Lessons on the mind, the brain, and life for those who struggle.
Thursday, March 10, 2016
Positive Difference Making Fundamentals in Focus - Staying in the Now
Staying in the Now
in the Now
again must apologize, dear readers, for this post has too long been
talk about all my Positive
Difference Making Fundamentals yet
have not delivered the most important factor and daily habit to truly
making them all work and for you to get on the path to better mental
health, better emotional stability and to work past and even end your
suffering. Today's concept - staying in the now and living one day at
a time - is the glue that holds it all together and makes it work.
It's the glue that will hold you all
together and make you work.
again, I apologize. In my defense, however, I'll say that sometimes
it takes the passage of time practicing all these things to realize
which is the most important.
any rate, better late than never.
who suffer mental health difficulties ranging from anxiety to
depression to major psychiatric disorders like bipolar disorder and
schizophrenia will have to endure a lot of off the cuff "fluff
advice". Actually, come to think of it, we'll have to endure a
lot of completely useless "advice" from supposedly highly
trained professionals. During the worst of my disorder between the
spring of 2010 and the end of 2012, I often felt inundated with
"advice", almost all of it unsolicited. None of it felt
useful and as I was slowly (or at times quickly) losing my mind (not
in the popular colloquial sense of that expression but in the real
and severe sense), these barrages of seemingly simplistic folksy bits
of "advice" not only didn't help at all, it only increased
my frustration, aggravation and thus worsening mental states. The
advice itself almost literally drove me insane.
- plus! - I saw over the course of my roughly three and a half years
at the hands of the mental health system no fewer than twenty
psychiatrists and somewhere between half a dozen to ten
psychologists. Every now and again the message was right, but the
delivery was ... ham handed, shall we say. There are reasons for this
disconnect between professionals and we peeps, but I'll get to that
another day. Suffice for now to say that much of what we're told and
how we're told it ends up being not particularly useful.
bits of advice that drove me crazy - and I'll get to why below - were
being told to "stay in the now" and to "live one day
at a time".
in the dawn of 2013 when I started my now (sort of) famous quest for
"why?" in understanding psychiatric disorders and what to
do about them outside of the dominant paradigm of the pharmacological
treatment pushed by psychiatry and the mental health care system and
I read anything and everything I could, I came across the concept of
"staying in the now" again and again and again. One of the
best books I ran across early in that mad (sort of literally) dash to
learn everything I could was How
to Stop Worring and Start Living by Dale
a truly timeless book of practical approaches to dealing with
book impacted me in a number of powerful ways. The interviews and
real world research he did to compile all the stories and techniques
that went into that book covered a span from the late 1800's up
to the depression and World War II years. And as I read story
after story of people being crippled and broken by anxiety and worry
and depression to the point of destroyed physical health and to the
brink of suicide, it struck me that people have always suffered for
similar reasons. This is probably true of every generation but we
modern generations - roughly the baby boomers through today's
millennials - always somehow think we're the first ones in history to
experience something like depression and anxiety. We could certainly
argue that there are more stressors around today and that we're
exposed to more of the world's ills (and today is nothing compared to
many points of the past) and that this is making mental illnesses
more common and widespread, but the core reasons and the experience
of it are the same as always.
any case, reading through all the stories or case studies, the
striking familiarity of them to today's cases and the language used
to describe them hit me between the eyes. This made the methods
described within the book to overcome acute or chronic internal
crises all the more interesting and powerful to me.
chapters stood out most to me and were the greatest source of methods
for learning to live more free from stress and anxiety and how to get
through the periods of being hammered by suicidal darkness. The one
I'll get to another time and the other forms the basis for today's
post - learning to live one day at a time, stay within one day at a
time and within the moment.
laid out the basic principles of living within the present day in
multiple ways from the scriptures of various religious books to the
teachings of ancient texts to how modern (at the time of the book's
writing in the 1940's) CEOs managed their enormous workloads and
pressures; all stressed the importance of staying within the present
day. Throughout ancient history through to more recent times, it
seems, people have learned that the best way to deal with life's
stresses and sources of anxiety was to stay within the present day
and present day only.
well, Carnegie gave numerous examples of how people on the verge of
suicide or were literally becoming sick with stress and anxiety
turned their lives around in big and productive ways by simply
learning to stay within the present day.
that's a very powerful historical perspective.
to mention that the concepts of one day at a time and staying in the
now are fundamental tenets of Eastern thought and mind philosophies
that have been successfully taught and practiced for 2,500 years.
