Living in The Past and Future

Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction) says, ‘you only have moments to live. This moment, and this one, and this one. We can only really live within each moment – the rest is all remembering or imagining’.

From my work as a mental health OT, I was aware of how much time my patients spent worrying about things. I started to notice that they were spending so much of their life, up in their head, either ruminating about the past or projecting in to the future, making many anxious predictions. I have definitely noticed at times, I have a tendency to do this too!

It is common in people who suffer with depression, to spend a lot of time, living in the past; ruminating and playing out difficult past experiences, and then feeling a multitude of distressing emotions, such as sadness, anxiety, anger and guilt, as a result.

It is also common in people who experience anxiety, to spend a lot of time worrying about the future. Pre-empting what might happen, jumping to conclusions and making anxious predictions. All of which can impact on a person’s behaviour; for example avoidance and social isolation. Which then inevitably can impact on a person’s health, happiness and wellbeing. So as you can see, our thoughts have the capability of having a kind of self-destructive domino affect on our lives.

Our minds are very good at attempting to replay the past and project in to the future and despite it usually not doing us any good, it’s a very common and habitual thought loop for many people, without help, to get stuck in.

It’s important to note, that when we refer to the past or future, this doesn’t just refer to way in the past or future. For example, thinking about the breakdown of a marriage that may have happened many years ago, or as a teenager worrying about what you’ll be when you’re older. It also applies to every day kind of thoughts that fling from the immediate past and future. Such as, ‘oh I wish I’d gone to the gym yesterday’, ‘I should have written this report last week’, or come Sunday night, ‘What if I mess up in the presentation at work tomorrow’. If persistent and regular, these smaller kinds of thoughts and worries also have the ability to impact our mood, feelings and behaviour.

It is the unhelpful thinking patterns of past and future that gladly welcome mindfulness! Mindfulness helps us to firstly increase our awareness of when we find ourselves either worrying about the future or ruminating about the past. And secondly, helps us to simply acknowledge the thoughts, see them just as thoughts (as opposed to reality), accept that we usually can’t do anything about them, and then to move on to what we are doing in the now

This doesn’t mean that we push away any difficult thoughts; it simply means that we acknowledge them and even welcome them, but then return to either our breath, or body (with the help of different meditations). We find that by doing this, naturally the thoughts and associated emotions start to ease, giving us a better sense of clarity and control.

More often than not, it is our thoughts, which get us in to distressed states, as opposed to something that is actually happening to us, in the moment. Or, there might be a small trigger, that makes us think of something in the past or triggers us to project in to the future; but it is then our thoughts that drive that small worry, in to a frantic whirlwind of emotions and consequent behaviour.

Mindfulness helps to anchor us back in the present moment. For instance, by drawing our attention inwards, towards our breath and the physical sensation of breathing, we are better able to prevent ourselves from being pulled in to anxious or negative states of mind. This of course, like most things in life, takes lots of practice and patience.

It is only natural to have worries and mindfulness doesn’t claim to ever stop a persons worries from popping in to their minds, but it draws on significantly increasing our awareness of our minds, so that we can stop, pause and notice when our thoughts might be taking over and leading us into difficulty.

“The habit of spending nearly every waking moment lost in thought leaves us at the mercy of whatever our thoughts happen to be. Meditation is a way of breaking this spell.” – Sam Harris