Reclaim Your Life from Depressing and Anxious Thoughts

Feel better by balancing thoughts of the past, present, and future.

Posted Feb 04, 2019

Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Life can be found only in the present moment. The past is gone, the future is not yet here, and if we do not go back to ourselves in the present moment, we cannot be in touch with life.

-- attributed to Thich Nhat Hanh

There is a lot of wisdom in the idea that life is lived in the present. However, the past and the future are central to who we have become and who we will be. So, we are wise in considering their important place in our lives… as long as we “go back to ourselves in the present moment”.  Unhappiness comes when we get stuck in any particular time frame, unable to move fluidly between the past and the future with a balance being found in the present.

Effectively balance your focus on the past, present, and future by:

Past: Attend to the past to the degree that you can gain something positive from it. When you learn from your reflections, it can help inform your decisions today and going forward. Appreciating experiential gifts from the past – whether lessons learned or moments felt – can enrich your life. This is true for happy, as well as painful, experiences. However, when your reflections needlessly create or renew pain, it is time to refocus on the present.

Present: Life can only truly be lived in the present, even as your mind visits the past and future. The more you can focus on the moment you are in, the more fully you are living in that moment. So, it can help to remind yourself to pay attention to your current experience. You can appreciate sadness as well as you can appreciate joy. Emotional pain can feel “right” when it is commensurate with a situation, such as feeling grief when someone dies. It is also frequently helpful in directing us to do something different – such as stand up for yourself when you feel hurt by a friend taking advantage of you. But keep in mind that people sometimes get stuck in an emotion even as the moment for it passes – such expecting and fearing all people will take advantage of you. If you find yourself dwelling in emotional pain, note how you are living in a past experience. Acknowledge the validity of your feelings while choosing to refocus on the moment and what it has to offer. 

Future: While you cannot control the future, you can think about the future that you would like. It’s a way of orienting yourself to what you want to do; and motivating yourself. But if you become emotionally wrapped in “what if” or “could be”, then you might be causing yourself unnecessary anxiety and missing the life you are currently living. So, after looking ahead to where you might want to travel, it is important to return to looking at the present, to each step you are taking now.

Living a life effectively informed by your past, present, and future takes work. There is much to learn and be appreciated about each. For instance, if you are enjoying a romantic date with your partner (present), you might also think about how they have shown a pattern of being highly critical (past). The chances are that this pattern will continue going forward, making you very unhappy (future). Conversely, you might be angry with your partner’s callousness about a situation (present), but be aware that they have usually been very sensitive (past); and so you might be hopeful about restoring a positive connection (future). With all of this in mind, you can decide what is healthy for you to do, such as remaining committed to your relationship; or ending it. 

While all time perspectives are important, it is essential to always come back to your current experience. You want to guide your focus to appreciate the past and consider the future, but finally ground yourself in the present. By weaving these three time perspectives together in this way, you can find emotional balance in your life.

If you would like to learn more about this topic, check out this brief video:

Leslie Becker-Phelps, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist in private practice and is on the medical staff at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital, Somerset in Somerville, NJ. She is the author of Insecure in Love and consultant psychologist for Love: The Art of Attraction. She is also a regular contributor for the WebMD blog Relationships and is the relationship expert on WebMD’s Relationships Message Board.

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Making Change blog posts are for general educational purposes only. They may or may not be relevant for your particular situation; and they should not be relied upon as a substitute for professional assistance.

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