Sometimes we're our own worst enemy. We get caught up in our head and our thoughts begin to race and before we even know it we've wasted an evening, gotten ourselves freaked out over tomorrow's problems, or given up hope of things ever changing. All from inside our minds.
When you stop to think about it, it's pretty incredible. In a sick and twisted sort of way, but incredible none-the-less.
With a single thought we can take any moment and ruin it. We can't stop our thoughts from popping into our heads—don’t believe me? In order to even know we are not thinking something we first have to think the thought to realize we were not thinking it (pretty fun brain teaser, huh?). But we can choose what to do when thoughts show up to make our lives a little better.
Here are seven steps you can take to be more present and get unstuck from your mind.
1. Notice and identify any hooks.
Hooks capture our attention and reel us in, often before we even notice what is happening. When we get hooked, say for example by a distressing thought, we no longer get to choose what happens next. Almost without our consent that hook takes over and we are stuck repeating behaviors that we know don’t really help. Some common behaviors we do when we are hooked are leaving a situation or not going out to begin with, getting into an argument to end the conversation, or over-analyzing a thought or idea. All of these strategies may help us escape that thought in the short-term, but in the long-term it makes our lives more difficult.
So what can we do?
Get better at noticing hooks!
Just like thoughts, we don’t get to choose whether hooks show up. But if we can get better at noticing hooks we can avoid getting hooked; we can be in control of what happens next.
One way to notice hooks is create a label or story to identify common hooks you have. While our minds throw out lots of different thoughts, most people have common themes of thoughts that are distressing or negative. For example, someone with social anxiety may have common hooks we could call the “did I say or do something stupid?” hook and “if I go I will embarrass myself” hook. We could also name hooks based on the emotion they elicit: anger hook, embarrassment hook, unloveable hook.
Take a moment to think through the common upsetting thoughts, memories, physical sensations, or feelings that cause you the most distress. If you could come up with a tagline or a label for what those experiences represent, what hook it is, what would it be?
Got it? Great! Now your job is to try to catch when that hook shows up, and notice what that hook is pulling you to do next.
Once you get good at noticing hooks then you can begin to ask yourself how you want to act or what you want to do next in that situation. Regardless of what that hook is trying to pull you into. Take the “if I go I will embarrass myself” hook from above. When this hook shows up, this person may want to take a breath on purpose, think why it’s important to go to that party or get together, and say yes even if their mind is screaming at them that they will make a fool of themselves.
Still struggling to notice and label hooks? Listen to the “Leaves On A Stream” mindfulness exercise in the subscribers only section of the website. Not a subscriber? Sign-up for free here and access exclusive content and resources.
2. Describe and become curious about what you are experiencing.
Often what we call anxiety, depression, stress, or even chronic pain is a lot more complex than the label we put on it. And this label can have a greater reaction in us than the varied experiences of that label. Take anxiety. Often times when that hook of anxiety shows up it tends to freak us out because anxiety is not a pleasant experience. And yet the more we focus on being anxious the more we become anxious about being anxious. It’s a terrible loop we get stuck in that serves to ramp up the experience we are trying to calm down.
This happens because the labels we attach to our emotions and thoughts have really strong negative connotations, and by focusing on the label we miss the unique experience of that moment.
But wait! Didn’t you just tell me in #1 to label these experience?!
You’re absolutely right. Labeling can be a helpful way to identify hooks when they are being sneaky. But once we can identify and notice when they show up, we then want to focus on the unique experience happening in that moment.
If you notice your anxiety hook showing up, pause and ask yourself what are you actually experiencing?
Maybe you notice it feels like a weight on your chest. Cool! Would you say it’s like a tiny kitten, or a big fat cat weight?
Maybe you notice you feel really restless. Okay. Is it like electricity zinging through your body? Or is it more of an urge to move or bounce?
What about the feeling of anxiety? Is it located in one area of your body or spread throughout your body. If you could give it a color or outline in your mind what would that look like?
These questions may seem silly, but what they help us do is ground ourselves in our actual lived experience of anxiety. When we focus on the label or hook of anxiety we can get trapped in our mind going through every worst case scenario or fear. However, when we stop to actually notice what we are experiencing, we halt the anxiety loop that goes: “I’m feeling anxious, Ahhh oh no anxiety, I hate anxiety, now it’s getting worse!” and instead are able to focus solely on what is happening in this moment. It may not necessarily make the thought or feelings go away, but it’s unlikely to make it worse like the anxiety loop does.
