Habits are not confined to our behaviors. We can also fall into particular patterns of thinking, which get us stuck in certain emotions.
Knowing your particular mind habits can help you to monitor when you have moved from productive and helpful aspects, to counter productive thoughts.
As noted in the last blog, How to Hack Your Habits, habits become autopilot when they are 1) in some way rewarding (increase pleasure or decrease pain) and 2) practiced repeatedly. There are four typical habits, which become apparent when we practice mindfulness. Can you identify your Mind Habits?
Here is a brief description of each, and a skill to counter and redirect to the present moment.
- Future Tripping: This is the one I relate to most strongly. It’s like my mind is a small child, bouncing up and down on the back seat of my vehicle, shouting “what’s next? What’s next!?” This can be rewarding because it often leads to me initiating new projects and getting things done. But it can also be reinforced because we like to feel like we are prepared for what might go wrong.
The Autopilot Problem: As with all mind habits, if future tripping is not kept in check, it can lead to trouble. When we future trip, it is usually about some “possibility.” But just as the nervous energy can lead to productivity, it can also lead to anxiety, frustration, and pushing too hard. This mind habit is most commonly associated with symptoms of hypomania, anxiety and worry.
The Remedy: Slow Down! If future tripping is your auto-pilot mode, it is critical that you notice when excitement is morphing into frustration and anxiety, and then actively choose to slow down. Paced breathing is a good skill to use here. When you find your mind racing and pressure building, STOP, and pace your deep belly breaths, counting to three on the in breath, counting to five on the out breath.
- Judging: Can start to emerge when your eager mind is not meeting its goals for attainment. The mind begins to judge the present moment, situation or person as ‘not as it should be.” This auto-pilot mode can be strangely enticing and reinforcing as judgment gives us a small boost to how we feel about ourselves compared to the target of our judgments. Judging is related to a sense of riotous indignation.
The Autopilot Problem: The all mighty “should” can be toxic. Our opinions of how things ‘should’ be, lead to beliefs of what is fair and unfair, and holds us stuck in irritability, anger, and hostility (or passive aggressiveness). When practiced over time, we no longer see our opinions as just that: our opinions, not facts. We become grumpy because the world is not accommodating our view of how things should be.
The Remedy: Compassionate Reframing. It is important to actively work against this mind habit by seeking another perspective. When you catch yourself judging, ask yourself, “What is being left out?” If you are judging another person, ask “What might be a kinder interpretation of this person’s behavior?” Then actively practice Loving Kindness by wishing the person well. It can be helpful to remind yourself that we never know all the factors contributing to another person’s difficulties.
- Past Tripping: This one is like a claw from another time that can jump up and grab us. This habit is related to thoughts of regret, “if only,” and “why me?” or “this always happens to me.” As you might imagine, this is the mind habit most often associated with past traumas and depression. Chewing on old hurts can become a habit, too. The rewarding properties are less obvious. But it is a bit like biting down on an aching tooth. The strong pain in some ways feels better than the dull ache.
The Autopilot Problem: Small reminders and triggers can easily activate old mind scripts, which activate the same old feelings and emotions. The mind repeatedly travels back in time, as if it can solve the problem from long ago (which of course it cannot). But this mind habit is almost guaranteed to hold you in a depressed mood. The practice of this ruminative thinking becomes the autopilot habit, which must be actively worked against.
The Remedy: Catch the Mind Wandering-Redirect. If this is your default mode, it is essential that you notice it ASAP and then redirect your attention to the here and now. This can be very difficult because it feels like you need to attend to these thoughts. Moving away from them feels a bit invalidating. An excellent way to get out of your head and back into the present moment is to actively practice shifting your attention away from these thoughts by listening to the sounds around you.
- Spacing out, checking out, distracting, daydreaming: This one is particularly elusive and insidious. It is reinforced by reducing current distress, possibly caused by the other mind habits. The mind wanders off when faced with uncomfortable thoughts and feelings.
The Autopilot Problem: This auto-pilot mode can appear like an attention deficit or narcissism. A weakened ability to hold attention in the face of discomfort can become problematic for obvious reasons when it comes to productivity. But when this becomes our default, we can also see difficulties in our interpersonal relations, because others take it personally when our mind wanders off at crucial moments.
The Remedy: Holding attention in physical sensations. Because this auto-pilot habit is so elusive, it can be very difficult to even recognize that it is happening. It just feels like we are thinking about something, but don’t recognize the drift. Practice anchoring your attention on the soles of your feet, or the sensation of your bottom in the chair, as you engage in a task or a conversation. This can help stabilize the mind drift and will help you to stay present in the moment, and possibly preserve your relationships!