Every moment of our lives our brains are rapidly taking in information and making snap judgments, interpretations and decisions based on what we see, hear, smell, touch, and taste. Depending on how we’re feeling we’ll interpret it differently.
Even though we believe our thoughts represent reality, the truth is, our thoughts are not facts. A lot of us live without an awareness of this, operating mostly from a state of auto-pilot, sleepwalking through life. The good news is we can train our minds to become more aware of this automaticity, get perspective and tune into what really matters.
Here’s an example I often do with my own patients to illustrate why we don’t need to believe everything we think:
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 thoughts come to mind? How do you feel now?
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 thoughts come to mind now?
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.”
The fact is thoughts 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. The moment you notice this is the moment you are sitting in that space between stimulus and response, a space of clarity and choice and that is The Now Effect. The more the now effect occurs, the more often you’ll start noticing it like moments of grace throughout the day.
In this space of awareness we can apply some mindfulness. 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, compassionate and healing 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.
Here are 4 steps to increase your chances of breaking free from a downward spiral and experiencing the Now Effect:
- Intentionally be on the lookout for the mind snowballing or when you’re in a low mood. This will prime your mind to pop out of it more often.
- Bring awareness in that moment to how you are feeling. Name the feelings if possible.
- Think about how your interpretation of the situation may be influenced by the mood you are in.
- If you are feeling an uncomfortable emotion or pain, apply some self-compassion 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 you practice and repeat this with intention, like all things, it will start to become more automatic. In other words, rewiring a healthier and more mindful auto-pilot.
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.
Man walking photo available from Shutterstock