Through focusing on what our experience is we can also expand our attention out to other experiences that have nothing to do with “anxiety.” As we feel that urge to fidget we may notice that our arms are crossed tightly over our chest which makes it harder to breathe. We may then uncross our arms and take a breath on purpose. Maybe we notice an itch on our nose, or the feel of the sun on our exposed skin. Maybe we look around and watch and describe the different people or objects we see.
As we begin to describe our experience of anxiety and focus on the present moment, we can also, through practice, begin to sink a little further into other sensations that make up this moment allowing anxiety to be only one of many that we experience.
Want to practice this process? Listen to the “Body Scan” mindfulness exercise exclusive to subscribers.
3. Identify the function of your mind.
Our minds are a threat detection machine. Its sole mission to keep us safe. Sometimes that means it overreacts to seemingly innocent experiences. When we can take this perspective and understand the function of our mind, we can begin to understand why thoughts and feelings pop up when they do. Our mind, for the most part, no longer has to protect us from lions, and tigers, and bears. Rather it spends most of its time focusing on social threats: social isolation, social exclusion, social embarrassment. We are social creatures; we need each other for survival. And in its own messed up way, our mind thinks it is helping us when it tells us others are better off without us, suggests that we are undeserving of respect or love, whispers we will screw everything up, or finds us lacking and reminds us its better to stay home.
When we can acknowledge that this is the product of a malfunctioning system (“thanks mind for that. You know you’re actually not helping”) we can get a little breathing room to not take our minds as seriously.
Our mind screams at us to avoid any tiny chance of disaster, and yet the more you listen to your mind, I’d wager the more you miss out on and the louder your mind becomes. When we take the mind to be the fountain of Truth and believe everything it says instead of understanding its function we miss out on the things that matter to us.
Don’t take my word for it. Take a look at your patterns of behavior.
When you listen to your mind and believe the things it whispers to you are you better off? Are you living a full life? I’d guess not. Our minds try to protect us from fear, failure, pain, but it does it through removing us from situations or holding us back from opportunities. Sure, it makes that fear go away for a little, sometimes, but it always comes back and we are right back where we were before: looking at the life we want but unable to grasp it because fear holds us captive.
What would it be like to notice our hooks, sink into our experience, acknowledge that our mind is trying to help, but isn’t all-knowing, and choose to engage with our life and the people in it we care about even if fear is there?
When I say identify the function, what I mean is practice noticing the outcome of listening to your mind and whether its the outcome you would have chosen for yourself. If it’s not? Store that information away and the next time your mind throws out that hook remember that biting that hook didn’t produce the outcome you wanted and try something different.
4. Acknowledge whatever fear, anxiety, anger, hurt you are experiencing.
Usually when painful stuff shows up for us our main goal is to make it go away. I have yet to meet someone who told themselves to stop feeling sad and miraculously stopped feeling sad so it’s my guess that trying not to feel a certain way hasn’t really worked that well for you. And when we are unwilling to come into contact with sadness, or fear, or anxiety, or any other painful emotion we go to great lengths to try and make it go away: we drink, eat foods we shouldn’t, do drugs, get in arguments, work long hours, binge watch Netflix, mindlessly scroll through the internet for hours. And this works for a little while. But then the emotion comes back and we are stuck in the same avoidance loop (I feel sad, watch Netflix, I feel sad and lonely, stay home and eat pizza, I feel sad and lonely and fat, go to sleep, and so on).
One simple yet difficult step in halting this cycle is to acknowledge whatever emotions or painful thoughts you are feeling. It can be difficult to sit with the knowledge that you feel something unpleasant or think something upsetting, but if we can point to the elephant in the room, we can then begin to do something about it.
5. Use Yes, AND approach.
So you’ve acknowledged how you feel. Awesome! Now what?
There’s a phrase I hear often in my work: Yes, but …
As soon as I hear it I know what comes next. It usually comes after a conversation about who and what is important to this person—what I call values. What they want their life to look like. They agree with me up until we begin to discuss taking steps towards this life. Then the dreaded yes, but … comes in.
For some reason values and pain become mutually exclusive in many people’s lives. I can do the things that matter to me once I no longer feel this way. And yet pain is a part of life. It’s something we all experience. Where one person is depressed, another has anxiety, and another still has a painful physical disability. Their pain is different, but they are all struggling. If we wait until we no longer feel pain or only have happy, positive thoughts, we will be waiting forever. Even some of the worlds most accomplished people will talk with surprise that they are successful and admit to struggling with mental health concerns or health conditions. The difference is not how much money is in their bank accounts, but rather the way they frame this pain in their mind.
They take a Yes, And …. approach.
