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Living in the Present: How to Be More Mindful for Your Mental Wellness

Remember two years ago when most things were shut down across the country? Many people had their schedules and calendars cleared unexpectedly in an instant. There were all kinds of messages about what to do with our newly found time. We were going to finally organize the house, try out a new hobby, and start to unwind from the hectic lives we'd been living. But there was another, more important, lesson that many discovered during that time period. People realized we all needed to slow down.

We needed to cherish the time with our family and loved ones. We wanted to participate in life instead of rushing through the activities of the day. And, we were all determined not to go back to the way it was before.

Now, just two years later, many people's days are starting to look as busy as they were at the start of 2020. Yes, there are still many things that look different, but some things are starting to fall back into old routines—even some of the things we didn't want to go back to.

In addition, we're constantly trying to stay on our toes, watching what changes are coming next. For example, will your daughter's recital be canceled at the last minute? Will you be able to go on the summer vacation you're planning? What's happening right now overseas, and what is the long-term impact of that going to look like?

So, not only are our schedules filling up again, but we feel the need to stay in this constant state of alert to see what's coming next, which makes it really hard to remain present in the moment.

Learning to be present in the moment

When our minds are constantly elsewhere, it's hard to give proper attention to the things that are happening around us. When we don't know how to "just be" in the moment, it can negatively impact us and the relationship we have with those around us.

If we want to be more present in the moment, or more mindful, it's helpful to learn about the "doing" mode and "being" mode of our brains.

The "doing" mode of your brain

As the name suggests, the "doing" mode is what helps us get stuff done. When our brains are functioning in this mode, they are working to solve a problem, overcome a challenge, or make something happen that helps us out. This is what we use to create plans and go after our goals and dreams. It helps us identify tasks that need to be done each day and what adjustments need to be made along the way.

It's important that our brain is able to function in this way, but it can become a challenge when we constantly remain in this "doing" state of mind. For example, what happens when we face a situation that we can't improve or have no control over? Suppose we're used to constantly operating in the "doing" mode, and we reach a point where there is nothing we can do. In that case, we can begin to struggle if we don't know how to be mindful, present, and "just be."

The "being" mode of your brain

Unlike the "doing" mode, the "being" mode isn't about accomplishing goals and getting things done. Instead, it's about simply being present in the moment. When your brain acts in this mode, it's not necessarily trying to recall past information to help you figure out a problem or preplan for what's coming next. Instead, it allows you to just experience what's happening as it happens without judging or analyzing it. It's about awareness and acceptance.

There is a myth that says in order to be mindful—or in the "being" mode—you need to be doing something like meditation or yoga. Some people want to connect "being" with being still, but it doesn't have to be that way. We are able to be mindful and use our "being" mode throughout the day regardless of what our activities are at the moment. We can be mindful throughout our day.

Here's a quick video that explains this a little further if you're interested:

How to be more present

So, now that we've covered what it means to be present with yourself throughout the day, here are some tips you can use to be more mindful throughout the day.

1. Be intentionally present during activities

Have you ever pulled in your driveway and realized you don't even remember driving home? You made all the correct turns and arrived at your destination, but your thoughts were somewhere else along the way. If we're not intentional, it's easy to go through life like this. Our "doing" mind takes over.

We need to intentionally focus on being more present throughout the day. As you move through your day, intentionally think about what's happening around you. Notice the sights, smells, and sounds. Pay attention to how you're feeling. Instead of powering through each task on your list, practice mindfulness as you move along.

2. Set a reminder

If this idea of slowing down and being present is new to you, the switch isn't going to happen immediately. It's easy to fall back into old habits. Try setting a timer or alarm for sporadic intervals throughout the day to help you check in with yourself and see how you've been doing. Are you being mindful and present? Or, did your "doing" brain take over?

Using a reminder like this can help you start to build and develop the habit of mindful living. But, remember not to judge yourself or be hard on yourself if you find that you moved throughout your tasks within being fully present. Allow yourself to experience your feelings, but remember that this is not about judging and analyzing. It's simply about being.

