If you are feeling challenged by what is going on in your life right now, it might sound a ridiculous suggestion that the present moment is the answer to feeling happier. And isn’t ‘living in the here and now’ a bit of a ‘hippie’ concept?
Not anymore. Often called ‘mindfulness’, paying attention to the present moment – carefully noticing what is happening not just around you but also within you, in the form of your thoughts and emotions – has become a practical tool for lowering stress and increasing productivity embraced by top businesses here in the UK, including Google and Transport for London.
Present moment awareness has been integrated by a segment of the psychotherapy community, with mindfulness based cognitive therapy (MBCT) growing in popularity. Mindfulness techniques have even been trialled in Parliament, where they are being considered as tools for both unemployment and depression.
The NHS itself now lists ‘take notice’ as one of their five steps for mental wellbeing, suggesting one ‘be more aware of the present moment, including your feelings and thoughts, your body and the world around you’.
But how can something as easy as paying attention to the present moment make my moods better?
For starters, it’s not as simple as it sounds. The truth is that being in the present moment is far from a natural state for most of us.
Without even realising it, we walk around with our heads caught up in the past (he said this, she said that, why did I do that, what will he think of that) or the future (how can I afford that, how will the meeting go, what am I eating for dinner).
Ever walk to a destination only to ‘come to’ when you get there, not having noticed any of the journey? This is the way we tend to lead our lives, so caught up with worries about the future and judgements on the past we can not even notice what is passing us by.
And as for being in touch with how we really feel, many of us are trained, right from the moment we are first taught to ‘be a good boy/girl’ onwards, to not pay attention to our true emotions but rather to suppress and deny them.
So it can be quite an alarming and challenging experience at first to start paying attention the present. You might feel uncomfortable to note that your emotions aren’t as pleasant as you had been telling yourself, that you have pain in your body you’ve been ignoring, or that your thoughts are more anxious then you were aware of.
So why bother, then? Because the more comfortable you get with your emotions and thoughts, the more benefits you will get.
7 ways that present moment awareness can help your moods
1. It gives you the power to change your thoughts.
Without present moment awareness it’s very easy to walk around not knowing what you really think or feel about things, or convincing yourself you think and feel like those around you you want to impress (sometimes called codependency). Of course you can’t change what you don’t know or understand. Bringing awareness to how you really think and feel, while potentially overwhelming at first, ultimately gives you the power to then choose to change those thoughts and feelings.
2. It can help you see good things you were missing.
Often we are so distracted that we miss the good things going on around us or happening to us. We might not notice someone smiling at us, or that our gardens have flowered, or that our children have learned something new. Awareness of these little things can bring flashes of happiness, and these little moments can add up to a persistent better mood.
3. You can spot stress earlier and choose to deal with it.
The funny thing about stress is how easy it is to deny it – until we are so stressed we are panicking or a mess. But if you develop your present moment awareness you are more likely to spot exactly when the stress starts, and be able to choose to deal with it effectively before it takes over.
4. You become less overreactive.
This one isn’t instant. But reacting strongly all the time is usually because we are not paying attention to what is happening, until we suddenly sense a peripheral danger (something that might hurt us emotionally) and overreact as a fail-safe. When we are in the present moment we are more likely to see situations clearly and be able to think through whether something really is a threat or not.
5. You tend to be more physically relaxed.
Present moment awareness includes paying attention to how our bodies feel, and this means you will notice things like muscle tension when it begins and choose to relax or otherwise deal with it, not only paying attention when you suddenly throw your back out. Another benefit of present moment awareness is that anxious habits like nail biting and skin picking tend to abate.
6. Your confidence grows.
When we learn to notice the present moment, we learn how we really think and feel. And knowing what our own thoughts and emotions are brings with it a confidence in who we are and what we want. As for big projects at work, if you are in the present moment you are more likely to put one foot in front of the other and get things done, as opposed to being so panicked worried about the future outcome of the project you lose your self esteem or procrastinate and fulfill your own self defeating prophecy.
7. You relationships can improve.
Being in the present moment doesn’t just make you available to your own thoughts and feelings, it means you notice those of others around you too. You aren’t busy thinking of your work project as they talk to you, or what they said or did a year ago, but are more capable of listening and understanding. This means you can connect better, develop greater intimacy, and even have a better sex life (you won’t be thinking about tomorrow’s shopping). Good relationships make us feel more supported and confident – it’s harder to feel in a bad mood when we feel accepted and loved.
So how do I notice the present moment more, then?
Some common tactics recommended to make being aware of the present easier include paying attention to your breathing and/or doing a body scan, where you put your attention on how different parts of your body feel (tense, pained, relaxed?). These techniques can be included in the increasingly popular mindfulness training. Other NHS-recommended techniques for increasing your awareness of the present moment include tai chi, yoga, and meditation.
Present moment awareness can also be worked into your daily routine. You can decide to completely focus on any one activity, really, such as brushing your teeth, having a shower, or going for a walk. The secret is to try to notice all the sensations and feelings the activity creates and to put your mind only on what you are doing.
It’s recommended to have a time set aside each day to practice mindfulness. Even just ten minutes daily is thought to go a long way help create the ‘now habit’. See present moment awareness as not an instant fix, but as a good long-term plan for better wellbeing.
Have you tried paying attention to the present moment? Or using mindfulness? What have your results been? Share below, we love hearing from you.
Photos by Asja Boros, Shawn Rossi, Sarah, David Blackwell, Scarleth Marie