Research has shown us that the thoughts we tend to spend time thinking shapes our perception of the world, impacting mental health (Barber and DeRubeis, 1989), and impacted by things like tiredness (Baglioni, Spiegelhalder, Lombardo, and Riemann, 2010).
This is particularly key when we we’ve experienced a stressful or traumatic event, and are triggered by a later event. Although the event may have passed, our mind sometimes still reacts as if we are right in the middle of that turmoil.
Some common examples may include:
– The stress of a big life transition (marriage, separation, moving house)
– Family illness
– The overwhelming burn-out of general daily things
– Mental health difficulties
We cannot directly control our emotions, or the way our body may respond to events (Richards and Whyte, 2011). However, we can make some changes to our thoughts, and our behaviours (Butler, Chapman, Forman, and Beck, 2006).
We all experience difficult thoughts and we all act in a way that we may regret later, but choosing where we focus our attention can really help us to begin building some new patterns: new responses when those moments of stress arise.
Words have Power
This is where mantras can be useful: something to just anchor the mind when it begins to spiral down a negative path.
We cannot stop automatic negative thoughts from arising, but we can choose how long we follow them for, and how much we feed them.
The first obstacle is in noticing our thoughts: so many of our thoughts happen unconsciously, and becoming aware of them is definitely a skill!
When you notice yourself following the trail of an unhelpful thought, such as remembering a bad time or worrying about the future, catch your attention back, and re-position it to something neutral, or even positive if you can.
Some useful mantras to bring you out of a thought spiral and back into the moment:
1. “This will pass.”
When you’re experiencing something unpleasant, either in the ‘now’ or reliving a period of low mood, reminding yourself that this situation and emotion will pass can be a light at the end of the tunnel.
2. “I have survived everything I have ever experienced.”
Similarly, reminding ourselves of our own strength can help us to feel strong enough to manage stressful times, even if we’re right in the middle of them.
3. “Something in this moment is not bad.”
You don’t need to subscribe to ‘positive thinking,’ which can feel like such a hard task in the midst of stress; but finding something neutral can help to re-align how we’re thinking and perceiving the moment. Anything from looking out at a pretty flower, turning on a calming song, or finding a silver lining to the situation.
4. “I am alive.”
If you feel like the floor is stable beneath you, sit or lie down and feel the stability. Ask yourself some really simple question that you can answer yes to: “Am I still breathing?” or “Is the floor still under me, holding me up?”
5. This is ‘practise.’
There is a Buddhist teaching that every experience is a learning experience to prepare us for the next one. I particularly find in job interviews, reminding myself that this interview is a chance to ‘practise’ my interview skills, takes off a little of the pressure.
6. “How would my cat respond?”
Sometimes, taking a moment to see the situation from another viewpoint, can provide another bit of perspective. You can pick anyone or anything, but pets and fictional characters might be good ones to consider, as they’re slightly less serious in a moment that already feels quite heavy.
It takes time to shift your thinking, but it is possible, and the more you practise, the easier it becomes. I share a collection of tools to shift your mindset over at my Resource Library.
Do you have any favourite ways to anchor yourself to the present moment during times of stress?
Baglioni, C., Spiegelhalder, K., Lombardo, C. and Riemann, D. (2010). Sleep and emotions: A focus on insomnia. Sleep Medicine Reviews, 14, p227–238.
Barber, J. P. and DeRubeis, R. J. (1989). On second thought: Where the action is in cognitive therapy for depression. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 13(5), p441–457.
Butler, A. C., Chapman, J. E., Forman, E. M., and Beck, A. T. (2006). The empirical status of cognitive-behavioral therapy: a review of meta-analyses. Clinical Psychology Review, 26, p17-31.
Richards, A., and Whyte, M. 2011. Reach Out, London: Rethink Publications