That approach goes a little something like this:
Yes, I am experiencing depression right now, and my friends are important to me so I am going to go out to dinner and pay attention to them even if I’m feeling terrible inside.
Yes, the pain in my back is throbbing so strongly it’s a struggle to ignore, and my daughter is my whole world so I am going to do my rehab exercises even if they hurt so I can one day walk to the park with her.
Yes, a terrible traumatic experience happened in my life and I experience fear all the time, and being financially independent is important to me so I am going to do go to therapy so I can attend my classes and graduate and get a job.
The next time you find yourself saying some version of Yes, But … to talk about your pain and your values, try switching it around and using Yes, And … you may be surprised what happens.
6. practice mindfulness and paying attention to the present moment.
This strategy connects well with #2: describing and noticing what you are experiencing, but it goes well beyond noticing only when a hook shows up.
The more we can cultivate the practicing of paying attention to our environment the more present we are and the less trapped in our minds or hooked on our thoughts we are. The equation really is that simple even if the practice isn’t. We can only focus our attention on one thing at a time. If we are not engaged in our environment then our mind will find something to be engaged with. Likely something to worry over.
There are many ways to practice. You could do a formal eyes closed exercise such as the mindfulness exercises I recorded for subscribers or those on the app Headspace. You could practice counting your breath a few times per day: (1) with the inhale, (2) with the exhale, all the way up to 10. You could set a reminder on your phone a few times per day and pause to notice (5) things you can see, (4) things you can touch, (3) things you can hear, (2) things you can smell, and (1) thing you can taste. Or simply stick to the five things you can see. You could take activities you already do, such as brushing your teeth or washing the dishes, and attempt to really pay attention to what that feels like.
However you choose to practice, remember this: mindfulness is like a muscle, you can’t do one sit up and expect to have abs. Same goes for mindfulness. You need to practice over and over again in order to see improvements. Don’t worry if you struggle, that just means you’re trying.
Not an eyes closed, sitting still kind of person? Listen to the “Walking Meditation” mindfulness exercise exclusive to subscribers and get a new perspective on your world.
7. Take your thoughts less literally.
I mentioned before that your mind is not the fountain of Truth. It doesn’t know things that you don’t and it’s not omniscient. Your mind is simply really good at doing one thing: identifying and ringing warning bells about potential threats; and its a tad bit heavy handed.
But taking our thoughts less literally and not buying into what our mind is saying is easier said than done.
One way to get a little space between what your mind says and your reality is in how you identify your thoughts. Usually thoughts pop up in a way that makes them feel absolute (“I am unloveable,” “this party will be a disaster,” “the world is better off without me”). A way to create some space is to pause and re-work how we think about thoughts. Whenever a thought pops up into your head notice that it is a thought by framing it as, “my mind is having the thought that …” This may seem like a silly task, but the more we can begin to realize that a thought is the product of our mind and not our destiny the easier it becomes to not get hooked by it. The easier it becomes to take our mind less literally.
I’ve heard some people say that they imagine a little devil sitting on their shoulder or a little monster following them around who is saying those thoughts. Some people will talk back to their mind and say something to the effect of, “thanks mind, that’s super helpful” before moving on to what they want to be doing. Others will imagine a thought bubble popping up above their head with the thought in it; they’ll spend a couple seconds noticing all the different thoughts that pop up in the thought bubble from “the world is better off without me” to “where did I leave my wallet?” Some folks find journaling helpful for this very reason: by writing out their thoughts on paper and looking at them it helps to create some space between themselves and their thoughts.
The purpose of all of these strategies is to increase our awareness around how our painful thoughts, feelings, memories, and physical sensations influence our behavior, and develop ways to interact with our experiences in a different way so we can gain better control of how we act even in the presence of painful stuff. Because while sometimes it can be helpful to get lost in our minds for a little, our lives can only be lived in this moment.
I’d love to hear what strategy you connect with the most. Drop a comment down below and tell me all about it!
This post is a bit different from other posts. In fact it wasn't even written in this year or the one before. As I was cleaning out and organizing all of my electronic files I came across this reflection I wrote in the midst of internship interview season.
As a Ph.D. candidate in clinical psychology, the last hoop you jump through before everyone must call you doctor is internship: a one year, full-time, clinical position. The internship itself was a pretty amazing experience; the interviewing was a whole other story. This is that story.
