By Jeremy Godwin
Welcome to Let’s Talk About Mental Health, the weekly podcast full of simple ideas for better mental health by Jeremy Godwin. Each episode focuses on practical and simple ideas that you can use to improve and maintain your mental health and wellbeing every day, based on quality research.
This is Episode 83 and this week I’m talking about being present. In this episode I’ll cover what being present means, why being present matters for better mental health, and how to be present. So, let’s talk about mental health!
Listen to the podcast episode now in the Spotify player below (or using your preferred podcast service; see below for links) or continue reading for the full transcript.
Watch Episode 21 of Let’s Talk About Mental Health TV — in this latest episode I’m talking about common things that are damaging to your mental wellbeing and I’m looking at ideas on how to tackle them.
Watch it below or visit the channel on YouTube:
This podcast episode was originally released on 13 June, 2021.
Hello and welcome to Episode 83, and thanks so much for joining me!
This week is all about being present. This is a subject I talk about a lot and even though I did an episode on mindfulness a while ago (back in Episode 42) there’s a lot more to this topic to explore, and I’ve also had some requests to talk more about how to be present — so, you asked and I am delivering! The present moment is the most valuable that we each have, since it is all we have for sure, and so I am very grateful that you’ve chosen to spend your present moments with me today!
Before I begin, this week on Let’s Talk About Mental Health TV I’m talking about common things that are damaging to your mental wellbeing and I’m looking at ideas on how to tackle them. Find the video on YouTube or head to letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au for that and past episodes of the show. And if you like what you see, subscribe to the channel and turn on notifications to be alerted when I post new videos every Wednesday.
And if you’d like an extra dose of better mental health each week, sign up for my free newsletter at letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au/subscribe (which is a short dose of stuff I’ve found inspiring, interesting or just plain entertaining throughout the week). You’ll also find the link for that and the YouTube show in the episode description on whatever podcast service you’re listening to me on.
So, with that covered, on with this week’s episode about being present…
There was a period of time in the mid to late 1980’s where it looked as though nuclear war was a given, at least if the news media were to be believed. I distinctly remember one evening where, as a child, I couldn’t sleep following yet another news report about rising tensions, and I stared at the night sky from my bedroom window for what felt like hours, terrified at the thought of being annihilated in my sleep (in hindsight, it’s probably fair to say I was a lot more anxious as a child than I ever realised until quite recently).
Why am I sharing this with you? Because we all know how history turned out and those worst-case scenarios thankfully never eventuated, and that’s the thing about worrying about the future — often we focus so much on things that very likely may not happen, and usually they’re those types of small or large ‘disaster scenario’ things (because our minds just love to over-react and create a good drama!). For some of us, our minds can be a bit hysterical sometimes and it can try to convince us that everything is on the verge of going to shit — but it’s not, and even the hardest of circumstances can be overcome (just as we can when we’re dealing with the past and we’re struggling to get through that), so all of that is part of what I’m exploring this week.
Let’s start with some definitions…
What does ‘being present’ mean?
‘Being present’ means being mentally focused and engaged on what you are doing or experiencing now, rather than being distracted or ‘somewhere else’. That ‘somewhere else’ often refers to two places: the past or the future.
Let’s talk about that for a little bit. You only have three places you can possibly focus on — being the past, the present or the future — but only one place you can ever exist: the present. I’m going to quote from German author Myrko Thum here, and this is pulled from an article on PositivePsychology.com which I’ll link to in the transcript. The quote is:
“The present moment is the only thing where there is no time. It is the point between past and future. It is always there and it is the only point we can access in time. Everything that happens, happens in the present moment. Everything that ever happened and will ever happen can only happen in the present moment. It is impossible for anything to exist outside of it.”Myrko Thum (from https://positivepsychology.com/present-moment/)
Now clearly we’re getting into some spacial-dynamics-time-mind-blowing kinda stuff here, so let’s take a step back and, before we go any further, let’s talk about what ‘being present’ does not mean. So if we’re talking about being present as being connected with the moment and being focused on what is going on in the here and now, ‘being present’ does not mean that you completely disregard the past or ignore the future, because to try and do either would be both foolish and futile. The past is always with us, no matter what we do and where we go, because it has shaped who we are today and where we are today. The piece here is about learning what we need to learn from our past in order to grow, then making our peace with it and letting go. Why? Because the past cannot be changed. It’s done and it is what it is, and no amount of going over it will change what has or has not happened.
