Overcome anxiety by learning to live in the present
Daniel has a wonderful wife and children. They live in a medium size home and have a comfortable if not wealthy life. He owns several businesses he likes and excels at. He’s healthy and able to do most anything he or his family wants. To all appearances, Daniel and his family are living the American Dream.
But Daniel isn’t the happy person he seems. He constantly worries over the past, things he’s done or not done, things he said to others or wanted to say, and different paths he should have taken. He wakes in the morning and his first thought is “what could go wrong today?” Although Daniel has what many others consider ‘the perfect’ life’, he’s constantly focused on ‘what should have been’ rather than what is. Daniel has a serious problem living for the present.
It’s human nature to sometimes think about the past and wonder what decisions or words we should have taken or spoken. After all, there are dozens of science fiction movies, shows, and books based on ‘returning to the past or going ahead to the future’ such as the wildly popular ‘Back to the Future’ movies. Wouldn’t it be great to be able to change the things we didn’t like? To ‘re-do’ the things where we felt we failed?
Perhaps. But as the main character of that movie series discovered, our actions and decisions in the past shape and make us what we are in the present and future. Like ripples in the water when a rock is thrown in, if we change one thing, we change many more. How does one, like Daniel, break the cycle of anxiety and learn to be calm, and live in the present?
(Yes, Daniel is a real client of mine. We worked together a few years ago and we continue to stay in touch. You can hear his story of learning to overcome anxiety using hypnosis and mindfulness techniques here.)
Learning to overcome anxiety: Dan’s experience
Steps you can take to live in the present
1. Focus on What is Right Before You
It’s been said we often miss the very things which are right in front of our eyes. This is very true. It’s easy with the chaos and stress of life to focus on ‘what if’ and not on ‘what is’. When we always see the past or focus too much on the future, we lose sight of all the wonderful things right before us. Think of it as running a race. We become so focused on the yellow streaming finish line banner, we miss the sights of the people standing along the track cheering us on. Try taking a few minutes each day to think over the things you often take for granted that are right before your nose. If it’s Spring, look for signs of new growth in nature around you. Look for something new on the road you travel every day. You might be surprised at the whole world right under your nose. Mindfulness techniques and gratitude will pull you into the present and that goes a long way on his journey to overcome anxiety.
When Daniel began using hypnosis and mindfulness techniques, it was as though he awoke to what was actually happening around him, rather than spending all of his energy ruminating about the past or worrying about the future. Daniel began to glance around him on the drive to work. The store on the corner where he always turned for work had a new green tin roof. When had that happened? New families had moved into his neighborhood. Why hadn’t he noticed that before? It’s the little things which make the present a gift to us. He became able to do things -comfortably- that previously made him so anxious (and then guilty for feeling anxious) that he would have to take a pill. Daniel was changing, for the better, through his own efforts.
Living in the present is enhanced by those around us. But how many times do we stop and notice them? It’s easy to overlook people we see every day. Focusing on what we say and do right now, today, is so much better than what we could have said or done in the past. After all, despite what science fiction teaches, one can’t go back and change the past. But the present is right before us like a banquet. We just need to focus on what we are eating, not what we should have eaten.
Daniel began to take interest in people around him. His friend John had lost a ton of weight. When had that happened? The lady who made his daily sandwich at his favorite deli always had a smile for him. When had he last thanked her or smiled back? Focusing on doing what he could helped Daniel not look back later and regret he hadn’t smiled or complimented someone.
3. Change What We Can Change
There’s an old prayer which states: “Help me change the things I can change and accept the things I can’t change”. When we look back at what we should have said or done, we often miss the best opportunities to do or say what can make our lives, and someone’s, better in the future. We can’t change what we did in the past. But we can help make the present better, if we chose to do so. We may have no control over what we did in the past, such as not finishing that college degree or not asking out that person we really wanted to date, but we can change what we do in the present. Focus on what is, not on what isn’t.
Daniel began to realize what he had said and done in the past couldn’t be changed by worrying about it. Those anxious thoughts about the future slowed down, became less. He began to really consider the way he interacted and spoke with others in the present. Before he let loose angry words, he took a deep breath. This helped him remain calm and then not later regret he’d spoken in the spur of the moment. As he learned more and more about overcoming anxiety, Daniel was surprised and impressed at how he was changing for the better.
4. Realize Regret is Not a Healthy Thing
How many times have we heard someone say, “I wish I had said…” or “I wish I had…” How many times have we said it? Usually we hear these words at a funeral or when someone we love or know has passed away. Regret is also a natural part of being human, but living for regret is not. If you take stock of how many times you say those sentences and realize you say those more than, “I’m so glad I..” then you may have trouble with an unhealthy amount of regret. Daniel began to stop saying, “I really wish I had done…” and began to focus on saying, “This is what I can do now.” That turned out to be the solution for his anxious thoughts about the future too—focusing on the actions he could take in the present to create the future he wanted — and doing those actions.
5. Be Careful of Focusing Too Far Ahead
Just as always looking back at the past isn’t healthy for us, focusing too much on the future can make us again miss those things right in front of us here in the present. Certainly we should plan for the future. We all want that future goal: the college degree, the big promotion, and the day of our baby’s birth. But there are so many things to enjoy right now. Focus on the classes you take right now for that degree and get all you can from them. Work on perfecting your assignments rather than seeing them as a stepping stone for the big promotion. Enjoy the sensations of being pregnant instead of just seeing the baby in your arms.
