The other morning I awoke from a deep, refreshing sleep, relishing in my warm bed, the sound of birds chirping, the sight of lush trees outside the window, and I yawned luxuriously. Life was good. For about ten seconds.
Then, the thoughts began to swirl about in my head, as I recalled phone calls to make, errands to do, projects to finish, and the like. Taken separately, none of these items were insurmountable, and in fact the majority of them would probably be enjoyable, but considering them as a whole sent a most unpleasant jolt through my body.
Fortunately, I recognized my tendency to catastrophize, and I actually began to laugh at how I can take a perfectly lovely moment and begin to spin off mentally into imagined future calamities. It was poignantly clear to me that I was once again robbing myself of present joy by not only predicting but also judging a future that by definition hadn’t yet happened.
Moreover, by visualizing myself handling these events in a less than exemplary fashion, I was creating anxiety where it needn’t exist. Not that I profess to being able to detach from the drama at every uncomfortable moment, but the following tools did help me to develop a better perspective on the situation and untangle the emotional and mental knots:
Recognize that feelings aren’t facts. So many factors enter into play to produce our emotions. Associations between similar past events and a current situation, our being worn out physically or emotionally, familiar but unhelpful patterns of interpreting situations — all can contribute to uncomfortable emotions that may not accurately reflect our circumstances or ability to deal with them.
Remember that we needn’t believe every thought we think. As with our feelings, we may have developed fear-based thought patterns that may have served us in the past but no longer do so. By gaining insight into our habitual ways of sizing up situations, we can develop tools to test the reality of these conditioned ways of responding and choose more constructive ways of perceiving our circumstances.
Take a moment to focus on the breath. Practicing mindfulness on a regular basis, as in a few minutes or even moments of quieting our minds and following our breath, trains us in developing some emotional distance from the “movie in our minds”. The field of neuroplasticity has definitively shown that we continue to develop new neural pathways in our brains for the duration of our lives. Every day we have the opportunity to strengthen thought and feeling patterns that work in our favor and weaken those responses that hinder us.
This is very encouraging news — it’s never too late to change and grow, to look at our lives in alternative ways, to take different actions, and to experience the present in a much more accepting and appreciative way!