I’m a therapist, so believe me when I say that therapy is good and helpful and a lifeline for many people. If I didn’t believe that, I wouldn’t be in the field. However, therapy is not always accessible. Community services out there are growing, but unfortunately we have a long way to go before mental healthcare is available to all Canadians in the same way as physical healthcare.
Thankfully, there’s plenty we can do alone to improve our mental health, just as there is much we can do alone to improve our physical health, before we resort to medication.
This series: Five Ways to Feel Better Right Now Without Therapy, is for anyone who can’t afford the deep dive that therapy often entails but isn’t sure where to begin. Over the next few weeks I will be introducing you to five different ways to help you to feel better without therapy. My hope is that you will digest each suggestion and work with it, finding out what helps you personally. Each step is an important piece of the therapeutic process; if you can make a few small changes using these tools, you’ll notice a shift in your perceptions, mood and everyday sense of fulfillment.
This week we begin with Cultivating Awareness.
I’m sure it isn’t news to you that in this culture of busyness, being productive, competition, and consumerism, we spend much of our time on autopilot and in flight-or-flight. Auto-pilot is that state we can find ourselves in when we rush through the day in “doing” mode rather than “being” mode. It can feel almost trance-like because we have become so good at engaging in activities on repeat that we do so without really having to think about them.
Much of this time is spent using the left hemisphere of the brain, which is the part of the brain that allows us to engage in critical thinking and analysis, and to move back and forth between past, present and future. While we’re engaged in these everyday activities that have become familiar and repetitive, our minds are often speeding ahead to the next thing on our to-do list, or dipping into the past to ruminate on the spat we had with our teenager at breakfast.
Not being present in what we are doing creates disconnection between mind, body and emotions. Ask yourself when in your day today you felt truly engaged in what you were doing. When did you focus all of your attention on a single activity without allowing yourself to jump ahead or backwards, or to engage in multiple activities at once? Do this enough and you will begin to notice signs of anxiety, depression, aches and pains in the body, and an overall sense of dissatisfaction with your life.
We’re all constantly running to the next best thing; to some mysterious finish line where we will finally be happy. But the journey IS the destination. Being here right now—in your job, with your kids, in your body at the gym—that’s where the treasure lies, boring though that may seem. Life isn’t the destination we are working towards (the house, the CEO role, the partner), it’s the myriad moments we experience along the way.
So how do we do this awareness thing?
I would suggest beginning with the breath, and then moving to the senses. Stop periodically throughout your day and notice how you are breathing. Is your breath quick and shallow? Long and deep? From the throat or the diaphragm? Many people breathe from a shallow place. It’s only when they notice their breath that they begin to slow down and breathe from a deeper place. This in itself lowers anxiety and gives the body some much needed oxygen.
Once you are used to checking in with your breath you can move to the senses. This involves focusing in on what you can see, hear, smell, taste, and touch. More about in part two, “Regulating your Emotions.”
Another great way to connect to the present moment is to become aware of what is happening in your body. Thoughts and emotions will often create accompanying sensations in the body; tightness in the throat; butterflies in the belly; heaviness in the lower abdomen, neck pain, headaches…coming into the body and naming your emotions, as well as where you feel them, will help to connect you to your body and the here and now.
Being aware of your thoughts and how they affect your mood and behaviours is also extremely important. Our thoughts projected out onto the world determine how we experience life and the people around us. For example, if you notice you are feeling sad, stop for a moment and check in with your train of thought. What were you thinking that caused sadness to arise within you? Are you able to reframe that thought to help you feel less sadness? If no, and you are sad because you are experiencing, for example, a loss, then take a moment to be present with that sadness and give it space.
Cultivating awareness is all about tending to your inner world of thoughts, feelings, and sensations, rather than experiencing life on autopilot. It is the difference between “doing” and “being.”
What can you do right now to be more present with this moment? Check in with your body, thoughts and emotions….it may be the first time in awhile.