3. Create a mindfulness routine

You may find that it helps you be more present if you work on building mindfulness routines in your day. Many people enjoy doing these things first thing in the morning or right before bed, but you can find what works best for you. For example, you may enjoy journaling at the end of the day to help you be purposeful about paying attention to what you're feeling. Or, you may enjoy spending 15 minutes doing yoga or meditation in the morning to help set a mindful tone for your day.

4. Check-in with yourself

In this fast-paced world, it's easy to go throughout the day without realizing how we're feeling in different situations. When big things happen, they tend to get our attention. But otherwise, we just continue moving without giving our feelings and emotions much thought.

One way you can work on being more mindful and more present is to check in with yourself throughout the day. Ask yourself how you're feeling and allow yourself to be there for a minute, sitting with your emotions.

5. Take a digital break

Our smartphones are great at helping us be more productive. They notify us when someone is trying to get ahold of us, when we have a meeting coming up, when we need to get the kids to the dentist's office, and can even help remind us of what groceries we need to get at the store. But if we're not careful, those helpful digital devices can start to do us more harm than good.

Spending hours a day scrolling through social media or always jumping into action when you hear a notification on your phone can make it hard to remain present in the moment. Choose certain times of day or the week when you put your phone away or turn it off. This allows you to remove one of the major distractions that exist in life. Try it out and see how many other things you're able to focus on and give attention to when you don't have your phone in hand.

How to be present in difficult situations

Learning to be present and mindful is one thing when life is going pretty well, but what about when you're facing difficult situations? Sometimes the present is painful, which can make us want to mentally check out in order to spare ourselves some of the pain. But, hiding from or running from painful or difficult experiences doesn't help make them better.

Focus on awareness and acceptance

Learning to be mindful is all about learning to be more aware of what is happening around us and within us. It's not always an enjoyable experience, but it's an important one. When you learn to be aware, it allows you to work toward acceptance.

It's important to note that acceptance doesn't mean that you are saying something is okay. There are a lot of difficult and painful situations in life that aren't okay. But trying to pretend a situation isn't real or isn't happening will not help you in the long run. Instead, you want to reach the point of acknowledging that it's happening.

Many people find that when they accept a difficult situation, they feel like a weight has been lifted. It allows them to shift their energy to other areas, such as the things they need to do to move forward in light of their circumstances.

Stick to the facts of the situation

Sometimes when we're facing challenges in life, we begin to make up and tell ourselves stories about the situation. Sometimes this looks like creating details to fill in gaps of the unknown. And sometimes, it's arriving at made-up conclusions about ourselves that led us to the present moment. Neither of these storytelling activities is helpful. As you work to stay present, remember to remain aware of and accept the reality of the situation without trying to add to it.

Leave the "shoulds" out of it

When faced with difficult situations, it's important to learn how to stop "shoulding" on yourself.

  • I should have known better than to...

  • I should be able to....

  • How did I miss that? I should have noticed...

  • Others have been able to _______. I should be able to as well.

  • Why does this feel so hard? I should be able to power through.

These thoughts are not helpful at all. Don't allow unrealistic expectations from yourself or others to add to your pain or difficult situation.

Allow yourself to focus on other things

Being present in the moment and living mindfully during difficult times in life doesn't mean you have to always be living in and feeling the pain of your situation. If you're going through the painful end of a relationship or the loss of a loved one, it's okay to allow yourself to be distracted from your feelings at times. It's okay to turn on your favorite comedy until you're laughing again. If you're stressed over a tough project at work, it's okay to go to lunch and talk to a friend about other things that are happening in life.

Living mindfully doesn't mean you are consumed by your feelings and emotions. It simply means you learn how to be aware of them and how they impact your life in a balanced way.

Talk to a therapist for more information and help

Learning how to be mindful and present can be challenging. If you're struggling in this area or are interested in learning how to make progress in this area of your life, one of our therapists in Stillwater, MN, can help. You can schedule an appointment online today or call to be matched with a therapist that is right for you and your unique life.

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