is a very brief summary of everything I looked into regarding "living
one day at a time" but I can tell you that the real world
historical evidence for it being necessary to a healthier mind was
pretty much irrefutable.
as most of us who struggle with moderate to severe mood or
psychiatric disorders will know, "staying in the now" or
"living one day at a time" ranks very high in the easier
said than done department; it's very easy to say (and give out as
advice), quite different in actual daily practice.
with everything we are told to do for healthier minds but which we
find so hard to practice, I wanted to know why it was so difficult
for us to do.
it's so hard
in the now or the present day and keeping our minds within these
"compartments" (as Carnegie referred to them) is not easy.
There are reasons most people have such difficulty with it and why we
mental health peeps especially struggle with it so let's have a look
at some of them.
reason is memories and the power of them. Much of what we experience
as memories is of past events and of our past lives (known as
"episodic memories"). These kinds of memories, of course,
are a massive part of Who We Are. As well, it is now well understood
that painful memories will become more "seared in" to our
memory banks and thus will haunt or plague us more (PTSD is at the
high end of this scale). One thing that differentiates us mentally
suffering peeps is that we form memories more powerfully than most
people. As our lives become more painfully difficult, circuits and
regions involved in memory formation create more negative memories.
This can build up over a lifetime or it can take place during a
several year stretch of particularly difficult mental health
struggles during which a great deal of very powerful and painful
memories can almost literally burn themselves into our minds making
them seemingly inescapable.
there are some powerful brain regions involved in what is known
These are thoughts in which we examine our distress and pain and
their causes and consequences, largely by accessing the
aforementioned memory "data". It is not necessarily wrong
to ruminate or reflect on what we'll term simply as "things that
went wrong", it is an important and perfectly natural part of
how we learn from past mistakes. This brain and mental circuitry
is supposed to
be there and utilized. As with all our neuronal hardware, it evolved
for a reason. It is in these specialized networks where we experience
and process such feelings as guilt, remorse and "right and
wrong" and so on. People in whom these regions and circuitry
are not as
active become disordered in a different and perhaps less socially
correct way. Inactivity in these regions is thought to be a part of
what goes on in the brain of a psychopath - this absence of
ruminating over guilt, mistakes, right and wrong, etc. We wouldn't
want to be like that, would we!
in the "disordered thinking" we see in unipolar depression,
the depressive phases of bipolar, and anxiety disorders, the
regions and networks involved in ruminating thinking become far too
stimulated and activated becoming "locked on" thus
"trapping" us in nearly endless loops of ruminating and
guilt and grief filled thinking which almost invariably ends up in
very negative thoughts and mindsets and beating ourselves up. These
endless thoughts - and look at the ginormous amounts of "past
memory data" we could dig up and go over - become a massive
weight we drag around that makes it nigh on impossible to move
forward in life. This then becomes an enormous source
for further anxiety, stress and dark depressive
the brain regions involved in creating ruminating and guilt and grief
filled thoughts are a very powerful and important set of brain
regions, however, it does not relinquish its "role" in your
thought processes and mental states easily (and for good reasons, as
we saw above). More in a moment.
the opposite side of the coin is our deeply and uniquely human
"predictive functions". A huge part of what makes humans
able to do many of the things we do which other animals cannot is
being able to "plan for the future". What enables us to do
this are brain regions that can take all kinds of present and past
information and extrapolate that into the future, creating a "model"
from which to work and plan on. As with any networked brain function,
though, it can work for us or against us. When we
are getting trapped in worry and melting down with anxiety, a good
deal of that is over the future and what we "see" there.
this is a very powerful mental process of networked brain regions
that, like all our brain functions, is to a great extent part of
brain functions that run for the most part autonomously below our
conscious control. Our self-reflection and "ruminating on
mistakes and the past" regions are the same - programs that more
or less will "run" whether we want them to or not.
you look at and study depression and anxiety at their roots, much of
what both drives and creates it is this constant loop of ruminating
about negative past events and projecting this forward into
a negative future.
is partially how the stress
response system and
related networks are designed to work. This system "records"
a bad event, kicks in the brain areas involved in examining these bad
events (ostensibly to learn from them), then notifies the "predictive
functions" that are supposed to help us prevent them from
happening again. But with chronic stress and anxiety this system gets
"locked" into this maladaptive loop creating a tragic cycle
that traps us into negative rumination and "forecasting"
scarily dark futures.
