There’s a funny print cartoon that has a man and woman sitting on the couch staring at a TV screen and the caption below reads, “It’s 12 O’clock, do you know where your mind is?” As time goes on and we grow up from children to adolescents to adults, for many of us, somewhere along the way life begins to become routine. Day in and day out whether we’re walking, driving, talking, eating, going to the grocery store, or being with our families our minds get kicked onto auto-pilot and continue to develop their habitual ways of thinking, interpreting, expecting, and relating to other people.
However, these habits also include habits of mind that can keep us stuck in stress, anxiety, depression, or even addictive behaviors. Here are a few habits of the mind and a mindfulness practice to help you break out of auto-pilot and gain more control over your life.
Three Common Habits that Sink Happiness:
- Catastrophizing – If you’re prone to stress and anxiety, you may recognize this habitual mind trap. This is where the mind interprets an event as the worst case scenario. If your heart is beating fast, you may think you’re having a heart attack. If your boss didn’t look at you while walking down the hall, you thinking you’re going to get fired. You get the picture. This style of thinking will support increased stress, anxiety, and even panic.
- Discounting the positive and exaggerating the negative – The news is wonderful at supporting us with this one. This is where we habitually reject orminimize any positive feedback and magnify the negative feedback. The glass is always half empty. If you catch yourself saying something positive and then saying “but” followed by a negative, you are practicing this. “I got a 95% on this test, but I didnt’ get a 100%”. Without awareness, this style of thinking will likely land you in a depressed mood.
- Blaming – Be careful of this one. We all do it, pointing the finger at someone else for our woes or point the finger at ourselves for others woes. “If my boss wasn’t so hard on me at work, I wouldn’t be so anxious” or “It’s my fault my parents got divorced”. Just check in with yourself after noticing this style of thinking. It doesn’t cultivate any solutions and just makes you feel stuck, anxious, or depressed.
Cultivating the ability to be more present to these mind traps will help you break free from them and shift your attention on more effective ways of interacting with life.
For example, if you notice catastrophizing, actually say to yourself “catastrophizing is happening right now”, then bring your attention to your breath for a moment to steady your mind and then ask yourself, “what are some other possible reasons why my heart is racing fast (e.g. , I just ran upstairs, I’m nervous)? If discounting the positive, come back to the breath, and then switch the “but” to an “and” so at least the positive statement get its equal weight, being more realistic and balanced. If blaming, call it out, say to yourself “blaming is happening.” Remind yourself that blaming simply isn’t effective for anyone and then come back to your breath to steady your mind and bring yourself back to the task you were just doing.
This is not an easy process, yet an important one for regaining control from the ineffective habits we develop in our minds. If we’re not mindful in our daily lives, our minds could just fall into their habitual states to the point we’re on our deathbeds asking “where did it all go?”
Just check in with yourself during the day, look at the clock and say, “It’s X O’clock, do I know where my mind is?” You may catch yourself in some mind traps and if not, just notice whatever you are doing in the moment and then continue if you still want to be doing that or change if you’d rather be doing something else.
Try to be patient through this process and not judge yourself if you find the mind traps arising. Judging yourself as bad or wrong is another mind trap that holds keep you stuck. Breathe in, breathe out, and just redirect your focus.
Elisha Goldstein, PhD
Adapted from Mindfulness and Psychotherapy