Addicted to thinking

Thinking, thinking, thinking. The virtual reality of our minds prevents us from experiencing what’s really going on in the present moment.

So much of our precious time is wasted ruminating on the past, or worrying about the future. We can feel powerless over the swirling, expanding tornado of thoughts and emotions, and feel a victim of life’s situations and the tendencies of the mind.

Because of the mind’s inclination to the negative, called the inherent negativity bias, the virtual reality we dwell in most is often one of difficulty and challenge.

Ruminating and spending time going over the past, or the anticipated future, prevents us from experiencing the life we’re actually living.

When this happens, we become distracted, and have challenge concentrating on what’s right in front of us, creating even more difficulty.

When challenging situations arise, getting caught up in life’s dramas has consequences.  It can keep us stuck in the fight-or-flight response, and our rational mind seems to fly out the window.

Our minds, our bodies, and our relationships bear the consequence of this very human tendency.

Have you ever snapped at a loved one because you’ve been lost in thinking about a difficult situation?

I sure have.

There have been many times when I’ve been surrounded by the beauty of life itself, but have missed it all. I was locked in the virtual reality of my mind, worrying, ruminating, or holding virtual conversations in my head.

There have been times when, sitting in a beautiful park, surrounded by peace and beauty, I was suffering. All I could think about was a problem from the past.

The problem was not happening in that moment, there was nothing I could do about it at that time, but it seemed like the only reality because I made it so.

Stuck in the virtual reality of my mind, I’ve missed out on the beauty of life, such as words shared by a loved one, the taste of wonderful meals, the reality of my physical space, and the truth of what’s happening now.

I was suffering at the hands of my own mind and felt like a victim of life circumstance.

How can we awaken from this very human tendency that creates so much suffering in our lives?

I’ve found relief from mental torture in a very simple practice.

Come back to your senses.

Take several slow, deep breaths, feeling the breath as it enters and leaves your body. This is not thinking about the breath; it’s experiencing the breath as it moves in the body.

Now, come to your senses.

  • What do you hear? Notice the sounds around you without judgment. Listen to sounds near and far. Notice if you can hear more sounds now than when lost in thinking.
  • What do you smell? You might need to close your eyes to really notice this sense because we often overlook what we’re smelling.
  • What do you see? List the objects you see in detail: the names, the colours, and textures of what you can see.
  • What do you taste? Can you taste anything? Notice the mouth. How does it feel inside the mouth? Feel the teeth, the saliva, the tongue.

Finally, check in and become aware of what you feel in your body. Feel your feet on the floor, your clothing as it touches your skin.  Feel the temperature of the air, and any other physical sensations happening right now.

If any tension remains, consciously soften your face and shoulders, take another deep breath, and relax your body.

Check in again. How are you feeling? Do you feel better? Has the mind slowed? If not, go back and repeat the steps. For me, this usually means I was thinking about the senses instead of using and sensing them.

My thinking usually slows, and things start to become clearer. This means I’ve invited the executive centre of my brain into action, and deactivated the fight-or-flight response.

This technique is helpful not only when I get stuck in challenging thinking, but also when I’m feeling overwhelmed, or nervous about something.

Coming to our senses is a simple, yet a powerful technique. It’s portable, and private, but helps put us back in the driver’s seats of our lives.

Show up and shut up

Just show up and shut up.

This simple and sage advice was offered by Clair Jantzen, a local grief and loss therapist, last Sunday in Kelowna, at the Walk of Memories.

He’s a wise man.

The Walk of Memories is an annual, interactive opportunity for people who’ve experienced loss, to support themselves in their journey with grief. This walk is offered in partnership with Interior Health Authority and the Kelowna General Hospital Foundation.

In our grief-avoidant society, topics surrounding death seem taboo for many. There are many reasons for this avoidance. It’s uncomfortable. This topic may touch our pain and remind us of our own mortality.

Issues around death and grief remain a mystery for many, and often we’re misinformed.

I’m one of many in Kelowna keen to bring this topic out of the shadows and into conversation.

Death, loss, and grief are facts of life. We’ll all experience them, and we can better support ourselves, and one another, by learning more about them.

We may never like the topic, but we can become more comfortable and supportive during this inevitable fact of life.

In an earlier column, I wrote about grief, and it’s many faces.

Grief’s not a predictable, tidy process, and it doesn’t just show up as an emotion of sadness. It affects us on every level of our being.

Grief has some very different faces, and there’s no normal grieving response.

How do we support friends and family who’re grieving? What can we do?

In those days immediately following a death, doing thoughtful things to support basic needs of the bereaved is a powerful act of caring.

Simple things such as sending food, taking care of yard duties, or tasks of life offer support in ways words never can.

