Balance – easier to say than to achieve?

In my last blog I introduced some elements of mindfulness and since then have had several conversations with carers about how scary it sounds to them. I would really like to make it easy for you to gain some of the benefits that are possible since I know what a difference it can make.

Last time I wrote, I spoke about what might be going on in your mind. It might be occupied going over things that happened in the past, it might be speculating or worrying about the future. Being in either of these places too much means that we might not be present when we need to be. Or we might miss out on some of the benefits of being “in the moment”. However, please don’t think I am suggesting that looking back over things or wondering about the future are bad things to do. Of course, they are not. But if they consume us or we struggle to escape from this kind of thinking then it might be worth trying to change things.

Before I write about trying to influence what is happening in our minds, I want to stress that reflecting on the past can be very useful. We can learn from it and think about different ways of handling a situation if it were to arise again. Maybe we think we didn’t handle a conversation with a physiotherapist or a nurse terribly well and found ourselves becoming very upset and unable to make our point. Thinking about what happened and perhaps speaking to someone else about it might help to work out how we could behave differently if a similar situation were to come up. However, if our thoughts focus too much on what we think should have happened or on something over which we have no control, for example, how someone else behaved, that will just drain our energy.

Similarly, there are times when thinking about the future is absolutely the right thing to do. A carer I spoke with recently mentioned that her mother would be having some surgery soon. She was spending a lot of time thinking about how to organise her house to make it safe and to manage the risks that might be around when her mum comes home. That is a really important thing to do, but she also found herself worrying about things which she could not control – what if mum has a lot of pain, what if the surgery really knocks her for six as they say? Well, these things are less easy to plan for and we just have to be ready for them if they arise. We need to cross some bridges when we reach them. One of the ways to make sure we are able to deal with whatever arises is to take care of ourselves and make sure we are not “running on empty”.  

What about achieving some balance? The first step is to notice what is going on in your mind and whether or not it feels as though you have any control over it. Sometimes it is possible to recognise what is consuming your mind and then to distract yourself. Other times it might feel as though whatever you do, these thoughts creep back in and take hold of you. Maybe keep you awake at night or distract you when you are trying to focus on something else. Trying to push the thoughts away generally doesn’t help. They just seem to push back! But switching your focus to something else even for a short time might provide some relief.

What could you switch your focus to? I wrote last time about being in the present and the relief that can bring. So really trying to be aware of the here and now can make a difference – what you see, what you can feel, what you can hear, what you can smell and what you can taste. It is easy to neglect the full range of our sensory experience.

Let’s try a little practice. You might be sitting having a cup of coffee and notice that your mind is trapped worrying about some event in the future – a doctor’s appointment, an assessment by care management, or a trip that is concerning you. See if you can turn your attention to really noticing how the chair you are sitting on feels. Is it firm or soft, do you feel it on the backs of your thighs, is your back resting against the backrest? How about the room you are in? Is there any air moving, perhaps from a window? Does it feel drafty or is it pleasant? What can you hear, what can you smell? Are you warm or cool? Are any parts of your body tense? Just notice. And if the thoughts creep back, that’s OK, think of them like clouds that will pass and then go back to noticing your chair and the room.

For a few minutes you may well have gained some relief from the worry. So now you know that it is possible to have some control over your thoughts. I will continue next time and help you to see how this little technique can be used more and therefore provide you with more relief.