the more we dwell in negative pasts and forecast negative futures,
this - guess what?! - creates more anxiety, which further stimulates
the stress response system which further stimulates the "examine
past events" regions which further stimulates and floods the
"forecasting" equipment with dark negativity and ... well,
as you've no doubt noticed, that's a hell of a shitty loop to be
to both of the ruminating and future forecasting regions are various
brain networks involved in the human capacity for imagination which,
by its very nature, works well outside the laws of "objective
reality". These networks that create the power of imagination
can become terribly tied up with both our past and future mental
images, also creating frightening mental states which again triggers
our stress response system which again triggers "examine
mistake" and "project future" regions and ... round
and round we go, where we stop, nobody knows. You know the drill all
Not Staying in the Present Day Creates So Much Mental Distress and
begin to understand this, let's go back to our "conscious
new readers, or to remind regular readers, we'll just briefly revisit
what consciousness is. "Consciousness" is that moving
picture show you see when you are awake. It represents what you are
thinking and imagining, it is what the brain is experiencing and then
puts in your "mind". We can also think of it as "conscious
awareness" - what are aware of and what our brain is telling us
needs attention and to work on at any one time.
have likened conscious awareness and this "work space" to
the screens and speakers of our computers. What is on the screen and
playing through the speakers is what we deal with on our computer at
any one time out of all the programming and tools our computers are
capable of and so it is with our mind.
concept of conscious awareness and what we're "working on"
at any one time - this brain work space - is not unlike the RAM
memory in our computer. In brain parlance these are known as working
memory and short
while related, they are somewhat different. Both will be involved
with what we are consciously working on at any one time. If we
attempt to run too many programs on our computer at once, it will
freeze or crash. And so it is with our working minds. It is literally
not possible for your brain, your consciousness, your mental "work
space", to hold so much from our past plus so
much from all our future days PLUS the present all at once and
actually deal properly with any of it.
is a complicated network of regions involved with what we are
consciously experiencing or working on at any one time and like all
brain regions and networks, their capacity to handle and run "data"
is limited. Greatly involved is our "short term" or
"working" memory. This is very limited. It is not
just your brain
that is limited in this regard, all brains
are. They can be trained to handle more (which is what I'm cleverly
trying to get you to do), but the capacity of all the regions and
networks involved is greatly limited by very hard "laws" of
elementary brain functioning physics and biology. Not to mention, how
every cell in your brain and body creates energy (a
series that examines energy depletion in bipolar disorder but the
fundamentals of which apply to all brain functioning) and the general
"energy economy" of the brain is also of vital importance
to understand. Think of your brain having limited watts on which to
run and filling our "working plate" with too many functions
of past, present and future very quickly drains the energy
reserves down to very low - dangerously low for many of us. When our
brain energy reserves run too low is when we are most likely to
experience overwhelm and meltdown.
if we flood this "work space" of our minds with too much
past, future and present "data", it will freeze, melt down
and you will experience overwhelm and stress and anxiety (thus
further stimulating this horrendous loop).
it's not just that your brain cannot function under
these conditions, no brain can - not even the
healthiest of brains.
way to look at this mental state overload is as a form of
multitasking. Numerous, numerous studies have demonstrated how poor
we are at multitasking (and the better we "think" we are at
it, the poorer we'll actually perform at it). So think of trying to
juggle so much from the past along with so much from the future then
piling that on top of the present as a particularly bad form of
attempted and tragically performed multitasking - your brain simply
can't do it, nor can any brain.
learning to stay in the present moment and only deal with the present
day is absolutely vital for clearing up space in your conscious
"working plate" so that you can work on what is before
further understand how all this works and why we get so easily
trapped into these loops and why it's hard to break them, we need to
quickly revisit something we've learned before - the principles
of neuroplasticity -
and something that will undoubtedly be new to many of my readers, and
a rather recent way of how neuroscientists examine brain functions,
the concept of default
These are highly complex interacting networks and regions that, to
put it very briefly for today, are what your brain "defaults"
to when it has "nothing better to do". In other words, in a
more or less resting state, these networks and what they do are what
our brains will fall back on when the brain appears to be "at
rest", IE; what it will most naturally tend towards when not
actively engaged in a relatively focused task.
are many, many different and individualized kinds of default mode
networks among us, and no two are exactly alike. I posit that in many
of us mentally suffering peeps, one of our most pernicious resting
state or default mode networks is this agonizing loop of suffering we
just briefly looked at.
