Stress Management and the Art of Being Present

Stress can only occur when we are either focused on the past or the future. Stress cannot exist when we are fully present in the now. The challenge many of us experience is that we find it difficult to control our minds from wandering into the past or future and consequently our strategies of stress management take a turn for the worse.

In improving your stress management training you need to appreciate that the mind is such a powerful tool; it determines the way you see the world. Your current view of yourself and your life is formed by the way your mind thinks about them and, in doing so, creates your reality. It also does something else that can cause feelings of stress. It projects thoughts into the future and can paint a negative picture about the way a situation may unfold. This is called negative mind projection.

The mind often does this when it’s concerned about a particular situation that has yet to occur. It tries to gain control of this future situation by hypothesising various outcomes of the way it believes it may play out and in doing so derails our stress management skills.

Here’s an example:
Imagine you have been asked to make a short presentation at your end of year staff party. This is a function that everyone in the company attends and something people look forward to. It’s also a wonderful opportunity to get to know the senior executives in a more casual manner.

Later on you start to think about your presentation. Your mind starts to churn out countless thoughts about it. You start to second guess your abilities to present in front of everyone and start to think about what would happen if it didn’t go well. Before you know it you’ve played out the whole evening in your mind and breakout in a cold sweat just thinking about all the potentially disastrous scenarios that could occur.

This negative mind projection is what often causes feelings of stress and blocks our ability for effective stress management training. When you perceive a future event to be potentially threatening or unpleasant, you allow stress the opportunity to enter your body. So why do we negative mind project in the first place? What benefit does it give us?

The answer is interesting. The ego, which takes responsibility for our feelings of adequacy and worth, makes a promise. It promises that it will look after our self-esteem and protect us from anything that may compromise it. It does so by creating the feeling that we are in control of our lives. As a result, it prepares us for what could happen in the future by presenting the worst case scenario for any future events. What better way to protect the ego than by pointing out all the potentially threatening or embarrassing possibilities?

This is how the ego tricks us, by creating the illusion that it will protect and prepare us for these future scenarios. It makes us believe that it’s a valuable stress management exercise. The reality is that all it offers is a vague hypothesis of what may or may not happen. By practising good stress management skill, we create a habit of being present.

Negative mind projection creates feelings of stress when you feel the pain of a future event going wrong as if it is actually happening to you in the present. You live your future experience as if it was fast tracked into your present moment. This is the ego’s attempt assist us in stress management skills by bringing some kind of control to an unknown event in our future.

The consequence of negative mind projection is that it destroys the quality of the present moment and replaces it with anxiety and stress. So what can you do to improve your stress management training by preventing your mind from projecting in this way?

As we’ve already discussed, if you leave your mind alone without a particular focus it will often default to thinking negatively. In order for you to master your mind and control your stress management you need to instruct it otherwise. If you let it default you take the risk of allowing these thoughts to control you.

In mastering your mind you need to tell it how you want it to serve you. It can’t be your servant if you allow it to use negative mind projection. Remember, you don’t have a crystal ball to see into the future and it’s not possible to know for certain how every future situation will unfold. Don’t waste your thoughts wondering and predicting the unknown. Time is better spent setting goals, desires and intentions rather than worrying about whether they’ll actually happen.

The stress management training approach that will help, is that as soon as you become aware that you are feeling stressed about future situations, use your mind to skilfully focus your thoughts on how you would like the situation to turn out. Think about it optimistically and bring your attention back to your actions in the present moment. Inevitably, your mind will keep projecting your thoughts into the future, so keep them focused on a positive outcome.

Be mindful that the only thing that is real is the present moment. The past is history and the future is unknown. When your focus is maintained on your present actions the feeling of stress will minimised, and your stress management skills will strengthen.

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