Mark Twain once famously observed: “I have known a great many troubles in my life, but most of them never happened.”
We spend a great deal of our waking hours captivated by the stories we tell ourselves in our minds. Some studies suggest we spend half our lives lost in thought.
Many of those thought patterns are on constant repeat. We are totally absorbed by the mental chatter inside our heads that generally depicts a life that is not always a true representation of life itself.
Often the subject matter is harmless. We might simply mentally replay a conversation we had or may have with someone or we might weight up the pros and cons of going to the gym before lunchtime.
Alternatively, at other times the focus of our thinking can seem threatening and cause us internal suffering.
This type of anxious thinking generally arises based on fears of an unknown future. We may have an upcoming presentation where the outcome is important to us or we might be investing a lot of time and energy into trying to secure a new job to give us financial stability.
We get absorbed into a mental future narrative that takes us to an emotional place of fear and pain. But the reality is nothing has happened.
So what can we do to overcome this relentless thinking mind?
Our instinctual survival mode
The human ability to suffer from fictional experiences has a purpose. Our response takes place instantly in order to protect us.
This fight, flight or freeze response is our inherent instinct for survival. It’s our built-in safety net for scanning the environment for danger.
It’s a very powerful reaction. It provokes intense emotions to make you act quickly in the presence of perceived threatening situations.
Yet the problem for us humans living in modern-day society is the fight, flight or freeze instinct is not always appropriate or accurate relevant to the situation.
Consider the example of meeting a room full of strangers.
What would you reaction be?
Generally, we either want to get away as quick as we can or want to remain unnoticed in the background or try and impose our presence on the room.
When we find ourselves under threat our thinking becomes emotional. It spirals down a negative path causing anxiety and fear.
Another common example is public speaking. For many they will experience extreme anxiety as the moment approaches. Their thinking mind perceives a life or death situation that needs to be avoided at all costs for survival.
Does this sound familiar?
“What are you doing? What if I look stupid? What if I make a mistake? What if it all goes wrong? You are walking into danger- get out while you can!!!”
A small amount of anxiety induced pain goes a long way to keeping you on your toes. However the reality is there is a better way that can limit the suffering.
The importance of shifting your attention
Trying not to think isn’t an option in life.
It’s virtually impossible to shut off the thinking mind whenever it gets caught up in anxiety or any other fear based emotions.
Yet, there is another way that can help. You need to shift your attention from the narrative to the sensory level.
It’s important to remember that anxiety isn’t a view into the future. It’s a sensory experience in the present moment. When our mind starts thinking threat approaching it triggers an emotional response in that moment we can gain insight from.
The moment you have an awareness you’re anxious thinking patterns have started you have an opportunity to drop into the sensory level with one simple move. You deliberately move your focus and attention to something your body is experiencing.
Your attention is like a flashlight. You simply shine the spotlight onto something physical you are feeling in the body.
Maybe anxiety causes your chest to tighten. Maybe you stomach starts churning or your hands become tingly. You just engage fully with the sensory experience that your anxious thinking mind has caused.
The key point is the mind can only ever focus on one thing at a time. Attending to the sensory experience breaks the over fixation on the narrative.
Switching from Thinking to Sensory mode
Mindfulness advocates an approach whereby you learn another way of experiencing the world. You switch from your narrative experience of anxiety to discover what the body is feeling and experiencing in the present moment.
The purpose is not to distract the mind, but to offer an opportunity for you to gain a greater appreciation and understanding of your experience by moving freely between narrative and sensory mode at will.
Most of us are familiar with our more typical mode of being on autopilot, when we act habitually and often experience the world indirectly through our thinking mind.
There are many benefits of doing things on autopilot such as driving! However, this mode of mind can also take us down habitual ways of thinking and we can get lost in unhelpful thoughts.
Mindful awareness of our body and senses in the present moment supports us being able to unhook from thoughts when we get lost in the thinking mind.
With regular practice it becomes easy to move away from a place of overwhelm due to excessive thinking to a place of sensory feeling. This allows you not to get swept away by emotional thinking when big decisions need to be made.
Try this- The “Five Senses” Mindfulness Exercise
Next time you find yourself in a situation where your thinking mind becomes excessively negative and busy try this simple mindfulness exercise.
The goal is to calm your mind by using your five senses to switch your focus away from your thoughts.
- Notice 5 things that you can see. Look around you and become aware of your environment. Try to pick out something that you don’t usually notice.
- Notice 4 things you can feel. Bring attention to the things that you’re currently feeling, such as the texture of your clothing or the smooth surface of the table you’re resting your hands on.
- Notice 3 things that you can hear. Listen for and notice things in the background that you don’t normally notice. It could be the birds chirping outside or an appliance humming in the next room.
- Notice 2 things you can smell. Bring attention to scents that you usually filter out, either pleasant or unpleasant. Catch a whiff of the pine trees outside or food cooking in the kitchen.
- Notice 1 thing you can taste. Take a sip of a drink, chew gum, or notice the current taste in your mouth.
This exercise is great when you are getting anxious or stressed when things are not going your way.
Try it when you are stuck in a line at the bank or supermarket that is moving slow when you are in a hurry.
I use it all the time!
Take away message
If your attention stays fixated on your mental narrative you live at the mercy of whatever stories arises.
If those stories tend to portray danger, suffering, and things going wrong, then that’s what life will tend to feel like.
At any moment in time, you can take a brief break from your mind by focusing on your body.
It’s that simple.
Learn to move back and forth between the story and the senses. The more comfortable this becomes as a practice the freer you will be.
If you would like to learn more mindfulness techniques register now for my upcoming Mindfulness workshops.