Staying in the Now
I again must apologize, dear readers, for this post has too long been delayed.
I 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.
So 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.
At any rate, better late than never.
We 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 - 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.
Two 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".
However, 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 Carnegie, a truly timeless book of practical approaches to dealing with stressful worry.
That 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.
In 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.
Two 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.
Carnegie 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.
As 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.
So that's a very powerful historical perspective.
Not 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.
This 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.
However, 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.
As 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.
Why it's so hard
Staying 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.
One 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.
Additionally, there are some powerful brain regions involved in what is known as ruminating thoughts. 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!
However, 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 episodes.
Because 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.
On 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.
Again, this is a very powerful mental process of networked brain regions that, like all our brain functions, is to a great extent part of our "zombie programs"; 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.
When 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.
This 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.
But 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 caught in.