I’m going to come back to that idea in a minute, but let’s talk about the future before I do that because it’s an essential part of the conversation. When we worry about what will or won’t happen in the future, or when we become fixated on trying to create a specific outcome, it does two things to us. First, it can cause us to become attached to a possible future that may or may not ever exist. None of us have any control over events outside of ourselves — what we do, say and feel — and so we need to learn to view the future with hope rather than expectation (which is what I discussed last week in Episode 82 and I also talked about hope in Episode 17). The second thing is that it takes us away from the present moment (as in, the only moment we have for sure). Why does that matter? Well, let’s jump into the next part of this episode which is…
Why does being present matter for better mental health?
And this is the part where I turn the blunt advice up to 11. Because when we find ourselves living in the past or living in the future, we are missing the present — and the present moment is all that you have for sure. Nothing is guaranteed and nobody lives forever, and I can tell you that every person who died yesterday had plans for today. I know there’s a lot of reluctance to talk about death — so much so that I have an episode dedicated to the topic coming up in a couple of months — but not talking about it doesn’t change the fact that it will happen to each of us eventually. So instead of ruminating over a past that can never be changed or worrying about a future that may or may not happen, you get to choose to be fully focused and engaged in this moment now — the only moment that you have for sure.
That doesn’t mean that you don’t think about things that have happened in the past or that you don’t have plans for tomorrow — I certainly do. But we never know what life is going to throw at us and what path it may take us down. I had originally planned that I was going to go out last year and do some live recordings of the podcast to celebrate a couple of major milestones last year and then… bam! Pandemic! How rude! And for your information, that’s something I’m possibly looking at doing in the future but we’ll see what happens because you never know what tomorrow may bring!
It doesn’t have to be global events that change the course of your life either; things that happen locally and even at home or within your own family can have an enormous effect on what you do or don’t do in the future, and so even the best-laid plans can go off the rails based on what’s going on in your life.
And then let’s talk about the positive benefits of being present. Grounding yourself in the present moment helps you to cope with stress, anxiety and other challenges, because it helps to remind you that life is lived here and now, and everything else is beyond our direct control. That mindset shift, combined with some of the strategies I’m going to discuss shortly, can really help you to put worries about the future or regrets about the past into context and it can help you to step back and observe these thoughts as being about things that are out of your control.
So how do you do that? Well, let’s get into the how-to part of this week’s episode…
How to be present
And I’ll just take a quick moment here to remind you that the full transcript for this episode is available for free at letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au/episodes — there’s even an option on that page to sign up to have these land in your inbox each week, so if you’d like to refer back to any of the suggestions I cover this week (or, indeed, in any episode of the podcast) you’ll find them all at letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au/episodes.
Alright, so let’s begin the how-to section with…
Be clear on your priorities — know exactly who you are, what you want out of life and what really matters to you, and let everything else be background noise. If it doesn’t matter at all or if it’s pulling you away from what does matter, walk away. That’s not meant to be selfish, but there are some things in life that will never bring you peace of mind and so rather than expending all your energy on them (which takes you away from being present, thanks to worry or rumination) let it go. I talked about letting go back in Episode 32, so check that out for more on the topic.
See your time as an investment — which it is, so don’t waste time on things that don’t matter or that are not aligned to your priorities. It’s completely OK to say no (just do it with kindness!) and since your time is precious, you need to think about where it will be best applied. That doesn’t mean you need to be go-go-go all the time; in fact, I treat rest and relaxation as serious business because neglecting those things contributed to my own mental health challenges in the past, which is why now I work hard to limit my working hours to no more than 25-30 a week (which I manage to do most weeks) so that I can have plenty of ‘me’ time, because that’s where I’m able to invest my energy in things that expand my mind, like reading. All of that helps me to feel a lot more present, rather than worrying about what’s next, what’s next… which takes you out of being present. Invest your time wisely and thoughtfully, in line with your priorities.
Make decisions and take action today to set yourself up for the future — which might sound funny when I’m talking about being present, but as I said before being present doesn’t mean you just ignore the future entirely because the choices you make today have a direct effect on how your future will look and feel. For example, I’ve been working with a therapist for a couple of months now to get to the bottom of my emotional eating and in the last couple of weeks I’ve been able to change my eating habits in a much more healthy way, because I’ve been dealing more with the root cause, so much so that I’m already reaping the benefits of weight loss and having more energy and just generally feeling better about myself. Rather than focusing on the negative aspects of my weight gain, in terms of not being happy with how I look and not feeling comfortable in my body, I’m now focused on the hundreds and thousands of little micro-decisions I make each day that are setting me up for success in the future.