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In the last three weeks I have spent 19 nights sleeping in a bed – or couch – not my own. We often incorrectly make the assumption that because we understand the facts regarding a situation that it then holds we understand the context. I can say with certainty that I have been on 11 flights, 1 train, and driven almost 9 hours over the last three weeks, but that does nothing to capture the intricacies of the internship interviewing process; not just the exhaustion, but the complete numbness to the process and your responsibilities –
I took a nap immediately after each interview if the situation permitted, if I didn’t have to run to the airport for the next adventure. I learned exhaustion wasn’t cumulative, it grew exponentially such that any prior predictions or nightmares I envisioned missed the mark completely in the face of time zones, prolonged presentation management, and loved ones asking me what I thought of internship program X when I wasn’t even sure I had thoughts. I stole alone time any moment I got, slept when I could, and enjoyed the feel of walking outside in a strange place even if it was raining and cold. Asking curious others to hold off on drawing out opinions until I could sleep in my own bed and shifting focus onto the programs themselves helped to alleviate the unspecified frustration without providing any clarification to the outcome.
Research, organization, practice all served to prepare me for the interviews themselves and yet because I viewed the experience, understood the context, as a series of high stress, low transparency, professional interviews I came away from the experience lost. Assuming we are all proficient in our designated fields, know how to act like “normal” people, and can maintain that composure for a period of time it’s safe to assume that we could come out of interviews fairly certain we did not send up any red flags. I like to think I’m the type of person others would want to work with and yet the question I feel ill prepared to answer is how do I know if I want to work with them?
Internship programs tell us to ask questions that can help us make informed decisions, guides tell us what questions we may want to ask but what they fail to tell you is that data is not the goal in all of this, figuring out who you want to be is – and that’s a much harder question. Now that I have had a few days to breathe and sleep, have relearned how to process information and be a graduate student, I am left with the realization that I do not have the analytic plan to make any sense of the data I’ve collected.
More frustrating, the realization that as time goes on the data does not magically form into pros and cons that are along the same continuum but rather everyone else tells you which analysis to use to understand your data, essentially adding new variables that continue to make a mess of it all. Three days ago I had decided to follow “the feels” – that giddiness which has served me so well up to this moment in pointing me in a direction that I knew I’d have sustained passion. Today, I listened to esteemed advisors tell me to ignore the facts of internship and take a new perspective – go somewhere with mentors and a network that will advance your career. Naturally, I just want to go to sleep.
When I lived in San Diego I commuted 2 hours round trip from downtown San Diego to La Jolla five days per week. Not to mention the additional 15-30 minutes it took me to find parking when I got home.
This wasn’t even a pleasant drive. I was stuck on a major highway moving about 20 miles per hour jumping every time a motorcyclist sped in between the lanes going way faster than the law allowed. After a long day of work, the drive grated. It felt almost impossible to get anything productive done when I finally walked through the door.
I’d literally drop my bag on the floor, kick off my shoes, and get into comfortable clothes as fast as possible.
After months of this routine I realized something needed to change or I’d lose too many years in this rut. I found strategies that worked for me to turn the commute I dreaded into times of connection, reflection, and growth. I’d like to pass along to you what I’ve learned so you can take back your time too.
1. One day I had to stay late at work and didn’t leave until around 5:45 rather than my usual 5:00. I found out something interesting, if I left 45 minutes late I still arrived home around 6:15 because I missed some of that initial traffic. Now, I had no intention of working an additional 45 minutes every day but the benefit of spending less time in the car everyday was worth taking a week to figure out how I could use that time to help me feel more productive. After testing out different strategies (reading, answering emails, wandering aimlessly around the office, talking with coworkers) I figured out the perfect solution: I would take that 45 minutes to walk to and from the grocery store. The grocery store was down one hill and up another taking about 20 minutes round trip. So every day I’d get in at least 20 minutes of exercise and have 10-15 minutes to pick up groceries which encouraged me to cook at home (saving money) and eat more fresh produce.
Your Task: test times you leave for work and home to see if you can cut down time in the car and use that extra time to either start your day off in a better mindset or round out the day on a good note.
2. Living on the west coast while my whole family was on the east coast meant it was often difficult to connect. Thankfully my drive home situated me perfectly to call friends and family post dinner time on the east coast. Every day I'd pick a different person to call and we'd either talk for the whole drive home or I'd get to touch base and use the rest of the time for something that helped me unwind, such as music that I'd dance along to in my car.
Your Task: Are there people in your life who are available to talk during your commuting hours? Take that time to connect with them. If you already have a habit of calling family or friends when you get home or on the weekends, this strategy frees up time when you aren’t in your car to do something else while still connecting with loved ones. And if you aren’t already in the habit of touching base with people who matter this new approach may help you become closer to the people in your life.
