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Staying in my head had been my best survival tool—until it wasn’t.
I thought that if I could stay with my thoughts, I could fix things or, at least, understand the why behind each problem. And it worked for a while. Wow, did it work! I thought it helped ward off anxiety. I could think about the pain, try to make sense of it, maybe even “figure it out,” but I never had to feel it. I could stay safe, lost in my thoughts, until I couldn’t.
You see, I didn’t know then what I know now. The more energy I put into avoiding it, the more power it held over me.
Years later, I realized that my fear, my anger, and my disconnection were all fueled by my tireless efforts to feel okay. I had become more anxious than ever. I could not even imagine what it would be like to sit with the pain.
Now, as a trauma therapist, I still struggle, but I do the unthinkable—I invite whatever is and hang out with it. I try to stay present, and I do it using mindfulness. Wait, don’t freak out—mindfulness is a whole lot easier than you think. You see, it’s not something you do; it’s something you practice.
Here are five simple steps so you can start right now:
First: Find a comfortable spot.
You don’t need it to be the most comfortable, just a stable seat will do. Keep your feet on the ground and stay grounded. Notice what it’s like for your body to feel supported and stable. Now, let’s orient. All this means is, let your eyes wander. Notice your surroundings as if for the first time. Feel free to move your upper body and really get a sense of what is in front of you and all around.
This practice helps your nervous system begin to settle.
Second: Close your eyes and begin to notice your breathing.
Feel free to lay a hand over your heart space and the other over your stomach. Get in sync with the rhythm of your breath as it is. Do not try to manage it; just notice it. You will begin to feel your breath get slower. This could take a few seconds or several minutes. Just notice and, please, limit the self-judgment.
Third: Check your heartbeat.
Try to notice the rhythm. This can be difficult at first, and sometimes we may even not feel it at all. Trust me, you’re still alive, no need to worry. Use self-touch; this can help you find your heartbeat. Just notice whatever is and allow your heart, like your breath, to settle.
Fourth: Scan your body.
Maybe start at the crown of your head and move toward your feet and notice any holding there might be. This just means notice if there is any tension, constriction, or pressure—notice any discomfort. Here is where you do the unthinkable. Hang out with the pain, with what is uncomfortable. Acknowledge that it is there and just let it be. Spend some time wherever you feel this.
Fifth: Now, do another scan and notice whatever feels comfortable.
We don’t do this enough; we are not wired for it. Our nervous system is constantly trying to keep us safe, so that does not leave a lot of time to notice the good. You have to make a conscious effort and notice with intention.
It may be that what we notice is external. It is something outside of ourselves that brings us comfort. Maybe it’s the lavender candle burning nearby, cozy socks, or maybe it’s a comfortable blanket. Regardless of how or where you find comfort, just notice it. Luxuriate in it for a few moments. After you’ve done this for a bit, begin to open your eyes slowly and ta-da! You’ve done it. Pat yourself on the back and repeat again tomorrow.
I use this practice at the beginning of each therapy session and encourage my clients to do so every day. It’s that powerful, and my clients agree. This simple practice is a great way to move through your day. It is especially helpful during moments of transition.
For example, maybe you do this when you get to your desk before checking your mail and beginning your workday. Or, maybe you use this before coming into the house after a long day. We use it so that we can mark the moments of our day and not just let them bleed into each other. We use this so that we can stay present in the moment, with ourselves, and our loved ones.
Like I said before, it took me years to realize that by avoiding the anxiety and living in my head, I had actually disconnected from parts of myself. And, this led to more fear and more anxiety. I was living in, what the renowned psychologist and author, Tara Brach calls, the “trance of fear.” I had survived, but just barely. Now, I thrive with these “hacks” that calm my nervous system and keep me present and embodied.