Work through the past and release it — like I said earlier, it’s not uncommon for us to carry around baggage from the past which can weigh us down until we reflect on it, deal with it and let it go. I talked about baggage back in Episode 7 and reflection in Episode 12 which may be helpful if you’re finding it difficult to let go of the past, as might Episode 4 about over-thinking. Speaking of over-thinking, my next point is…
Remind yourself that thoughts are not facts — just because you think something that doesn’t make it real, and so therefore it doesn’t have any actual power. Many of our negative thoughts about the past or the future (or both) are based on fear (which I explored in Episode 10) and insecurity (which I covered in Episode 35). By simply reminding yourself that not everything you think is the truth, you can begin to step back from your thoughts and stop them from hijacking you away from your focus on the present. And if those thoughts are being particularly loud and persistent, do something completely different for a few minutes (like take a brisk walk outside or sing along to a high-energy song that you enjoy); whatever it is will circuit-break your focus, and that will then allow you to return your attention to the current moment. You may also find Episode 31, about mindset, and Episode 47, about optimism, to be helpful.
Write down your worries and concerns — when you’re dealing with worries about the future or concerns over the flow-on effects from something that happened in the past, sometimes those emotions can feel like they’re bursting to escape from you… so let them. Grab a pen and paper, and write and write and write until you run out of steam — then put it away and don’t look at what you’ve written for at least a week, because it will probably be quite raw and emotional which isn’t great for problem-solving. Then take a break before you consider your next course of action. By the way, I said to write this rather than using your phone because typing just doesn’t give you the same release of energy that writing does. So speaking of problem-solving, my next point is to…
Focus on solutions rather than problems — I’ve worked with quite a few people in the past (and have known quite a few in my personal life) who are very good at focusing on problems, but draw a complete blank when you ask them what solutions might be appropriate for them. Do you know what you get when you focus on problems? More problems, because that is what you are primed to look for. And do you know what you get when you focus on solutions? You guessed it… more solutions! What you focus on is what you see, so choose wisely. Speaking of focus, my next point is…
Focus on what is within your direct control — I sound like a broken record here — I say this every episode, at least 54 times! — but you can only control what you can control; in other words, the things that you do, say and feel (and more specifically, what you choose to do with your feelings — they might feel like they come from nowhere and are out of your control sometimes, but you get to choose what to do with your feelings). Absolutely everything else is out of your control so you can attempt to influence the situation, but you cannot directly control it. Make sense? When you embrace that fact, you begin to see things as they are: a series of events going on around you rather than happening to you. You’re the one in control and only you can choose how you respond to external events, so by choosing to focus on the present and take things one step at a time you will find it easier to remain grounded. I hate to break it to you, but you’re not magic and there’s only so much you can control! When I put a podcast or YouTube episode out into the world, all my control is gone… and for someone who likes to be in control, that has been tough to accept sometimes! The thing is that once it’s done, it’s done, and I cannot control how many people listen to it. All I can do is be positive about it and move onto the next one (and I will admit that sometimes I find myself even forgetting what the current week’s topic is and I have to go back and check, because, for me, I work at least a week ahead, so once it’s done I’m done with it and I try to put it out of my mind). All of this stuff is about acceptance (which I discussed in Episode 36) and that other topic that trips us up time after time, control — which was the subject of Episode 48.
Set and maintain clear boundaries — other people can sometimes bring drama or chaos (or both) into our lives, and frankly I have no time or tolerance for drama because that shit will rob you of your peace of mind (which, for me, is one of the things that I protect zealously now — having spent several years dealing with depression and anxiety, and not having that sense of peace of mind, will eventually help you to realise that it’s more valuable than gold or diamonds or the rarest minerals!). I talked about boundaries back in Episode 53 if you’d like to explore that topic in more depth.
And so now here are some more general bits of advice which can serve to keep you grounded in the present, even if it’s just for a few minutes at a time, starting with:
Use incidental time to practice being present — such as your daily commute or when you’re taking a daily walk… put your phone away, turn off the TV (although I’m assuming you don’t have a TV on the train with you, but hey you never know!), and just be for a few minutes without judgement or expectation. Notice the sights, sounds and smells and just anchor yourself in the present for a few minutes. You can whip that phone back out and go back to listening to whatever you’re listening to or reading, but even just those few minutes will make a huge difference (and I hope here that it goes without saying not to plug your spare moments with aimlessly scrolling social media, which very easily leads to addictive behaviour because it triggers the pleasure centres of our brain, however it appears that I have said it so there you go!). Speaking of how you use your time, that leads me to…
Forget multi-tasking; try solo-tasking — there are very few people who can actually do two things at the same time successfully; hell, I tried cleaning my glasses the other day while driving and almost ran off the road, but enough about me. Now there is a piece there about whether or not gender and biology plays any role in the ability to juggle multiple tasks, but it doesn’t really matter — you can either do lots of things to a mediocre level, or do one thing at a time to a high level. I take this approach with my work; I batch tasks together so I have a block for writing, a block for filming, another for editing, and then I have set blocks on specific days when I see clients for their appointments. It means I can stay focused on similar types of tasks that are grouped together, rather than trying to do lots of things at once because when you’re juggling all of that it makes it really hard to remain present and focused. And this doesn’t just apply to work: eating, being with your partner, family or friends, even watching TV at night as a way to unwind… instead of juggling those with paying attention to your phone or, I don’t know, trying to put up drywall (!), focus on one thing (or one person) at a time and give it your full attention. ‘Focus’ means focus, not ‘vague attention’!