I remember one powerful story of a man who simply showed up to shine shoes. He knew the family needed their shoes cleaned up for the service. He quietly came, and he did that. This simple act meant more to the family than anything.

After the funeral is over and everyone goes back to life’s routines, there’s nothing routine for those who’ve lost a major person in their lives.

Don’t assume they’re OK just because they seemed fine at the funeral.

The meaning and reality of the loss, the real grief, often doesn’t occur in the time immediately following a loss. The shock of it all can create a numbness, making it appear they’re ‘doing well’ soon after the loss.

Reality sinks in as people attempt to reconstruct their lives that are forever changed.

Grieving people often feel abandoned by friends when they need them most. Friendships can be lost, only compounding the grief of the newly bereaved.

One grieving widow felt like she had a contagious disease because people stayed away. Maybe she did and the contagious disease was grief.

Avoid offering the platitudes so often repeated following a death, such as “they’re in a better place,” etc. These often only add to the pain, and may even cause anger and a sense of increased isolation.

I’ve often wondered if we use these sayings to comfort ourselves when words fail us.

Allow people the freedom to grieve their way, not assuming we know how they are feeling, because we’re all different. Simply find out how they’re feeling and be OK with it. Meet them where they’re at and journey with them.

Nothing we say may ever ease the pain of grief, but our presence can.

This is a time when asking questions about how they are and what they need is important. Being prepared to be comfortable with not having answers, but being willing to listen, and listen, and listen.

Reaching out on days of great significance can also help. Supporting a grieving person on birthdays, anniversaries, and days of importance is helpful.

There’s no prescription for how to best support during this time, because there’s no cookie-cutter process for grief.

Knowing we’re supported and cared for as we grieve matters.

Being willing to move toward people who’re hurting, being willing to move past our own discomfort and uncertainty, and offering the gift of caring, human presence is supportive.

This is such a big topic. As we learn more about grief, we can better equip ourselves to support ourselves, and one another after a loss.

Clair Jantzen offers workshops to enhance our ability to more fully show up and be a support during grief. Central Okanagan Hospice Association is another rich resource.

The answer may be simpler than you know. Simply follow Clair’s advice.

Show up, and shut up, and listen.  See where they’re at and what they need, and do that.

This one’s for you Sarah.

Raging on the road

Sometimes people just lose it.

All of us have had times when we’ve freaked out or reacted at a level not matching the situation.

I clearly remember the time when my husband and I were T-boned after a lovely evening visiting in Vernon. Unfortunately, so does my husband, Tom.

I didn’t see her coming. I didn’t realize she’d run the stop sign, until I felt the impact and was thrown sideways in the van.

I instantly saw red. Oh, the potty mouth on me was shameful. It was lucky my door was jammed shut by the impact, because I could have done something stupid.

Tom wanted to keep me stuck inside the van and get me away from the accident scene quickly to prevent something more from happening.

For much of the ride home, our vehicle was silent.

My husband kept looking at me and shaking his head. I’d become someone he didn’t know for those few seconds, and he seemed horrified. I felt embarrassed and didn’t truly understand what had happened.

Not my finest moment, for sure.

As reason returned, remorse and confusion filled me.

I hadn’t given one thought about the poor woman who’d hit us. I wasn’t the least bit concerned for her well-being until well after the impact. That wasn’t like me.

I became somebody else for those few moments, and I could have done some serious damage.

We hear about people exploding over a seemingly insignificant incident.

Reports of road rage incidents are commonplace. “What kind of idiot would act like that? What were they thinking?”

As it turns out, nothing. They weren’t thinking because they’d been hijacked.

These incidents are called an amygdala hijacking, a term coined by Daniel Goleman in 1996.

An amygdala hijacking is an immediate, over-whelming emotional response that’s out of proportion to what’s happened.

The amygdala, the fight-or-flight centre of the brain, is part of the reptilian brain. The amygdala does not process rational thought; it simply reacts. It bypasses the higher function and reason of the brain’s neocortex.

When we’re hijacked by the amygdala, reality becomes distorted. We’re not seeing what’s really in front of us or hearing properly. Our sense of time is altered when the amygdala is running the show.

The brain’s neocortex separates us from animals. It’s most evolved in the human species, allowing us to preform the intelligent things animals can’t. This reasoning/thinking part of the brain gets bypassed when we need to react quickly. Don’t think, just react!

This is a good thing if we need to jump out of the way to avoid getting hit by a car, or a bear is chasing us. It’s not such a good thing when it causes us to lose control and react to non-life-threatening situations.

Highly stressed people are at increased risk for hijacking. Living in a reactive mode can easily become a habit. It destroys relationships and families, and results with people being considered hot-heads.