3. The worst part of commuting for me was feeling as though time drudged along while my mind aimlessly wandered from one thing to another, never accomplishing anything worthwhile. I had such limited time and I wanted to use it to grow. The best thing I ever did was begin listening to audiobooks. My goal was to “read” all those books I’ve always planned to read that helped me grow as a person, but were still interesting. With audible, downpour, and free audiobooks from my library I was able to read about a book every two weeks. When I was in between books or waiting for something to become available from the library I’d also check out podcasts to listen to during my commute. Now, my purpose was personal growth, but you could easily use that time to catch up on your favorite romance books, crime novels, or any other fiction collections you enjoy. The idea is not to have another chore or activity that feels like work, but rather do something you find a good use of your time. Besides simply driving.
Your Task: check out your local library. Chances are they are part of a network of libraries that allow you access to a huge source of downloadable audio books. If the books you are looking for aren't available at the library you can always request it, or buy or rent audiobooks through one of the many companies out there.
4. Part of my commute meant sitting on a shuttle bus that took me to work and back to the staff parking lot at the end of the day. This added an extra 30 minutes to my total commute and I’d use that time to close my eyes and practice mindfulness meditations. Practicing meditation daily settled my mind to start the day and helped me transition back to personal time at the end of my day. I found that the more regular practice I had the easier it was to handle minor irritations, frustrations, and people in general throughout the day.
Your Task: if your commute involves sitting on a bus or riding a subway or train, use that time for an eyes closed activity such as meditation. I have free downloadable guided meditations for my newsletter subscribers. Check them out here.
5. These days I have a lot more flexibility in my schedule since I work for myself in private practice. This flexibility has allowed me to modify my work schedule to avoid the heavy traffic times – I generally work from 11:00 am to 7:30 pm. This helps to cut my commute in half as I'm not on the road when everyone else is. I understand that not everyone has as much control over their schedule as I do, but often times there is the opportunity to make small adjustments for a huge gain.
Your Task: take a look at your work schedule and traffic patterns. You can even use Google Maps to view potential traffic if you leave at various times throughout the day. Connect with your boss or look at your schedule to see if there is an option to get to work early and leave later or vice versa in order to cut down your commute while doing the same amount of work. Some companies even have the option of working from home part-time. If that is at all possible encourage your boss to give it a trial run. The most important thing is that if you are working from home or you do change your schedule that during those times you work extra hard to prove that it is an effective strategy – one where your boss can't say no to turning the trial run into a normal routine.
I found what worked for me and I encourage you to test out different strategies to see what works for you. Who knows, you may surprise yourself and begin enjoying your commute!
I'd love to hear changes you've made to your commute and how it worked out. Please leave a comment below.
Success is one of those words that everyone knows, yet means different things to almost everyone. So before you dive into how to reach success, you have to understand what success means to you. After all, you can’t succeed if you can’t recognize it. The two most important questions to ask yourself if you want to succeed is what does success look like for you and why is it important? You see these questions can be answered in so many ways for the exact same situation and ultimately without the answer all of the best habit change, performance enhancement, increased productivity tips are useless.
Ask yourself: what does success look like to you? Is success landing a big promotion, buying your first home, completing that novel you’ve always wanted to write, spending more time with family? Take a step back from your goal and really envision what would your life look like if you succeeded. Do you like the image it paints?
Ask yourself: why is it important? And then ask that two more times. For example, I am currently in the process of launching YourPsychology.ca complete with Youtube Channel, ebooks, and online courses. Success for me means meeting my deadlines, publishing free and low-cost resources for the community, and getting those resources out to people who need them. Why is that important to me? Two reasons: (1) I want to help others and (2) I want to create a flexible part-time income.
Again, why is that important? (1) Because our society doesn’t prepare us to cope with big changes, heartbreak, fear, anxiety, anger, trauma and so much more. I think that’s heartbreaking and I hope that through sharing my professional (and sometimes personal) experiences I can help people live the lives they’ve always wanted. (2) Having a flexible part-time income would allow me to save more for retirement, work less hours overall, and do work when and where I want to.
And finally, why is that important? (1) Everyone deserves a chance to strive for the best version of themselves and sometimes we find ourselves trapped in destructive patterns because the coping strategies we have suck. It’s important to me to put out things into the world that do good, to give everyone the opportunity to succeed. (2) Nothing in the world is more important to me than the people I love and with flexible hours and more money I get more time to spend with loved ones.
Through continuing to look at what is important to me I noticed two things: it is important to me to help and support others in reaching what is important to them, and that my loved ones are my top priority. Knowing this may influence the way I reach success.
