This is one of an occasional series of articles about Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), one of the therapeutic approaches that I often use in my practice. ACT involves six core concepts that make up the ACT Hexaflex: Acceptance, Cognitive Defusion, Being Present, Self as Context, Values and Commitment. This week’s blog unpacks the concept of Being Present.
“Unease, anxiety, tension, stress, worry—all forms of fear—are caused by too much future, and not enough presence. Guilt, regret, resentment, grievances, sadness, bitterness, and all forms of non-forgiveness are caused by too much past, and not enough presence.”Eckhart Tolle
Did you know that for about half of the day, we are thinking about something other than what we are doing?
We are likely contemplating events that happened in the past, might happen in the future or may never happen at all.
This isn’t concerning in itself. Planning for the future or remembering past events is natural and can be helpful. However, spending an excessive amount of time worrying about the future or resentful about things that have happened in the past – to the extent where it interferes with how an individual functions in the present – can be clinically problematic.
Why Being Present Matters
It is important to remember that the here and now is where behavior happens. The present is the only place where we actually do our living and can make changes that are in keeping with what matters to us. Being present means being fully conscious of and engaged with our experience, even if that experience is difficult. When we are lost in thought, reliving the past, or going through the motions, it interferes with how we act in the present.
In ACT, the concept of being present is the process of becoming attuned to what is occurring right now, in the present moment. Our goal is to have clients “experience the world more directly so that their behavior is more flexible and thus their actions more consistent with the values they hold.”
But that’s not always easy. Not only is it natural for our minds to wander, but we also tend to have inaccurate memories of our past and visions of our future that get in the way of engaging with the present as it is. There is a lot of uncertainty involved with being present that makes people anxious and inclined to avoid doing the work.
Yet, a significant body of evidence in mental health research shows that being present can help individuals who are struggling deal with their pain more effectively, reduce their stress and decrease its impact on their wellbeing, as well as improve their ability to cope with negative emotions like fear and anger.
Being Present and Mindfulness Practices
In ACT, we encourage people to build up skills for contacting the present moment through a series of mindfulness exercises. Here are some examples of these strategies that anyone can use outside of therapy:
- Tune in to the sights, sounds, smells, and sensations of this very moment.
- Focus on balancing the time spent thinking about the future, past and present. Work on being aware enough of what is going on in your mind to intentionally think about the past and the future in small doses and devote most of your time to the present.
- Help declutter your mind through journaling. By getting everything out on paper that is distracting, you can clear your mind to focus on the present.
- Make the distinction between “noticing” and “thinking.” (i.e., practice cognitive defusion exercises.)
- Practice breathing exercises, meditation or yoga. (There are numerous resources available online to guide you.) This is one of my personal favorites.
- Take a walk outside, in nature and appreciate your surroundings.
- Remind yourself to be present when interacting with the people you care about – really listen and attend to what they are saying.
- Engage in a routine, everyday activity with full mindfulness – be fully present and notice all aspects of this “regular” activity in a new way
If these techniques are not working for you and you find yourself stuck in negative behaviors that are rooted in past traumas or fear about the future, the processes of ACT may help you move forward in a more positive way. To find out more about how I can help you with these skills contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.