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Say Good-Bye to Future-Tripping and Negative Retrospection

Living in the present takes practice, but it can ease depression and anxiety.

Key points

  • Ruminating about the past and worrying about the future can sometimes lead to anxiety and depression.
  • Mindfulness can enable people to control their thoughts and subsequently their feelings.
  • Living in the present allows people to visit the past or future without dwelling in them.
Sunset, © 2021, Linda Gray Photography used with permission
The only place you can exist is in the present, the here and now.
Source: Sunset, © 2021, Linda Gray Photography used with permission

Deadlines looming, angry customers, bills stacking up, shrinking bank accounts, screaming children, school projects due, and now... some idiot just cut you off in traffic!

Lions, tigers, and bears... oh my!

Can you say, “Om?”

Overwhelm doesn’t just happen at this time of year (as in whenever you happen to be reading this); it can happen anytime. With today’s fast-paced and hectic daily schedules, a baseline of stress seems to be the new normal. The good news is there is a great way to deal with it.

Be in the Here and Now

It’s called mindfulness, or living in the present. It’s all about being actively engaged in the moment, where you are, and what you are doing right now.

That sounds easy enough until you realize that much of your time is spent ruminating about the past (missed opportunities, failures, bad decisions, or good times you’ll never experience again), or worrying about the future (the possibility of illness, not meeting work goals, inflation, war, and so forth).

Mindfulness involves continually being aware of what you're sensing and feeling without interpreting or judging those emotions.

The key part is to avoid interpretation or judgment. It’s okay to feel your feelings; allow them to arise and then to pass without indulging or wallowing in them. Acknowledge that a past loss makes you sad or that the unknowns of the future make you nervous; the trick is not dwelling on it.

It’s Impossible to Live in the Past or Future

Keep in mind that you cannot exist in the past or the future. The past has come and gone, it is static, and you cannot change it. The future is completely uncertain and will always contain endless possibilities. The only place you can exist is in the present, the here and now.

For me, it took getting injured, being unable to walk, and having bed rest imposed on me for two months to finally understand this concept. Nevertheless, it was still a gradual change. At first, because I couldn’t do anything, my anxiety got worse; I started listening to guided meditation just to help me calm down enough to sleep. Later I was able to do breathing exercises as necessary to refocus my thoughts.

The concept of living in the present really crystallized for me when I came across these sage words by Lao Tzu: “If you are depressed you are living in the past. If you are anxious you are living in the future. If you are at peace you are living in the present.” While I had heard similar things before, such as the Serenity Prayer, Tzu’s words really resonated with me. I realized that when I got depressed, that I had spiraled into that feeling by thinking about the past. And, when I became anxious, it was because I was worrying about the future. I found that when I focused on the present, and addressed things that were in my power to change in that moment, I finally found peace.

How to Bring Mindfulness Into Your Day

I find that beginning my day with just a few minutes of stretching (or yoga), then a few minutes of meditation (or breathing exercises) really helps me get a good start for the day. I like to begin and end my meditation with these words, “I release the past and the future. I embrace the present.” I find that clearing my mind and focusing on my breathing allows thoughts of clarity and creativity to enter. It also energizes me for the day. If that energy wanes, I can do a five-minute refresher by closing my eyes and doing my mind-clearing and breathing exercises.

Next, I mentally plan out the day, make a to-do list if necessary, and then visualize accomplishing the day’s goals. It’s very satisfying to tick off the items as I complete them.

Whenever you find yourself slipping out of the present, and into the past or future, refocus your thoughts by concentrating on what must (or should) be done in the next hour. If you can’t commit to an hour, select an amount of time that is comfortable for you. Then build up until you can live your entire day mindfully in the present.

Planning or Preparing for the Future Is Practicing Mindfulness

Living in the present doesn’t mean you can’t plan or prepare for the future. You can pursue the steps necessary to reach your goals; just don’t worry right now about everything that will eventually need to be done. Release the future until the future arrives.

If you must think about the past or future, do it in small time-limited doses. Use reliving the past to remind yourself of a past success (such as journaling accomplishments or reviewing them to bolster your confidence) or recall how you achieved it. You can think about the past to figure out what went wrong in order to fix it — as long as you do it without spending time in self-judgment. Accept the past, what you have learned from it, and move on with today.

Dale Carnegie, in his book How to Stop Worrying and Start Living, suggests learning how to live in day-tight compartments. The method is to divert your pensive energy into practical projects. Carnegie suggests that we focus on doing our best one day at a time and the future will take care of itself. In other words, keep busy! Get so caught up in your work that you have no time to ponder all the “What ifs” that have been running like a broken record in your mind. He also suggests that you ask yourself, “What is the worst that could happen?” Then he says to either accept that or seek out the answers you need to fix it. If you choose the latter, you must collect all the facts, analyze them, make a decision, and then act on it.

Here Are Some Additional Ways You Can Practice Mindfulness

Mindful listening: When you're having a conversation, instead of anticipating sharing your next thought, focus on what the person is saying to you.

Mindful walking: Go for a walk in nature, focus your attention on the plants and animals you see; fully experience all the sights, sounds, and smells around you.

Mindful eating: When you eat, focus on what you are eating. Chew slowly and savor every texture and flavor. Don't eat until you are hungry, and then stop when you feel full.

Mindfulness Works for Negative Thinking Too

In addition to avoiding thoughts of the past or future, you can use these techniques to ward off other negative thinking as well.

I suggest muting your phone when you need to focus; there’s nothing more annoying or distracting when you are fully engaged than to be startled out of your momentum by your phone’s abrupt ringing. Finally, I encourage you to turn off your TV, especially the news — it’s often nothing but a fear factory.

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