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!
Dr. Jessica is a psychologist (supervised practice), author, and trainer who is dedicated to bringing science-driven advice and information to everyone.