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Use Present-Moment Focus to Overcome Anxious Thinking

If anxious thoughts haunt you, getting present shifts you toward happiness.

Key points

  • People's minds wander about 50% of the time.
  • The more mind wandering, the less happy people report themselves feeling.
  • The more present and focused people are, the more happiness they report.

I can still vividly recall the day I facilitated a group of nine patients in an intensive outpatient eating disorder clinic. They were mostly adolescent girls and young women diagnosed with anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa—conditions with the highest mortality rates of any mental illness. After only a few minutes, I could see the group was very distracted and struggling. When I asked what was going on, they shared with me that they were feeling miserable because they were “stuck in eating disorder thoughts.”

Aamir Suhail/Unsplash
Catch the present moment and you'll be happier!
Aamir Suhail/Unsplash

Hearing this, I suggested we do something different—such as having them experience the group room in an entirely new way. They immediately protested. After all, most had been in this room for weeks, and they believed they knew the room inside out (or at least, they thought they did). After a short discussion, they finally agreed to try with an open mind. What they didn't know was that they were about to engage in a mindfulness exercise designed to powerfully anchor them in the present moment.

My plan was actually backed up by solid research. Researchers studied the thoughts and behaviors of subjects during the day and concluded that "people are thinking about what is not happening almost as often as they are thinking about what is." Now, here's the kicker: People were most unhappy when they were mind-wandering and ruminating on anxious thoughts; they were most happy when they were engaged and focused on the present moment—such as being in a face-to-face conversation with someone or while experiencing the body during movement.

Present Moment Exercise for Building Happiness and Reducing Anxiety

Now, back to my group at the clinic. You can easily adapt this to build your own present-moment focusing practice. Just go through the various steps mentioned below.

To start, I had the group take a few calming breaths together. Then, for the next ten minutes or so, I guided them around the room. You can do this at home or in any space that's available, indoors or out. My instructions included having them pay extremely close attention to every little detail—such as the hairline cracks on floor, the shape of chair and table legs, and every little variation of color on walls, doors, and notebooks. I also had them notice each movement of their feet and arms as they walked. They listened to the moment-by-moment sounds that occurred in and outside the room—even to the sounds of their own breath, movement, and footsteps. At one point, I had them shut their eyes as they handed a familiar object (keys, a pen, notebook, purse, etc.) to another person who sensed its weight, its coolness or warmth, and its hardness or softness. Likewise, you can sense various objects in your space while your eyes are closed.

After the exercise, you might ask yourself, "Where were my anxious thoughts as I went through this present-moment exercise?" In fact, that's pretty much what I asked the patients at the clinic after they settled back into their seats: Where were your eating disorder thoughts during the last ten minutes?

I was greeted by dead silence and an expression of shock and amazement on many of the girls’ faces. Not one person fiddled with a notebook or doodled on a piece of paper—a common occurrence. Their sense of awareness and presence was so strong that it seemed to me as if the entire group had awakened from a trance. Finally, after a few moments, one young girl raised her hand with an epiphany of sorts.

“For the first time, I feel like my eating-disordered thoughts are like a dream world or like a fantasy. I feel like I left that world for a while for the real one,” she said.

Another girl commented, “I suddenly realize that I’ve been living in the dream world of my eating disorder, and that I don’t like when it gets interrupted.”

Others echoed similar stories of irritation and unease when the fantasy got interrupted. For a brief moment, however, this represents a victory for these girls—many of whom live in a world where distorted thoughts and emotions regarding their body image and rigid beliefs about food and eating steal away the precious hours and days of their lives. While anorexic and bulimic fantasies can be difficult to pierce, that day's group exercise showed that, even for a few moments, anyone can break free of debilitating automatic behaviors, anxious thoughts, and addictions.


While it is true that fantasy can sometimes serve a creative and helpful purpose, it may also be an escape that blocks you from being present and living fully. This present-moment exercise is excerpted from my book The Mindfulness Code, which includes additional detailed methods for using mindfulness to live a fulfilling life. What daily or weekly fantasies inhabit your mental space? How do you respond when your fantasies get interrupted? Use this practice to get present whenever you feel caught in an old, mental loop. It may help to journal about your experiences. Getting present is a wonderful practice for getting happier, so don't give up!

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