networks and loops become part of our resting state default modes
because of the "dark side of neuroplasticity" - the more a
given set of regions and networks, etc is activated, the more "wired
in" and dominant it becomes (this is a very well known and
studied aspect of neuroplasticity).
also posit that we each have more than one or several default mode
networks; this negative past ruminating and negative future
projecting and resultant meltdown one being but one of them - one
that we'd like to rid ourselves of!
to summarize, is it hard to stay "in the now" and live "one
day at a time" and stay within the day and not get trapped in
the past and not project negative futures?
in all my research and study reviewing vast bodies of all manner of
studies, I found no other way to retrain our brains to avoid these
crippling cycles (and they are crippling) than to
build the habit of living within the present day.
to start training your mind to stay in the present day or moment
try to keep this very simple for now.
I'd love is for you to tie this into mindfulness
meditation cognitive behaviour therapy.
What I do is put on some zen
meditation music (via YouTube), using that to slowly
wake up my mind first thing in the morning. I do perhaps fifteen
minutes of the mindfulness CBT to get my mind cleared of troubling
thoughts or situations and then I try to set up my day. Based on what
I've been working on in the CTB, I remind myself of my core values
and goals based on them and then I do the best I can to plan my day
around what I can do to move those forward.
I remind myself to stick to what I can do that day and that
day only. This will not, as we saw above, be easy for you in
the beginning thus has to be a daily reminder.
simple meditation practices I have utilized and talked about in the
past help train my mind to stay on my present task and day (which in
my present life is almost always reading and researching or holding
discussions related to that).
- or I or anyone - are defined by your daily actions, so ask yourself
each morning - what am I going to do today to make a difference
on this day? These needn't be major things. Just
small steps and gestures can often do. And then do your best to
follow through on what you can do to move these things
forward that day.
are times I think about the past and future, but I have now carefully
trained myself to think only of "information" relevant to
my present task or tasks. I have learned to better let go of the
emotional attachments of past and future information.
however, is when times are "good" and things are going well
and life (and I) is relatively stable.
you know, we cannot avoid difficulties in life and days of bad mental
states. These are not going to stop happening, I'm afraid. Something
will happen - a trigger - and we'll get hammered by pain and perhaps
experience times of panic. Or some sort of destabilizing event or
events will happen in our lives that greatly stress us out and start
the whole loop again. These are the days when our minds will most be
tempted to get into that negative rumination about the past and
imagining dark, hopeless futures. These are the days we will really
though, my friends, is when the importance of making these healthy
brain practices part of our daily routines really comes to the fore.
we practice staying in the present day enough, if we consistently
train our minds in these ways, it is during the hard times that our
brains will have a better chance at "defaulting" to this
new mental habit rather than the bad mental habits of the past. We
may have to more consciously work on it, though. In hard times, we
just have to focus on getting through the hour, then the morning,
then the afternoon and then the rest of the day. Don't even allow
yourself to think about the whole day!
is the key to any seemingly impossible monumental task, my friends -
breaking it down into the smallest doable bites possible and doing
the best we can to only handle them one at a time (and I know how
challenging this can be to those who are juggling home life and a
career and so on).
this is where another daily habit can prove invaluable - no matter
the task, no matter the difficulties, no matter the pain, if it is
important to my long term values and goals, I train myself to get the
best possible result I can out of whatever it is. I have trained
myself not to let myself plunge into the sinkhole of "fuck it"
and throwing in the towel on myself. This has been and often remains
very, very, very challenging but I have for the most
part instilled this "refuse to lose" mindset. It is true
that some days we have to say "fuck it", but instead of
thinking of it as completely throwing in the towel, it is merely
letting go of it for that day.
it is through approaching each day like this that we learn to
separate our present from our past, however painful or difficult it
was. As we do this day by day, we can begin to leave our painful
pasts behind, to lessen their grip on us. This is how we begin to
retrain our brain networks to break the cycles we looked at above.
is also how we train our brain to let go of it's predilection for
"forecasting" the "future". This one of the human
mind's worst habits and for mental health suffering peeps one of the
greater sources of overwhelm and anxiety meltdowns.
than getting stuck in the impossible (literally impossible) mind trap
of "predicting" the future, practising staying within the
day and doing the best we can with each day is how we build our
future. Build each day as well as we can and the future will take
care of itself. This is how we learn not to create self fulfilling
prophesies for negative futures based on past events and not to
erroneously believe we can "predict" the future.
practice of staying in the now and within the day is how we can learn
to bust many mental health crushing cognitive distortions and other
cognitive bias thinking that sabotages our goals and truer
will admit that there are days I realize I just don't "have it"
that day, and do what I can to defer the most difficult tasks to a
time I have more energy or am more able. When we take each day on its
own, when we get hammered by very difficult pain, we can remind
ourselves that it's only "that day" and learn better to get
through it and not let it become more major than it need to be.