For example, it may be more important to me to have a long-term plan towards making Your Psychology successful rather than working 12 hour days, 7 days per week to make it happen quickly because ultimately my loved ones matter most and I won’t sacrifice all of my time with them. And knowing that helping others reach what is important to them fuels my desire for this type of business I may focus my blogs, videos, books, courses on how to teach others to identify what really matters to them and provide them tools for tackling different types of obstacles to moving towards a meaningful life rather than more gimmicky or trendy types of advice or tips that may not make a lasting, meaningful change.
So what does this all mean for you and your success? Use these questions to identify what is at the core of your success, what will succeeding allow you to move towards in life, what matters most. Then use those words or phrases (we call them values) as your starting point. Making sure that every step you take towards success takes you towards those values.
Take a moment now to complete the exercise and then write down all the steps you could actually take that would represent what is important to you (I am going to (1) publish this post on my website and write down ideas for 3 new videos, and (2) go to bed early tonight so I can wake up refreshed to spend the day with my partner). If it helps, you can also use the Purposeful STEPS worksheet I have in my free resources to organize your plan of action.
And remember, progress is made one step at a time, always. Start with the tiniest step you can think of – maybe completing this exercise is a step for you – and build from there slowly. There will always be obstacles, backtracking, and pitfalls along the way. That’s how you know you’re on the right track. Nothing that matters is ever easy, but it’s always worth it. In my humble opinion.
Mindfulness has been a hot topic lately from corporations talking about using mindfulness to improve workplace performance and individuals using mindfulness as a way to counter the ever present mindlessness of technology in our society. The truth is, the majority of our waking hours are not spent in the present moment. We spend it thinking about the past, worrying about the future, planning what we’ll have for dinner or trying to remember our grocery list. And in fact it’s pretty adaptive not to be present all the time. Evolutionarily speaking, when there isn’t a direct threat in front of us it actually makes more sense for our minds to use that time and energy to focus on other problems or ways to ensure survival. Maybe you’re someone who spends a lot of time in the past: picking apart every detail of every memory trying to understand where you went wrong, how you can do things differently, or thinking through what would have happened if you had made a different decision at any point in your life. Maybe you’re someone who thinks to the future whether that future is next year, next month, next day, next moment; always trying to plan out and think through possible scenarios so you’re prepared. Regardless of which category you fall into – and most tend to have some overlap – it’s adaptive in most circumstances.
The problem of course comes when our minds begin to make mountains out of molehills, lions out of kittens, monsters out of shadows, and we spend so much mental energy either intentionally time-traveling in our minds or mindlessly escaping into a television, a good book, a computer or phone screen, a daydream to avoid the realities of right here and right now. When all of our time is spent avoiding this moment, whether because we are anxiously trying to plan for every possible outcome or we are avoiding whatever pain exists in the present, we are inevitably missing out on a lot. It may seem corny, but this moment is all we have, there is no guarantee for any specific future and there is no way to change what has already come to pass. And if we spend all of our time elsewhere the world will fly by before we even know it.
Often as people age they describe this phenomenon where time seems to speed up. I’ve been noticing it myself more and more each year. If we look at time and attention through the lens of adaptive mindlessness, then as responsibilities and pressures grow with age it makes sense that we would spend less and less time in the present thereby making time fly, yet also missing out on so many little moments of everyday life. The moments we all eventually look back on and wish we could return to, sink into, or experience just one more time because we didn’t fully appreciate it when it was happening. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Not always.
Mindfulness is not a magic cure to anxiety, it won’t clear your mind of racing thoughts, or resolve the pain in your life. Mindfulness is a practice. A practice of noticing, paying attention to your experience. Many years ago, Jon Kabot-Zinn, the founder of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), defined mindfulness as paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally. It’s my belief that this definition creates more expectations than are possible when it comes to mindfulness, and I think Jon Kabot-Zinn would agree. The biggest issue with the definition is the idea of doing anything non-judgmentally. Even the labeling that something is done without judgment is itself a judgment. Rather I believe that when Jon Kabot-Zinn spoke of paying attention in a non-judgmental way, he was speaking to a willingness to hold judgments lightly, to notice them without getting sucked into them. Judgments have a tendency to narrow our perspective and thus through taking a step back and simply observing our experience we gain some distance through which to see even our own judgments. We can’t not judge things, but we can pay attention to our judgments, notice them, and be in control of what we do next rather than allow our judgments to control our actions.
