Chronic absent-mindedness is quite common among those of us with anxiety.
We are people who spend most of our time with our thoughts either focused on the past – or in the future. We are usually dwelling on something we once said or did, or making plans for the future, or thinking of ways to solve some problem or another. Very rarely are we focused on what we are doing “in the moment”.
We really like our own thoughts.
Most of us with chronic anxiety are introverts and our inner world is our comfort zone. It’s where we hang out most of the time and of course this makes it hard to take in everything that is happening in our external world. Our focus just isn’t there.
Further contributing to our absent-mindedness is the fact that a lot of us only like to think about things that we “like” to think about – things that we deem “important”, dramatic, or interesting.
That doesn’t mean that everything we find interesting is important, but quite often we make it out to be.
We are not about the little “details” of life. If we are brushing our teeth, we are not thinking about brushing our teeth. We are thinking about something we said last week or something we might say next week. Our thoughts are usually anywhere but on plaque removal – too boring.
There really isn’t anything “wrong” with being chronically absent-minded.
It’s a sign of intellect, something to be proud of. However the problems it causes are many.
For example, lot of people who live with anxiety are perfectionists who pay close attention to detail and the physical things around them. They like everything to be “just so” and they keep that front and center in their mind. I’m sure you can see how this can contribute to their symptoms of anxiety.
However, some of us with anxiety have the opposite issue. Many of us live in a chronic state of absent-mindedness, paying little attention to the physical things surrounding us or the current activity we are involved in. We find that we are forgetful. We are forever losing things. We often leave trails behind us of unfinished tasks…caps off of pens, lids off of jars…and our surroundings are often unorganized. It takes us twice as long as the average person to do the most simple of tasks. All of these things create a lot of stress. They complicate our lives and when you live with an anxiety disorder, that is the absolute last thing you need.
Somewhere between perfectionist and absent-mindedly scatter-brained there is a happy medium and that is the place we should strive to get to. And luckily, there are strategies to help us get there. One of these strategies probably seems very obvious. When you are absent of mind, of course the best way to correct that is to become “full of mind”.
I am going to talk about mindfulness in very simple terms because I am most definitely NOT an expert in the field, plus there is also a strong chance that you are not interested in all the fine details. So I am going to keep it to the basics.
In a broad sense, mindfulness is the practice of being very present in what you are feeling, experiencing and doing. For those who are interested, here is a fantastic article that gets into more of the “feeling and experiencing” aspects of mindfulness. What I am going to talk about is the “doing” aspect of it: paying attention to what you are doing, while you are doing it; basically, using your mind and brain for the same thing, at the same time.
You may be thinking…..“That can be done?”
That is what I only half jokingly thought when I first heard of this practice. My brain is usually zigging while my body is zagging so this was a foreign concept to me.
But yes it can be done. And believe it or not, it’s actually probably the way things were MEANT to be done.
Humans were designed to be able to use our bodies and minds together to focus on the problem or task at hand and get it done in the easiest, most efficient way. But as our brains developed, or maybe its just because women got tired and bored from beating loin cloths over large rocks all day, our minds started to wander. We developed the ability to daydream and think about something other than the task at hand. Humans became able to think deeply and philosophize and ruminate and imagine. As our thinking abilities became more sophisticated, absent-mindedness became a bigger and bigger issue.
The good news is that the issue of absent-mindedness is one that we can do something about. It is a habit that can be changed.
- The first step is to simply become aware that mindfulness is something you are lacking in your life.
- The next step is to actively practice keeping your thoughts present, in the moment, and centered around what you are doing. Pay attention to what you are actively engaged in, whether it’s a project, or a conversation, mundane task or even when just relaxing with a cup of tea. Use all your senses: sight, sound, touch -and taste and smell if they apply -to keep you grounded and “into” what you are doing.
This is such an easy thing to do…but at the same time…..not easy at all.
It’s as if our thoughts come attached to helium balloons. As long as we are holding tight to the string, they stay on the topic or activity at hand. But without realizing it, we usually tend to loosen our grip and our thoughts float up and away and before we know it they have drifted off into another world.
Maintaining that tight grip on the string of our thoughts is quite a mental exercise.
When first practicing mindfulness there is a good chance you won’t like it.
You will find it boring.
You will miss your daydreaming and drifting and thinking about more “interesting” topics.
It will feel like you are wasting your precious brain power by focusing on how evenly you are spreading your peanut butter or putting on your pants.
However, the reality is that the things our thoughts drift to, that we find so “interesting”, often tend to be pretty big time wasters as well. Sure there is the occasional beautiful daydream and those are amazing and I encourage us all to never lose our ability to imagine something lovely, but let’s be honest – most of the time our thoughts aren’t drifting to beautiful daydreams. They are drifting to some worry or job we have to do, or some relationship problem we are having. They are drifting to something we could have said, or should have said, or worrying about what we will say at some future event. Its often stuff that is a big time waster that needlessly stirs up feelings of anxiety or apprehension.
It is important to be aware of this because a lot of our anxiety symptoms come straight from our imagination. They don’t come from something physically “real”. They are a response to something we are thinking about, that often has nothing to do with what we are actively doing or experiencing at that time. Imagine how much less anxiety we would feel if we kept our imaginations on a shorter leash when it comes to the day to day stuff, and stayed focused on the present moment and everything it involved.
I know mindfulness can seem like the recipe for a more boring life, but not necessarily so.
When we put our imaginations away, we start experiencing. We start living. We connect ourselves to our world. We engage all of our senses and become participants in our own life. It’s a whole new level of consciousness, and that is a pretty exciting thing!
Right now, its as if a lot of us have our real lives playing in the background, like a TV that’s on in the next room while we spend most of our time living inside our heads. Being mindful totally reverses that and puts our imagination in the background while we actively insert ourselves back into our lives.
There are also some fantastic health benefits to mindfulness. According to HealthGuide.org, mindfulness can lower blood pressure, lower your risk of heart disease, improve sleep quality and aid those who live with chronic pain. It is amazing to think of all the wonderful things that can happen simply by paying more attention to our lives and using our mental energy in a more positive and focused way.
Mindfulness is a practice and it should be approached as just that.
It would be setting yourself up for failure to try to simply “become a mindful person” straight from the get go. It’s much too easy to “forget” to be mindful.
Instead, set aside increments throughout the day to practice. In the beginning, make them very short. Start out at 5 minutes at a time as many times a day as you like. Then when you feel like you are ready to progress, move it to ten minutes then twenty, etc. The goal is to eventually not have to “try” to do it…but to just “be” a more mindful person.
I want to give another reminder to you that imagination is still a good thing and it is okay to let your thoughts wander away from time to time as long as its done in a healthy way. Our imaginations are a huge part of who we are and we aren’t trying to stifle that. We just want don’t want to live in them every second of our lives.
Again, it’s about staying present in the moment…connecting your thoughts with your actions for a more authentic, less chaotic, more focused life. It’s about getting the most out of every moment by shifting your focus off of the internal and on to the external – taking note of the sights, sounds and textures around you and truly engaging in whatever activity you might be taking part in.
For more reading on this topic check out this article from Healthline.com, as well as this post from Mindful.org, which contains some helpful information on incorporating meditation into your mindfulness practice.