Being Present Is The Secret Weapon To Overcoming Anxiety, According To Science

June 2, 2017

John Lennon once said, “Life’s what happens to you while you are busy making other plans.” It’s a beautiful quote and couldn’t ring truer. Keep looking ahead and you’ll miss being present for what’s going on in the now. Of course, it’s unavoidable from time to time. After all, it can be really exciting getting together with your friends and planning a trip away or a big birthday party. What’s important, however, is remembering to bring yourself back to the present as often as possible. Do this and you can revel in the raw emotion of excitement itself, bask in the happiness of the moment, and practice gratitude for life’s greatness.

Slow Down Time

A study found that we daydream about 50% of the time. That’s huge. It’s considered both a blessing and a curse of the human condition that we have the ability to take ourselves away from what we’re doing and instead mull over the past or anticipate the future. If it means we can learn from our past and better ourselves, that’s great. This allows us to grow and develop and evolve. It allows us to improve our society and collective wellbeing. Much the same applies to being able to plan for the future. If we can prepare ourselves, that is undoubtedly a good thing. Being able to hypothetically place ourselves in potential futures allows us to have some idea of how we’ll deal with scenarios x, y, and z should they arise.

But if these remembered or imagined moments cause us emotional strife, they can be highly destructive to our mental wellbeing, rob us of our happiness, and get in the way of us overcoming anxiety. The past can lead us down a road of regret or the inability to let things go. The future can mean anticipating scenarios that may never actually happen and thus both end up wasting our time. Interestingly, Daniel Gilbert, Harvard psychologist, describes the “psychological immune system” as kicking in during stressful events, thus allowing us to better deal with them. We end up remembering these as far less severe or traumatic than how we had anticipated they might make us feel. This only further proves it’s a waste of time dreading said event(s) in the first place. We can always cope, even when we don’t think we’ll be able to. I find that pretty comforting.

We are far less happy when our minds wander. This chance to focus on worries about the future and the fear of disappointment takes us away from being present in the now and what we can do to actually improve our lives. Before we know it, we’ve wasted 20 minutes that we’ll never get back again. That’s no good! Spending this much time away from the present is a waste of the experiences that we can have if we slow things down and focus on exactly what’s before us and nothing more.

It takes training to keep the mind from wandering off into the future, but it can be done. Here’s how:

  1. Bring the focus back to something really plain and simple. As soon as you notice yourself projecting into the future, bring your focus back to something really simple and boring in the present. It could be your arm, a coaster, a glass of water, a coin, or anything else that doesn’t elicit any emotional response. Your job is to focus all of your attention solely on that item to bring your awareness back to the present. Do this every time you find yourself thinking ahead until you’re ready to naturally move on to what it is that you were doing in the first place.
  2. Create a present practice. This doesn’t have to be meditating cross-legged for an hour a day. Perhaps make a conscious effort to eat your breakfast every morning without any distractions. Feel the texture of it in your mouth, enjoy the taste, listen to the sounds of the world around you getting ready for a new day, look up at the sky and see what the weather looks like it will do for the day. Focus on all of your senses and what they are getting from the moment. And if breakfast isn’t a great time for you, make it your walk home from work or your afternoon snack break instead. Try to do this as often as you can, but relieve the pressure by starting small with just one regular activity a day.
  3. Do new things often. Do you remember being a kid and feeling how slowly the days went? How long the time took between birthdays? It’s because when we’re children, we’re encountering things for the first time. It takes our full attention to process it all. Pay attention to when you try new things and notice how much of your attention they manage to win over. When we don’t know how to do something, we have to learn. Our brains can’t juggle the mind-wandering at the same time, therefore we are present for each moment as we are doing that new thing.

It can be really easy to get into the habit of always looking forward. Whether you’re trying to stay on top of things, plan for the worst, or prevent a disappointing outcome, spending too much time with your head in the clouds instead of being present leaves the precious seconds of your life ticking by without even an ounce of your acknowledgment. It’s one thing to have a plan, but another to spend time forecasting a million-and-one potential scenarios that may actually never come to fruition. Trust in your ability to judge a decision wisely and make the best choice at the time. You can relax knowing there is less need to pass the time trying to be future you.

What are your strategies for being present?

Also by Kat: Get Smarter With These 5 Mind Tricks To Improve Memory (& Ace Everything)

Related: On Reconciling Nostalgia with Being Present

Why Millennials Desperately Need Mindfulness More Than Any Other Generation

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Kat Kennedy is an Arizona-based physiology doctoral student and holistic health advocate writing about science, health, and her experiences as a third culture kid and global nomad. She's @sphynxkennedy everywhere.


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