Daniel began to focus on and appreciate the things he’d missed before. He really liked the work he did and began to pay more attention to his projects. He began to ask his wife and children about their day and listen to what they shared. Daniel had discovered a key to living in the present: enjoying life.
6. Enjoy the Present Life
Many times we say, “Remember the old days? Things were so much better!” Perhaps they were. Or do we simply think they were? Life has a wonderful way of changing and becoming better even when we think it’s worse. What about the ‘old days’ did you enjoy? How can you make the present day more of what you enjoy?
“The more tranquil a man becomes, the greater is his success, his influence, his power for good. Calmness of mind is one of the beautiful jewels of wisdom. ” ~ James Allen
Daniel realized worrying over things he’d said and done years ago only took away his joy in the present. He focused more on taking each hour and day as it came and trying to find something to be proud of. Instead of muttering and pounding the steering wheel in the afternoon slow traffic, he turned the radio to a favorite station and enjoyed the music. He arrived home in a much better mood and could enjoy his time with his family.
7. Try Self Hypnosis
A wonderful way to help teach your mind to live in the present is self hypnosis. Hypnosis is a state of calm focus and using the tool of hypnosis on a regular basis trains the mind to stay in a state of calm focus even after the session is over. I have all of my clients at my practice use self hypnosis, either with a recording that we make, or an “active” practice without a recording, and very often both. (Well over half of my practice is working with people on overcoming anxiety.) The process of training the mind takes a little time and it certainly requires consistency, but the benefits really are tremendous. I tell all of my clients, “a focused mind is a calm mind.” And that’s true. It’s when your mind is chasing all over the place, thoughts racing to the past, the future, all over the planet touching on all of your worries, concerns, fears and “shoulds,” that we feel anxious, scattered and uncomfortable.
Being in self hypnosis, in a calm, focused state, slows down the brain waves from a fast beta (that worried, anxious state) to a calm alpha (more about brainwaves in another article soon!). When you reach that calm alpha, you’re in the state of hypnosis, a state of single-minded focus, and those intrusive thoughts slow down, reduce in number, and can even stop. In fact, the state of hypnosis (if it is a state, but we won’t enter that debate here), was originally called “hypnosis” by a Scottish physician in the 1800’s. Dr. James Braid called it hypnosis when he began his research, believing it to be some form of specialized sleep. After about three decades of research he realized that this has nothing to do with sleep, and he wanted to re-name the state “monoideasm.” “Mono” meaning one, “ideasm” meaning idea. One idea. Single minded focus. A form of selective attention, is another way to put it.
You’ve been in a form of selective attention before, and you can remember how calming it was.
Here’s a great example. Remember or imagine you’re in a movie theater and it’s pretty full. You take your seat and you’re next to a stranger on one side. Maybe that makes you uncomfortable because you’re not used to that and it draws a bit of your attention. You begin noticing all the distractions in the room-conversations, people still fiddling with their cell phones, wrappers crinkling, someone coughing in a row somewhere above you, and on and on. You may even wonder to yourself, “how am I going to relax and focus on this movie with all this going on around me?” Then the movie begins. These days they do such a great job of riveting your attention in the first minute of the movie, it’s incredible. Gone are the days when the title roll took the first five minutes of the film! So, they suck you in, pull your attention, you’re riveted to the screen and … what happened to all the distractions? They’re still there, and if you intentionally take your focus away from the movie, you’ll notice them. Sure, a little fainter than before because the rest of the house is in that hypnotic state too, so they’re moving a little slower, and that cough maybe has even gone away for that guy up there (and hopefully the cell phones are off!). Nonetheless, if you shift your focus away from the screen you’ll find those distractions. You’re still sitting next to that stranger, but while you were wrapped up in that movie, it was like he wasn’t even there. And just remember how nice it felt, to have momentarily forgotten everything else going on in your life.
People call movies “an escape” because of this.
You can have the same escape any time using self hypnosis. And when you move your brain into that calmer, slower brainwave state on a regular basis, it trains your brain to not get so busy, and has a carry-over effect into the rest of your day.
In the movie scenario, your focused attention caused a decrease in beta brain wave activity and an increase in alpha — the same thing that happens when you use self hypnosis.
Daniel still tends every now and then to regret things he’s said and done in the past, and have concerns about things coming up in his future. But it’s much less than before. His focus is living every day as best he can and learning from things he does to make the next day even better. It’s taken time, but Daniel is living for the present. And so can you.
Thought for the day: The past is over, the future is yet to be, but the present is a gift to be enjoyed now.
You can hear Daniel’s actual story in the audio below. Daniel worked with me a few years ago, and I continue to follow up with him. He really focused on being consistent with his self hypnosis and mindfulness techniques and he was successful in significantly reducing his anxiety and changing his day to day experience. You can do the same.
One of the tools Dan had was my hypnosis audio, Live in the Present Moment. This was his “homework” in between our sessions, and beyond.
Learning to overcome anxiety: Dan’s experience