But the core of mindfulness is simply the process of paying attention, of noticing, our experience. This can include things that happen inside us, such as thoughts, feelings, memories, and physical sensations, as well as what we experience outside of us, like things we see, smell, taste, touch, hear. Mindfulness can be practiced in a formal way through a guided breathing meditation or a yoga class that encourages you to tune into your body and positioning and breath. It can also be practiced informally. Whenever you pause under a hot shower and savor the warmth and steam, that is mindfulness. Whenever you notice the pounding of your heart in your chest as you lean in for a kiss, that is mindfulness. Whenever you jolt out of daydreaming while driving because someone just cut you off and you notice every detail of the road and the feel of the brake under your foot as you press down, that too is mindfulness.
Every time you notice your mind has gone elsewhere and you bring it back to something in the here-now if only for one split second, that is mindfulness. And the goal? To do that over and over and over again. Remember, mindfulness is a practice and one we’re all a little rusty at so it’s not supposed to come naturally at first. In fact it is really difficult. But I promise if you take even ten minutes a day, maybe set an alarm every hour on your phone to ask yourself, “what are five things I see right now?” “what do I notice in my body?” “what do my clothes feel like?” “what is my mind saying?” or anything that draws your attention to the present you will reap the benefits of being the observer of your own experience and overtime you will be the one who gets to choose what you do next rather than the mountains, lions, and monsters.
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150 used to be the magic number in the fitness realm. The equation was easy: get 150 minutes of exercise per week (usually five, 30 minute sessions of brisk walking) and you would help reduce adverse health outcomes.
Not only was this the minimum amount of exercise needed to be healthy, but very rarely did people actually meet this goal. According to research, less than half of Americans reach that coveted 150 minutes per week, with 33% not engaging in any physical activity at all, and the rest falling somewhere in between, moving a little but not enough.
But this magic rule had a major flaw. Take for example two people: one person exercised 150 minutes per week and also walked to the bus stop, took the stairs at work, and ran around after their kids in the evenings, while the other person exercised 150 minutes and sat in a car to commute to work, sat at a desk hunched over a computer screen, and sat on the couch watching television in the evenings. Both of these people met that 150 number, but they had different levels of overall activity.
Researchers began to become hip to this idea and soon realized a major flaw in their calculations. While doing 150 minutes or more of moderate aerobic activity per week does protect you from some pretty serious adverse health events and conditions – and as mentioned before many people are not hitting this amount – if you are not moving the rest of the time you are still at risk for a lot of bad things. And if you’re not exercising or moving during the day? Bad news: you are at risk from lack of exercise AND lack of movement.
What are you at risk of from this lack of movement? So glad you asked. Those who spend the majority of their waking hours sedentary (sitting or lying down and essentially inactive) are at increased risk of cardiovascular disease, type II diabetes, metabolic syndrome, colon, ovarian, and endometrial cancers, and all cause mortality.
Researchers began to separate out traditional exercise or physical activity from movement in general and the 10,000 step goal was born. The idea was to give people a specific measure (similar to the 150 minute goal) to work towards with 10,000 steps equating with an active lifestyle, 7,500 steps comparable to being slightly active, and 5,000 or less considered sedentary. This measure obviously varies according to your stride length as generally someone who is shorter will take more steps in a given distance than someone who is taller.
But let’s not get bogged down with the numbers. What is the point of all of this new information? Should I not aim to hit that 150 minutes of exercise mark? Should I focus on step count instead? Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater folks. There is still great utility in having a 150 minute goal per week of moderate intensity physical activity (anything at the brisk walking pace), especially now that research has shown we can break those 150 minutes down into 10 minute chunks and still be as effective. And I don’t care who you are, everyone has a few 10 minute moments in their day; whether you choose to use that time to go for a walk, take the stairs, or hop on the exercise bike is a post for another day. But we also need to be aware of our sedentary behaviors, some of which, such as our workplace, that we may not have as much control over, while others, like evening or weekend activities, that we do.
Now you don’t need to run out and buy a Fitbit or any type of step counting device (I have one to keep me on track, but it is by no means necessary, not even a little bit) to track your 10,000 steps, but you should take some time to examine your routine and see where you can add in steps. A few steps here and there add up over time and don’t feel as if they are taking extra time out of your day. What are some ways you can add in steps to your day? Take the stairs? Set up a family walk after dinner? Take your dog out more? Bring your groceries in one bag at a time? The list is endless.
Get creative and challenge yourself every day to look for new ways to add in more movement. What about standing up right now and doing a little lap around the house? You may not be able to change how you commute to work or how many hours you are tied to your desk, and you may not be willing to give up your evenings on the couch unwinding, but I guarantee you there are small ways to make a big impact in your life. Again, this is not a substitute for that 150 minutes, it is a complement to it.
