3 Ways to Practise being in the Present Moment
We often hear the phrase “living in the present” or “being in the here and now” but what does this really mean and how do we go about doing it? When we are overwhelmed and stressed in life it can be more challenging for adults and young people to be in the present moment. But this is where life happens, where we make decisions, where we solve problems, where we connect with loved ones. Being more present can support us to thrive more, helping bring us back to baseline when we are getting lost in the story that we tend to narrate our lives with or allow respite from the crowded headspace that can become all too familiar in young people’s lives. In order to support the wellbeing of young people, it is first important that we understand the barriers to being present as well as learning to navigate the tools ourselves, so that we can effectively communicate them on.
Why do I struggle to be in the present moment?
When we’re feeling low it is common for us to engage in something known as rumination. We can sometimes find that our thoughts go over and over things that have happened in the past and often about things we cannot change, doing this is understandable but unhelpful for us. Reflecting on the past and learning from our experiences can be a valuable tool but this is different from rumination where we are constantly going back to thoughts around the past such as “I wish I said this or didn’t say that” “I wish I did that or didn’t do this”. This can often be a drain on our motivation levels and enjoyment in life.
EXAMPLE: You could communicate the scenario of an argument between friends at school and playing over in their mind to help this feel more relatable for young people.
Equally our attention can also gravitate to the future. This is often what we recognise as worrying. This is our brain simulating potential, typically negative, future situations so that we can take corrective action now, to prevent those bad things from happening. This is a useful mechanism for planning ahead but for some can feel overactive, leading to feeling overwhelmed or stressed. We can be presented with so many future-based worries that it is difficult to make a decision, connect with the people around us or enjoy the here and now.
EXAMPLE: You could use the stress of an upcoming exam at school to help young people relate in this area.
Practicing being in the present can be a valuable tool to combat this, not with the aim to never reflect on the past or plan for the future, but to help address the imbalance that often occurs as we all move through life. This is vital to effectively communicate to young people to help provide a rationale for the tools to have a go at.
So how do I practise being more present?
Think of your attention as a muscle and through specific exercises we can build this muscle up in anchoring us in the present moment, This is known as Attention Training.
Below are 3 Attention exercises that you can try yourself or support young people with:
A way we can move our attention is by focussing on ‘external’ factors rather than ‘internal’ factors. An ‘internal’ factor is something that happens within us; a physical feeling or a thought. An ‘external’ factor is something that happens outside of us; the world and people around us. Below is a framework to practice focussing on external factors and is a mental tick list to consciously go through and name things within the categories. Having this saved in the notes on your phone or on a post-it note on the laptop can help prompt this practice.
Going through the tool below holds our attention outside of our mind, away from the overwhelming thoughts and worries on to what is going on in the here and now.
STEP 1: Name 5 things you can see
STEP 2: Name 4 things you can touch
STEP 3: Name 3 things you can hear
STEP 4: Name 2 things you can smell
STEP 5: Name 1 thing you can taste
Mundane task focusing:
When doing household chores such as washing up and hoovering, you may have noticed that your mind is rarely focused on the task but actually tends to wander. Therefore, these types of tasks are great opportunities to strengthen our attention muscle!
With mundane task focusing, the goal is to gradually practice sustaining your attention on a mundane activity to give your attention a good workout. You don’t have to do anything extra in your day to practice this, just use the mundane tasks you already have to complete in your day but change how you pay attention to it. Our mind wanders at these points due to the procedural element of them being on autopilot. Try anchoring your focus on every single step of making a cup of tea for example, talk yourself through all the steps. Get back in the driving seat of this activity and hold yourself there as you progress through it.
Task within a Task
Usually, we are doing something before a worry comes into our head; relaxing, working, reading, talking to a friend. However, once a worry has come into our head it is really hard to go back to focusing on what we were doing beforehand.
The Task within a Task technique helps us bring our attention back to what we were doing before the worry appeared by creating a small task to tackle first. This is engaging the higher-level thinking parts of our brain that is trying to look for corrective action to take to prevent whatever potential bad thing we have begun worrying about.
STEP 1: Look at what you were doing before you noticed the worry.
STEP 2: Count something or take extra notice of something in that task (e.g. if reading, count all the words beginning with A).
STEP 3: After you’ve completed that smaller task, go back to doing the original task.
What if it isn’t working or a young person is struggling?
- These are skills you are practicing, and we are going against the current or the normal way our attention is used to behaving. One way of communicating this to young people is asking them to cross their arms and then uncross them and cross them the opposite way. That weird, unnatural, forced feeling that can give us is the same as when we are using these Attention Training tools. It will understandably feel forced as its new and different. But with practice these can become healthier habits over time and begin feeling much more natural. The same is for practicing the arm crossing!
- Remember to not frame these as pass or fail exercises, the fact that you or the young person are open to experimenting with them at all is a win in itself. Try to promote self-compassion and give yourselves credit for this. Ask a young person “what would you tell a friend in this situation? “We are often much more caring to other than we ourselves.
- Try not to get frustrated if your attention wanders back to the future or the past. Try to acknowledge this non-judgmentally and bring yourself back to the present. For example, with the 5 senses this may be moving your attention from sight to a different sense, focusing on the texture of the sound on your ears rather than getting lost in the story behind it.
- If people are finding it too hard to do in the moment of stress, panic or anxiety, try first having a go when they are less overwhelmed. This will allow you to familiarise yourself with the tool more and build your skill up so that you are more adept at using it. This means that when the storm does hit, you can weather that storm.
- Make the tools your own. Maybe after some practice of the 5 senses tool, a young person feels that touch and sight have the most grounding effect for them. Adapt it to be 5 of each of these alone and maybe have a box of items that helps stimulate this.
Written by Simon Taylor (Senior Psychological Wellbeing Practitioner)