Every day we walk around taking in information and interpreting what we see. Depending on how we’re feeling we’ll interpret it differently. Here’s an example I often do with my own patients to illustrate the point. Picture scenario one: You’re walking down the street feeling particularly depressed, heavy, and hopeless one day and see a friend walking by. The friend looks up at you, but just continues walking without saying hello. What’s going on? Scenario two: You’re walking down the street and feeling pretty well, you’re feeling light on your toes, warm, with a smile on your face. A friend walks down the street and looks up at you without saying hello. What’s going on? Most people I do this with usually respond to the first scenario with some self-blame or self-judgment. “What did I do”, “He hates me”, or “I’m no good”. Most people respond to the second scenario with a curiosity about what is going on with the other person. “Is he having a bad day”, “that was strange”, or “I hope he’ll be ok”.
This was an exercise to illustrate the point that even though we believe our thoughts represent reality, the truth is, our thoughts are not facts. They are temporary and fleeting and when we’re not feeling well, our minds become a magnet for negative thoughts and skewed interpretations of what is going on. When we start thinking and ruminating on these thoughts, they tend to create a snowball effect on the rest of our constitution. If we cling to exaggerated negative thoughts in our minds, (e.g., “he didn’t look at me, that’s because I’m fat, nobody likes me and nobody ever will”), this will certainly have an effect on how our bodies feel, bring on emotions of anxiety, sadness, anger, or others, make us feel like isolating and before we know it, we are either in a full blown depressed mood, a panic attack, or both.
You might say, “Well, I can’t help it, this just happens and I feel I have no control”. I would say that in that moment, you might feel that way because you are unaware of the cycle that is hijacking you. You are caught in the future worrying about the terrible things that could be, or caught in the past with memories and regrets of things you wish would have been different. There might really be feelings of sadness, anger, or shame there. Practicing mindfulness means to acknowledge the feelings that are there, not judge them as good or bad, but let them be. This may bring up healing feelings of self-compassion and calm as you realize how much you are suffering in the moment. When you notice self-judgments arise, you can label them as such, and gently bring your mind back to just being with the feelings that are there. There is a more gentle and compassionate nature to this approach than the usual cycle of self judgment and critical mind that we’ve been used to for so long. This is not to say don’t ever have judgment or think about the past or future, but to do it on your watch rather than letting your mind run off with it and deepening your suffering.
Try this out next time you notice yourself snowballing or just in a low mood. Be aware that the way you see a situation may be influenced by the mood you are in. Bring awareness in that moment to how you are feeling. Name the feelings if possible. If you are feeling an uncomfortable emotion or pain, have compassion for yourself, and do something pleasurable or kind for you that day. This will send the message internally that you care for yourself and allow for the discomfort to come and go quicker as it naturally would.
As always, please feel free to share your own stories, comments, or questions below. Your additions here provide a living wisdom for all of us to benefit from.