Many people have trouble stopping their minds from swirling with too many thoughts. From obsessing over past mistakes to worrying about the future, overwhelming thoughts can make it difficult to feel calm or enjoy ourselves. Even when we know that worrying or obsessing is not going to help, sometimes we just can't shut it off. Having a strategy to put our attention on the present moment can help.
Meditation expert Jon Kabat-Zinn's popular book, Wherever You Go, There You Are, is filled with brief mindfulness exercises. The title alone reminds us that we can take our racing thoughts with us - to the beach, on a hike, or on a vacation, and we can make ourselves miserable. Sometimes the setting is not enough; calming ourselves is truly an inside job. If meditation and mindfulness seem like too much to learn about, there are short, easy ways to shift our attention off of our worries, fears, or anger. Grounding exercises are short, easy to remember, simple to do, and help us in several ways.
When we choose to pay attention to something in the present moment, we get a break from dwelling on the past or predicting future problems. This break interrupts the physiological changes that occur with overwhelming negative thoughts, allowing our minds and bodies to shift gears.
Managing attention is a skill that improves with practice, just like everything else we learn in our lives. Improved focus means when we decide to put our mental energy into something, it will be easier to follow through with it.
Using our senses to make simple observations in the here and now is a basic form of mindfulness. Studies have found that mindfulness is helpful for physical and mental health, and improves overall well being. People who practice mindfulness are less judgmental of themselves and others, are more focused on savoring life experiences, more engaged in activities, form deeper connections with others, and have a greater capacity to cope with adverse events.
Tuning into our senses increases our mind/body connection, increasing our ability to be more aware and present in our lives, and less distracted by our thoughts.
3-2-1 Grounding Exercise...easy as 1-2-3!
It may sound too simple, but try it and see what happens. Be still and look around you. Name 3 things that you see. Be quiet and listen. Name 3 things that you hear. Continue to be still and name 3 things that you feel. Now name 2 things that you see, hear, and feel. No repeats. Now name one of each.
There is an old saying that applies here:
"When you take care of each moment, you take care of all time."
Some of my clients use this exercise to bring themselves back from overwhelming anxiety, anger, fear, or worry. Some use it to avoid becoming lost in upsetting memories. I used it on a walk with my dog yesterday after finding myself worrying about something in the future. The exercise brought my attention to seeing the trees, flowers, and pavement, hearing the sounds of birds, a dog barking, and a car, and the feelings of the ground under my feet, the leash in my hand, and shirt sleeves on my arms. No repeats. The exercise brought me to see the blue sky and clouds, to hear the sounds of crickets and faint voices from nearby yards, the feelings of a breeze and my arms swinging. No repeats. I saw a line on the pavement, heard a distant helicopter, and felt my breath. My worrying was gone, those moments were OK, and I was present.