‘My life has been destroyed by many catastrophes, most of which never happened’

Planning for the future combined with present moment awareness can get through this strange time in good shape

Higher stress brings higher blood pressure as the body’s fight or flight response kicks in – and that response can be triggered by scary thoughts.

Higher stress brings higher blood pressure as the body’s fight or flight response kicks in – and that response can be triggered by scary thoughts.

 

It used to be said that the devil finds work for idle hands to do. Well, never mind the hands – it’s the idle minds you need to look out for.

Too much time on your (idle) hands can tip you into an imaginary, scary future. Those scary thoughts push up your blood pressure in the here and now.

This kind of thinking is called “catastrophising” and it means latching on to unpleasant possibilities and spinning them into waking nightmares.

“Money will be tight later this year” becomes “I will have no income at all and I will lose everything”. I don’t know anything about your circumstances, but, regardless of what they may be, your mind can make that leap to disaster in a nanosecond.

And it does so without evidence. It is not in the least fazed by the fact that many of its previous predictions turned out to be completely wrong.

“My life has been destroyed by many catastrophes, most of which never happened,” as Montaigne said.

And yet we have to work things out for the future, as best we can.

That’s why I was interested to see reports of a study looking at people who have a tendency to think a lot about problems that need sorting out in the future. The future could be tomorrow or even later today; it didn’t have to be years from now. The study, at North Carolina State University, found that combining future planning with mindfulness can reduce stress, whereas future planning on its own doesn’t.

At its base, mindfulness is about deliberate awareness of your experience in the present moment. Right now I hear a seagull raising a racket over the streets, the humming of a freezer that lives in my home office, I feel my feet against the floor and so on. Becoming aware of such things gets you quickly into the moment.

Planning – whether it’s to order a pizza or to save the world – involves working out what you need to do, when and with whom.

It’s completely different to fantasising, say about that time it took two hours for a pizza to arrive from around the corner, why are you so lazy, what must they have thought of you, and so on and on.

Fantasy won’t bring you a pizza. Coming out of the fantasy into the present moment where you can make a little plan to go online and order it probably will.

A difficulty with the present moment is that your mind won’t let you stay in it. Try it for a minute and I promise you will fall through a time warp into fantasy during that minute. Mindfulness, really, is about constantly noticing that you are lost and coming back into the moment. You get better at this as you go along.

Dark imaginings

Why should this help? Perhaps because the present is less stressful than our dark imaginings about the future. Therefore switching from catastrophising about that future to present moment awareness can help to reduce stress.

The present moment, too, can be stressful but I certainly find it easier to handle than grim, sensationalised versions of what’s going to happen. That, I should add, was true long before any of us heard of the coronavirus.

As I mentioned above, higher stress brings higher blood pressure as the body’s fight or flight response kicks in – and that response can be triggered by scary thoughts. By reducing stress we make the future, from a health point of view, better than it might otherwise be.

Is this all easier said than done? Yes, absolutely. And I admit I don’t know what you yourself are facing or what you are going to have to cope with when all “this” is over.

But I think it’s important to come through it all in the best shape you can manage. Planning for the future combined with present moment awareness, and especially watching out for catastrophising, can help you to get through in good shape. It is also a very, very useful strategy to bring into the rest of your life.

– Padraig O’Morain (@PadraigOMorain) is accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His latest book is Daily Calm. His daily mindfulness reminder is free by email (pomorain@yahoo.com).

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