Can you remember your last sleepless night?
You wanted to be calm, you wanted your mind to be quiet, you wanted to just not think, but all sorts of thoughts kept coming.
And your not alone.
Take Sarah for example.
A successful business woman who had started and run two of her own companies she outwardly appeared as a shining example of what the modern world holds up as success, yet inside she was torturing herself.
Why can’t I complete this project she wondered? Why can’t I be a better mother, complete these figures, come to a decision? What wrong with me?
Sarah was caught in a negative spiral we all get caught in from time to time.
Chances are you’ve been there before?
You’ve felt the strain grow steadily over time. You’ve experienced work as stressful, nights sleepless and days drowsy. You’ve felt your limb ache and life lose its joy. It’s a struggle to keep going. And looking ahead only obstacles and pressures seem in the way.
Like Sarah you’ve asked yourself what’s become of your life and why you feel so burned out? Like Sarah you’ve started to wonder why your not happy?
And that’s not all.
You now begin to criticise yourself for not being as happy as you could be. With a job, family, roof over your head, shouldn’t you be happy?
But it’s not so easy.
Caught in the spiral you exist rather than truly live.
We’ve all been there.
The hidden truth is, this story is hardly unique.
Yours, mine, and Sarah’s story is one of several millions who are neither depressed nor anxious in the true clinical sense – yet who are not happy either. Existing in a twilight zone, neither alive, nor dead.
But what if there was a way to control these negative spirals? What if there was a way to tap into the deep well-spring of joy and contentment that resides in all of us? What if there was a way to always maintain a calm, serene outlook on life.
If you asked Sarah how she felt when she got home from a day at work she’d have said ‘exhausted’ or ‘tense.’ At first glance these feelings seem like clear cut statements of fact, but if she’d looked inside herself a little more closely she’d have realised that there wasn’t one single thing that you could label as ‘exhaustion’ or ‘tension.’
Both of these emotions were actually ‘bundles’ of thoughts, raw feelings, bodily sensations and impulses (such as the desire to scream or storm out of the room).
This is what emotion are; they’re like a background colour that’s created when your mind fuses together all of your thoughts, feelings, impulses and bodily sensations to conjure up and overall guiding themes or state of mind.
For example: Thoughts such as as ‘I’m getting nowhere with this’, can combine with feelings such as being tense or upset, and impulses such as to ‘give up’, ‘do another task’, ‘escape’, or even ‘crawl into bed and pull the covers over your head’. And while all this is going on your shoulders are tense and stomach churning. Taken all together you feel anxious and restless. All of these different elements play off each other to create emotions enhancing or tempering our overall mood. Everything is subtle and intricate, like a complex but beautiful dance.
The dance gets more complex when we understand that the influences are all mutual interacting in a constant tango in amongst themselves. Thoughts can drive our mood and emotions, but moods can also drive our thoughts. So we can have a thought that we are failing and that thought cause us to feel a moment of sadness.
But, by colouring how you see and interpret the world, even a few fleeting moments of sadness can end up feeding off themselves to create more unhappy thoughts.
Momentary sadness can dredge up unsettling thoughts and memories further depending your mood. If this was a dance it would now be a slow depressing waltz, failing to inspire its’ audience.
But that’s not all. The same goes for other moods and emotions too. If you feel stressed, then this stress can feed off itself to create more stress. Likewise with anxiety, fear, anger and other emotions such as love, happiness, compassion and empathy.
But it’s not just thoughts and moods that feed off each other and end up wrecking well-being – the body also gets involved. This is because the mind does not exist in isolation; it’s a fundamental part of the body and they both continuously share emotional information with each other. In fact, much of what the body feels is coloured by our thoughts and our emotions, and everything that we think is informed by what’s going on in the body.
It’s a complex process, but research is showing that our whole outlook on life can be shifted by tiny changes in the body. Something as subtle as frowning, smiling or altering posture can have a dramatic impact on mood and the types of thoughts flickering across the mind.
Studies show that forcing yourself to smile, even if your not in a good mood, can actually make you more happy. But there’s an equal and opposite cycle too: when we sense a threat we tense up, ready to fight or run away. The mind then feeds of this tension in the body to lower mood, negative thoughts might be triggered and downward spiral begun.
A minor emotional shift can end up ruining your day.
What started as a high powered and lively jazz, quickly becomes a slow depressing ballroom dance, which everyone wants to end.
Is there anything we can do to affect the quality of our day?
One of the most important things we can do is to begin to notice these things. Too often were so busy with our lives that we are actually out of tune with ourselves.
And here’s the secret?
No one ever taught us those things.
On realising that we can be aware of our body and mind we can at first feel overwhelmed. No one can go from aware to unaware in the space of a few days. It takes time to cultivate the ability to stay in contact with ourselves throughout the day.
Guided meditations in particular are designed to bring you in touch with your thoughts, feelings, impulses and body sensations.
A typical meditation might ask you to focus on your breathing, watching closely as the air flows into and out of the lungs. It’s hard to do this and not also be aware of the thoughts and feelings that float into your mind.
Another meditation asks us to scan our body and pay attention to all these sensations we notice and feel. Yet another might remind us to treat ourselves with loving kindness, while another asks us to enjoy small movements while noticing any sensations, urges and thoughts that arise in us.
Over time you naturally become more aware, are better able to concentrate and are less reactive. This is one of the great joys of mindfulness meditation: unhealthy patterns becomes easier to see and break.
Whether it’s smoking or unhealthy eating or spirals of negative thoughts. The thoughts and feelings and urges are still these, but you’re now able to notice them for what they are: thoughts, feelings, and urges. There just passing experiences. Like a sharp turn or misstep in a dance, they only impact the whole piece if you let them.
You can refrain from acting on the urge, or you can smile at your low mood, or negative thought, you can embrace your feelings of anger or sadness.
And it passes.
If it’s a craving there might be a moment of disappointment, a slight sense of missing out. But this will pass. Low feelings might remain, or your body might still feel tense or depressed, but you you’ll learn how to let them be. Eventually they too will pass.
The dance goes on and you control it.
Few of us are taught that we can tune into our day to day experiences. That we are able to be open and notice our experiences as they occur in the moment.
Thankfully, it takes only a small amount of guided meditation practice to bring us into focus and awareness of our emotions. As little as 5 minutes a day as long as it is everyday will soon bring us into tune with our thoughts, feelings, body sensations and urges.
With help form the recordings you’ll soon gain the option of affecting the quality of the day. Negative spirals and sleepless nights will feel part of the distant past and endless cycles of fruitless thinking will disappear from your life forever.
You’ll soon have new freedom, wisdom and control in your routines, relationships and daily thoughts.
Matt is a trained and licenced Mindfulness teacher and Stress and Anxiety Reduction Counsellor operating in and around the Peterborough area. After overcoming his own stress and anxiety he's found his purpose teaching others to do the same.
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