I may remind myself to be compassionate with myself, to not expect to
be my best all the time and to just see how I can get the most out
of that day with what I have that day.
I try to stay focused on getting the best out of whatever task I'm
doing or situation I'm in and accept that that's the best I can do on
the end of the day, I sort of do a repeat of my morning mindfulness
CBT, using it to evaluate how things went in a non-judgmental way.
- critically important - I let that day go. I can go to sleep knowing
I did the best that I could in handling that day and that day only. I
create a sort of "reset" button for my mind to "clear
the cache" of that day and assure myself that I'll get through
the next day in the same manner as well. This is how we prevent a bad
day from becoming a massive long bad period that traps us back into
the negative past/future loops we looked at.
yes, I know what you may thinking - the present is what hurts and
sucks so bad and that's the problem.
is very difficult indeed and there were many times that the last
place I wanted to be was in the present! This is when that fluff
"just stay in the present" advice used to drive me nuts.
"The present is the problem", I wanted to scream!
in the end, I knew the only way to work past that was one day at a
time and this started to pay off after a while. Each day I would try
to commit myself to making that day the best I could make it, to
create the most positive memories and outcomes I could and so on. If
it was a terrible day and I managed to survive it okay, I would
congratulate myself with a little fist pump and a "yes!".
if we do this bit by bit, day by day, we can start to create a better
and better "present" that isn't so hard to be in. Bit by
bit we can create a present that we want to be in.
of course every day I do as many of my Positive
Difference Making Fundamentals as
I can. I compiled a long list so that no matter how bad things were
going, I could practice something that
would have a positive effect on my mind. Many of those are designed
for long term effects so I knew that even if it didn't have an
immediate effect, I was doing my brain good for the long term.
this is how all major change happens, folks - staying focused on
little steps practiced daily. We go step by step through the day,
then day by day through the week, focusing on creating the best
outcomes we can for that day and that day only and one day we can
look back and see that we're not in as bad a place as we were. Then
another day we can look and see we have our lives moving forward more
positively and with more hope and belief.
we must be very, very cautious of "great days". These can
be like hidden traps. We can get too up and feel like we can rush
ahead and this can set us up for failure or a return to bad habits.
So even on our best days, we must try as best we can to stay within
ourselves for that day and not take on too much. Even the best days
are only that day and that day only. The next day is a different
this, folks, is how I deal with living with infamously hard to treat
Bipolar Type I in men fifty and over (the well documented worst
category of the bipolar spectrum) - without medications
or drugs of any kind. This is how I keep my mental states relatively
stable without medications or drugs. This is how I don't plunge into
weeks and months of dark hopeless depression and how I prevent myself
from kiting up into dangerous episodes of mania. This is how I worked
- and work - my way past crippling anxiety and worry. This is how I
get through the challenges of living with a condition the
long term physical damage of which has
left me disabled and not able to earn a living in normal ways. This
is how I work my way past horrendous tendencies to suicidal distress.
This is how I survived the horrendous prospect of living outdoors
through a Canadian winter with a very difficult health condition.
review of any case where a person grew out of terrible lives,
circumstances and conditions will reveal the same process.
I need you to commit to the same - living one day at a time and
focusing on doing only what you can in that day only.
Commit each morning to making that day and that day only the
best you can that day. Then each day at the end, let that
day go - think of it as emptying your "cache" - and
reminding yourself that you'll get through the next day as well as
you can too, no matter what.
this and in time I can promise you that you'll tame
some pretty major polar bears. You'll sleep better, live with less
stress and anxiety and work your way to a more positive future. This
is how you'll train your brain not to get caught in those loops of
rumination about the past and imagining dark hopeless futures.
can also promise you - from the bottom of my neuroscience heart -
that your brain cannot properly function any other way. NO brain
can. If there is only one habit that I write about and teach that you
choose to master, make it this one. Give your brain just the present
day to work on and see what a difference it makes after a month, then
several months, then a year and so on. All kinds of mental and
cognitive functions will improve when you're not "overloading
your circuits" all the time.