It seems almost a cliche to talk of “Living in the present”. And yet, with a bit of training, this is one of the best tools in my inventory for handling hard situations.
Get me out of here!
I first came across the idea in a roundabout way. I was in a psych hospital for the first time. Being particularly resistant to treatment, I wound up being there for over three weeks. I was told the average was several days, so about two weeks in I felt like I’d never get out of there. I felt like I was in prison. I was 16 at the time, and not in recovery, so I was particularly dramatic about the whole thing.
I tried different ways of coping with what I frequently called a “prison”. One was to remind myself that I would not be here forever. However long it took, there would be an end. So I decided to just live in the future. To really be in that time where I wasn’t trapped in this nasty ugly prison-like place. (For the record a psych hospital isn’t nearly as bad as I made it out to be, but I’m sharing the mental state I was in as a teenager.) As I moved my mind from the present to the future, I felt an even greater longing and suffering. By removing myself from reality, my anxiety seemed to get so much worse. I didn’t understand why at the time, but I decided to stop that attempted coping skill and move on to other things.
Reality vs. Fantasy
I learned later that accepting reality for what it is can be a great coping skill. I will talk about this in more detail later. The skill is called Radical Acceptance. For now, all we need to know is that to deny reality is to separate ourselves from fulfillment, even if reality seems bad at the time. I have some religious and philosophical explanations for why this works, but honestly, what’s more important is simply the fact that it does work.
There are a couple small ways I apply this. One is with driving. When I drive, I’m pretty focused. I don’t really like driving for its own sake. I want to get somewhere. Usually I have plans for when I get there and I’m eager to attend to them. This can lead to a desire to live in the future where I’m actually doing those things. It causes pain. So I focus on driving. I refuse to think on the future, but rather just speak to myself about what I’m doing. “I’m driving in this lane and there are trees on the side of the road.” or “I’m changing lanes. This driver is letting me in, which is kind.” or even “This driver is not letting me in, but that’s OK. He has his own things to attend to.” It helps dramatically. Now I don’t mind driving so much.
Another way to use it is bad weather. I was recently walking to a store from a parking lot and there was heavy, very cold rain. It was pretty miserable. I wanted to be inside and not in the rain, but I said to myself in my thoughts “I am walking in heavy rain. It is cold on my face, and the wind is blowing.” Speaking about the present was “grounding” and it actually made the cold rain and the harsh wind not as bad. It still wasn’t pleasant, but I didn’t suffer.
Part of the bigger picture
This is a minor coping skill, but it definitely works. It’s not going to make life all wonderful by itself, but in my experience there is no skill which, on its own, makes life OK. The trick is to use many coping skills. To have a big “Toolbox” you might say, and pull out whatever you need for the job. This is perhaps another thing to add to your toolbox. I hope someone finds it helpful. It’s spared me a lot of agony. I’m thankful for my teachers in life who showed this to me.