This skill is one of my favorites. Some pop-psychology has taken it to unhealthy extremes, but when used appropriately, it’s excellent for defusing anxiety. I’ll open this post with a few caveats.
- If you’re not in a safe place, this is not the skill you need. You have to protect yourself, which means getting out of danger first.
- It can take a few minutes, so don’t try this when you’re racing out the door.
- This skill is not meant to make you believe everything is wonderful when it isn’t.
- It does not remove the past or abdicate you from the responsibility to take action in the future.
So what is it good for then? It’s beautiful for getting your brain out of that annoying repeating loop that brings on anxiety and frustration! There’s a quote about the necessity of this skill that I like.
“Fear is caused by the uncertainty of the future.
Sorrow is caused by the remembrance of the past.
Try to keep your thoughts in the present,
for the future we will never know
and the past we may never understand.”
I’ll use an example of a time it has helped me, and then I’ll go into the steps so you can learn to use it as well.
I had to attend a work function. My usual cadre of coworkers was about 24 people at the time. The function was being held for clients and would have over 200 people present. I have social anxiety. Large crowds are just a thing I avoid, but this event was not one I could skip out on. I had also been with the company for less than two months and was just getting to know my coworkers. There was no one I felt comfortable with to the point that I could tell them the problem and just hang around with them for the evening. The entire day of the event, my anxiety ran wild with me. I had a headache bordering on a migraine, I was nauseated if I tried to eat, and I kept shaking and breaking out in a sweat.
Before it was time to get ready, I went to get a shower and used that space to start practicing this skill (also called “being in the moment.”) I took particular notice of the fact that I was not at the function. The anxiety was because of past experiences in large crowds and the dread of those being repeated. At that moment, I was alone, in the shower. I noted the temperature and pressure of the water. I noted the scent of the soaps I used. I also reminded myself that I didn’t even have to get ready after the shower; I had time to relax and do something for myself. I continued this through the shower, and by the time I finished, I was no longer having anxiety symptoms.
I repeated this exercise as needed throughout the rest of the day and had a very calm, nice day. When I arrived at the resort where the event was hosted, I sat in the car and reminded myself that this was not the same event as the previous ones where I’d had bad experiences. This was a business function. There would not be any brawls, nor any weapons present. Everyone would be looking to impress everyone else and not create tension. As the newest employee, this was an opportunity for me to meet the clients I would be handling and have a face to the names, no different than meeting my regular coworkers.
During the evening, I stepped away as needed, taking a moment to once more pull my head into the present. By the time I went home, I had no anxiety. To my surprise, I had enjoyed myself!
How do you make this happen for yourself?
First, you’ll need to separate the present from the past and future. Are you afraid to enter a building where something unpleasant happened? Then review for yourself whether this time in that space is the same as the previous time. Detail the differences in this. Are you concerned about what might be? How many of those concerns are likely to happen? (Odds are, not many unless you’re willingly walking into a dangerous setting – in which case there are different resources to use.)
Second, look at where you are. Especially if the place you’re going to is new to you, look carefully at what’s around you. Take note of colors, people, buildings, whatever it is that establishes “I am in this location at this moment” for you.
Third, give yourself a moment to observe what your senses tell you. Scents, sights, sounds, physical feelings, and even taste if you’re in a place where you’re eating. Recognize that these are tangible items that link you into the present moment.
Fourth, choose to be where you are. It may sound obvious, but it’s not always so clear when anxiety comes knocking. You are in this space, not in the past, not in the future.
I also like to pair this with deep breathing as an additional relaxation technique. Deep breathing forces your mind to focus on the moment in which you exist, which makes all the rest of this skill so much more powerful and effective!
I hope this skill helps you in the future! Remember to practice it at times when you’re not feeling depressed or anxious, so you’ll have it on hand when you are.
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