What will your first step be?
I’d love to hear the creative ways you’ve found to add more movement to your life. Comment below and don’t forget to subscribe to my email newsletter if you haven’t already to get access to free resources such as a great habit tracking log you can use to monitor your progress towards moving more!
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Let me guess, it’s 2 a.m. and you’re lying awake begging your body to fall asleep. Maybe your aches and pains make it hard to get comfortable, or your mind is busy buzzing with all the tasks you have to do tomorrow. Whatever the reason, it’s frustrating, and as you watch the time tick by your mind is helpfully calculating how much sleep you’d get if you fell asleep right now. 5 hours . . 4 hours . . 3.5 hours . .
Trouble falling asleep and staying asleep can happen for many reasons and if you’re not paying attention you could be accidentally making it more difficult for your body to get the rest it needs to be fast, focused, and fit.
So what contributes to poor sleep? And what can you do about it?
Cut the caffeine. You know that third cup of coffee you have in the afternoon? The one that helps you pretend to be awake as you struggle to get over the post lunch slump? Well unfortunately it can be contributing to your active mind at the end of the day. Caffeine in any form: coffee, tea, soda, chocolate – acts as a stimulant and the effects can last for hours so say no to caffeine at least six hours before bed. Tip: if you can’t give up all caffeine, limit it to the mornings, or try starting with one less cup of joe!
Stop the smoke. Similar to caffeine, nicotine can act as a stimulant, keeping you wide awake and hyper in the evenings. Limiting smoking in general is a great idea for your health, but giving up that before bedtime smoke may help you fall asleep faster. Tip: think of what you’re using that last cigarette for in the evening – does it help you wind down and relax? Test out other ways to unwind like listening to calming music, stretching, or reading a book. Whatever works for you!
Note: some asthma and weight loss medications also have stimulant effects. Talk to your doctor to find out whether any of your medications can interfere with sleep and see if they approve taking the medication at a different time of day. Never change how much or when you take any medication without first talking with your doctor.
Avoid Alcohol. Need a nightcap to fall asleep? Many people use alcohol to fall asleep because it makes people sleepy, the problem with this is that while alcohol may help you fall asleep it actually leads to more restless sleep and greater chances of waking up throughout the night. Tip: try some relaxing herbal tea instead.
Slow down the Stress. Yeah right. While we can’t always make our lives easier, we can take time to relax at the end of the day. Having a ritual for relaxing before bed can signal the brain that it’s time for sleep. Because what’s more important: watching another re-run or being able to function the next day?
Note: snoring can interfere with your sleep – and your partners! – and could potentially be a symptom of sleep apnea. Bring it up to your doctor next time you go in for a check-up.
Stand up (and move). Have you ever had that feeling where your mind is tired, but your body can’t quite get comfortable? Sometimes our bodies need to feel tired to rest and sitting at a desk all day at work and then relaxing in front of the TV at home doesn’t allow a lot of opportunity for your body to be moving. Taking a walk or going to the gym can increase your fatigue at the end of the day and make falling asleep a little easier. Tip: try to go for a walk outside in the sun. Sunshine helps adjust our sleep/wake cycle so when it gets dark your brain knows it’s time to sleep.
Bed is for Sleep. Television screens, traffic noise, extreme temperatures, and light can all adversely impact your sleep. Not to mention varying wake up times and naps. I get it feels good to take a nap in the middle of the day, maybe even feels necessary to keep going – I’m guilty of curling up on lazy Sunday afternoons – but waking up at a consistent time every day, no matter how much sleep you got the night before, and avoiding naps helps reset your internal clock so you’ll feel sleepy at the right time. And making your bedroom as cozy, quiet, and dark as possible will help to induce that drowsy comfortable feeling. Tip: limit your bed to sleep and sex; all other activities can and should be done elsewhere And if you’ve been lying in bed for 15-20 minutes (don’t watch the clock, it’s not the exact time that matters) get up and go do something relaxing in another room until you feel drowsy again and then get back in bed. Repeat as needed – it’s all about helping your brain learn that bed is for sleep.
What are you going to choose? Keep on doing the same thing, or try something new and finally get that shut eye you deserve.
Even if you think that caffeine doesn't effect you anymore or a glass of wine before bed isn't a problem, why not give these changes a try and see what happens? Think of it like an experiment: you can always go back to your old habits afterwards if they don't help.
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This blog was originally posted on actwithpurpose.ca
Dr. Jessica is a psychologist (supervised practice), author, and trainer who is dedicated to bringing science-driven advice and information to everyone.