Daily gratitude practice — when you reflect on what you are grateful for in the present, you anchor yourself in the here and now instead of pining over the past or lusting over the future. I talked about gratitude back in Episode 46, so check that out for a much more detailed discussion on the subject.
Take regular breaks — rest is essential to help you remain focused, because when exhaustion takes over it’s easy for worry about the future or regrets from the past to slowly creep in. Make time for rest every single day without fail and treat it as though your life depends on it (because, when you think about it, it really does). That includes doing whatever you have to do to ensure you get a decent night’s sleep every night — by the way, putting your phone on Do Not Disturb absolutely helps here. Which leads to…
Find focus tools and resources that work for you — I use a white noise app to block out most background sounds when I’m sleeping and it is the greatest thing ever, because it keeps me present rather than being distracted by outside noise. I do a fair bit of those types of things; I have Bose headphones and sometimes when I’m working I’ll put them on with just the noise-cancelling function activated and nothing else; it creates a cocooning effect that feels very comforting and I find that helps me to drown out background noises that might distract me and so it actually then helps to keep me really present — I can be easily distracted sometimes, and even though I live in the country I actually live in a small town which is full of people and traffic and noisy dogs, not to mention the birds that have nested at the bottom of our back yard (who I’m sure you’ve heard screeching more than once or twice in the background on one of these episodes!). Some people might find losing themselves in relaxing visuals to be helpful or perhaps trying different apps or exercises — find what works for you; I covered a couple of mindfulness exercises back in Episode 42 which you might find helpful.
Be mindful of unhealthy habits — alcohol, narcotics, unhealthy food, even sex… these are all things that serve to distract you and take you away from the present if they’re being used in an unhealthy way. If you are finding being present too challenging, and so therefore you’re looking for those kind of escapes on an ongoing regular basis, then it’s time to do something about it — which leads me to my final point…
Work with a professional — if you find it difficult to be in the present then you need to work through that with a therapist or counsellor, who can help you to explore that in an objective and supportive way. These sessions take time, effort and perseverance (I mean, we’re talking about seriously tough work!) but it’s a bit of short-term pain for long-term gain in the sense that dealing with the root cause of your challenges will help you to take small steps each day towards being the best version of yourself possible.
Summary and Close-Out
Because when it comes to being present and mental health, what it all boils down to is this: The present is where you live. Dwelling on the past does nothing but keep you stuck there, and worrying about the future is wasted energy because no matter how much you think you know what is going to happen, you don’t (as the past few years have proven to all of us), so all you’re doing is obsessing over something that very likely just will not happen. Why would you choose to forego today’s happiness because of something that may or may not happen, or something that did happen and which cannot be changed no matter how much you think about it? There’s a reason why the saying “it is what it is” remains popular (even if it can be a bit overused sometimes); things are as they are and so all you can control is what you choose to do, say and feel here in the present moment.
The choice is yours, as it is with all things related to your wellbeing… so, what choice will YOU make today?
Each week I like to finish up by sharing a quote about the week’s topic, and I encourage you to take a few moments to really reflect on it and consider what it means to you. This week’s quote is by the 18th century Swiss-French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and it is:
“The moment passed is no longer; the future may never be; the present is all of which [we are] master.”Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Next week I’ll be talking about failure. I remember a few years ago when I was emerging from the worst of my depression and anxiety, and I looked around at where I was in life and I felt as though I had failed. Fast-forward to today, and now I see that part of my life as a necessary step on the path towards what I’m doing today. Failure is such a subjective and judgemental notion, and it can be tied up in social pressure as well as our own expectations about who we are and where we should be in life. So how you do deal with the idea of failure, especially when you’re in the middle of it? Well next week I’m talking about what failure is, why a healthy attitude towards failure matters for your mental health, and how to manage failure.
I hope you’ll join me for that episode, which will be released on Sunday 20th of June. And join me for Let’s Talk About Mental Health TV on YouTube, with new episodes released every Wednesday.
Head over to letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au for links and all past episodes and, while you’re there, join the mailing list for my weekly newsletter. You can find the website links in the description of this episode on whatever podcast service you’re using.
Thank you very much for joining me today — look after yourself and make a conscious effort to share positivity and kindness in the world, because you get back what you put out. Take care and talk to you next time.
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Let’s Talk About Mental Health.
Simple ideas for better mental health.
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