People may feel victim to this response and believe they’re just wired this way. In truth, they may be wired this way because they’ve lived life in survival mode. What you practice grows stronger.

The good news is the changeable nature of the brain.

We can change a reactive nature to gain better control over the reptilian brain, and learn to allow the thinking parts of the brain to kick in. This puts us in the driver’s seat of our lives instead of living life in reaction, always scanning the environment for immanent danger.

With awareness, we can learn the value of pausing when we feel the rush of adrenaline start pouring through our bodies. Pause and take several deep, slow, conscious breaths, to give the thinking centre of the brain a chance to kick in.

With practice, we can gain self-awareness into what’s happening within ourselves before we explode. We may still take the same action, but at least we’ve thought about it, and can respond instead of simply react. We can become more skilled.

I’m grateful for my own less-than-stellar hijacking incident. It’s helped me understand and experience what happens inside a stress-filled brain and body.

Mindfulness practice has caused my brain to change from being wired by stress into one of greater calm and awareness.

My heart fills with compassion now, instead of judgment, when I hear reports of road rage and similar incidents. The stress level many people are experiencing today is showing up in these reports.

Learning to pause and just breathe may be one of the most powerful practices you can do to protect yourself from hijacking.


You can be a super hero

A book’s first chapter doesn’t tell the whole story.

If it did, the rest of the book would be boring. Bestselling books are far from predictable, filled with foreshadowing and plot twists, beckoning the reader onward.

It’s delightful when a writer throws in unexpected twists, and the story has a surprise ending.

There’s no need to go back to re-read previous chapters, because we’ve been there, done that. We already know what happened.

What’s true of books isn’t always true in the way we live life.

We have so many chapters to our lives, yet we often get stuck in revisiting the same chapter, again and again, unaware that previous chapters don’t have to define us.

People have a tendency to revisit and relive some of the most difficult and painful chapters of life history, and even believe those chapters determine how life will end.

The younger me spent most of my mental coin dwelling in past chapters, rarely experiencing the gifts and possibilities existing in the present moment. My most revisited chapters were often those filled with times of difficulty, pain, disappointment, and regret.

This human tendency to focus on the negative, as I’ve shared in earlier columns, is called the negativity bias. It’s an evolutionary capacity meant to increase our chances of survival, by paying most attention to what’s life threatening.

When it came the negativity bias in my life, not only was it not helpful for my survival, it was sucking the life out of me. It often kept me in a state of fight-or flight.

I lived much of my life stuck in the virtual reality of a past that no longer existed. I felt trapped in re-living long passed, painful chapters, often feeling trapped in a villain’s clutches.

I was the victim, and life happened to me.

My mind and my body re-experienced each painful event as though they were currently happening. I used to think the rest of the story would be a repeat of the same chapter, again and again.

I was wrong.

We often cast ourselves in the same type of roles in our novel of life, over and over: victim, villain, hero. It can become so predictable. The actors may change, but the same story lines, with assigned roles, repeats itself ad nauseam.

Back then, I didn’t realize I’m always at a point of choice, and I can throw in a plot twist, and make a new decision, whenever I want.

I wasn’t aware I was the author of my own story, and I could cast myself in any role I wanted. I didn’t know it was me alone who could write in the plot twists that would turn the first chapters on their ears.

I could try on a new role, one of super hero in my own life.

I had to make the decision to write new chapters. When I did, the early chapters simply became the back story from which surprising outcomes were created.

We may have a human tendency to focus on the negative, but we can change it with awareness and conscious choice.

There’s great power in decision. Trying on a new role, and writing a new chapter in life is exciting.

Decide how you want the next chapter to unfold, and, remember to throw in a plot twist. Become your own super hero.

More New Thought articles

About the Author

Corinne is first a wife, mother, and grandmother, whose eclectic background has created a rich alchemy that serves to inform her perspectives on life.

Corinne, a registered nurse with a master’s degree in Health Science, is a staff minister with the Centre for Spiritual Living Kelowna, and a hospice volunteer. She is an adjunct professor with the school of nursing  at UBC Okanagan, and is currently teaching smartUBC, a unique Mindfulness program offered at UBC, to the public. She is an invited speaker and presenter.

From diverse experience and knowledge, personally and professionally, Corinne has developed an extraordinary passion for helping people to gain a new perspective, awaken, and to recognize that we do not have to be a slave to our thoughts or to life; we are always at a point of change.

Through this column, Corinne blends her insights and research to provide food for the mind and the heart, to encourage an awakening of the power and potential within everyone.

Corinne lives in Kelowna with her husband of 41 years, and can be reached at [email protected].

The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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