food even if you’re only imagining a plate of it floating in front of you.
Try this exercise to begin coping better with anxiousness and depression. Find a place where you can sit quietly for a few minutes. Starting with your finger on the word ‘Present’ above, move it like a needle on a gauge so it’s consistent with where the focus of your mind is meandering to. You might be surprised by how much your mind jumps from past to present to future and back.
Use this same exercise the next time you feel anxious, stressed, worried or depressed. Check-in with your thinking and see where your mind it at. If it’s off in the future or back in the past, bring it back to whatever is happening right now, in the present moment. The present moment is the only one we have and it’s the only one we need to cope with, ever.
Shift Cognitive Therapy Oakville is a psychology practice with a focus on change.