"How many "pause button" moments have you had today?"
One of the fastest ways--possibly the only way--to engage the brain in changing any behaviour or emotion is to stay in the present moment.
Being present means being fully engaged in the moment with all your senses attuned to the here and now. You are neither dreaming of the future nor regretting the past. You are in the moment.
And, being increasingly present to our everyday life is one of the least mentioned yet most beneficial outcomes of psychotherapy.
Here is a easy way of understanding it.
Have you ever been in a rush to get somewhere only to arrive, sit down, but not feel as if you are actually there? It's as if you have physically arrived but your mind is still in the parking lot. This is what it feels like when you are not present - your mind is too distracted to fully take in the moment.
Another way of describing presence is via the senses. All five senses are receptive to experience: taste, smell, hearing, touch and sight. Staying in the present moment also means noticing bodily sensations such as heart rate, your breath, the tightness in your muscles, the state of your gut (i.e., stomach gurgling), and many other body signals we usually ignore.
A "moment" is 1-10 seconds long.
Dr. Daniel Stern, author of The Present Moment calculates that a present moment is 1-10 seconds long. He explains that being present gives us the richness in life, like those few seconds when we catch a friend's eye in a moment of knowingness. He says our capacity for being present allows us take in a sunset, catch the scent of a spring flower or perceive the irony in a moment of laugher.
No one imagines that a symphony is supposed to improve in quality as it goes along, or that the whole object of playing it is to reach the finale.
The point of music is discovered in every moment of playing and listening to it.
It is the same, I feel, with the greater part of our lives, and if we are unduly absorbed in improving them we may forget altogether to live them.
How does psychotherapy increase consciousness?
When clients arrive for their appointment and jump into a description of the latest news without first having made solid contact with me (one that contains a feeling of presence), I always draw it to their attention.
I know that unless they are in the moment with me, instead of in their "event", their mind will be less open to change. Venting or emptying out will be just that…a sort of 'spill your beans' session with no opportunity to reset the neuropathways in the brain.
Let's say my client has been talking for a few minutes about a difficult subject. Suddenly she changes the topic. When I respond with, "what just happened?" I am attempting to bring awareness of her actions into the present moment.
I might also deepen the moment by asking what she is feeling inside. In somatic therapy, I would draw attention to what sensations she might be feeling in her body.
And, by the way, in this example, I have interrupted the patterned way that she responds to emotional distress. As you might guess, by drawing her attention to it, I have increased the probability that she might recognize this in future.
But not only that, by interrupting this patterned response there's now a greater chance that the nervous system will respond differently next time.
Being present "interrupts the procedure".
For much of our day our patterned behaviours are pretty much as the day before...personal hygiene, preparing meals, going off to work, meeting in the lunch room, coming home, watching television. We give little thought to them, we do them automatically.
Present moments interrupt these automatic behaviours. Present moments allow us to drink in life. They give us a presence of mind. As Dr. Scaer author of The Trauma Spectrum explains, "the mind exists in the present moment."
Bottom line, you can't take in what counseling has to offer unless you're there to take advantage of it!
It's unlikely that you're using the power of the present moment in your therapy if you're moving immediately from one story after another. Staying in the present means you are giving yourself plenty of time to process how and what you're saying and bringing your feelings associated into the present.
Being present is a concept that most of us are familiar with but we don't know we know…if you know what I mean! When it is brought to our attention most people recognize the difference between being present and not being present.
My Personal Musings
My own counseling has largely been responsible for my growing capacity for having more present moments. With each year that passes I feel I am more conscious, more aware. In any given moment (at least most of the time!) I am able to take in more information which naturally improves the decisions I make and adds color and depth to my life.
Reviewed by: Dr. Carole Gaato
Scaer, Rober, C. (2005). The Trauma Spectrum. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
Stern, Daniel (2004). The Present Moment in Psychotherapy and Everyday Life. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
Further Reading for Psychotherapists
Fosha, Diana (2000). The Transforming Power of Affect : A Model for Accelerated Change. Behavioral Sciences Research Press.
While Dr. Fosha only writes of the therapist's presence, many of her case examples call for presence on the part of the client in the way we have described above.
Your present state is marked by receptivity. You experience "receptive awareness" (Daniel J. Siegel, in press).
'Being present', as Daniel Stern describes it, is a state of "awareness now, during the moment being lived" (The Present Moment, 2004 pg. 32).
Looking a for a little inspiration?
Check out the poems in Inspiring Poems for Depression
Therapy Lingo Article?
Transference sadness overwhelming (MD, USA)
I am grateful to hear the way you explain being in the present. I know that I do this better when another person is with me and interacting. I have several frustrations related to transference (deeply attached to my therapist of 2 1\2 years).
I'm so sad all the time because I wish for a relationship that I can't have. I am so left-brained I can stay away from now and theorize for hours. I desperately want to get through this pain. This feels so much like real live that I ruminate on it almost constantly. This is not good for my marriage or my relationships with my children. I fight it instead of feeling it.
I'm working on my grad degree in counseling so I really want to learn from this and move on. When I do feel the loss of this dreamed up relationship, the sadness seems overwhelming. It's not like mourning a real death and I can't just breakdown for a week. Only my therapist would understand, but my family just worries about me.
I'm sorry to hear Christine how therapy is going for you. Yeah, transference can be brutal....especially going through something where you don't feel you have much control over.
On the plus side, I'm very pleased you're in training to be a therapist. That's awesome. This work will definitely help to define your work.
I was also pleased that you seemed aware how being "left-brained" might be holding things up for you. Yes, left-brain types tend to have an easier time in school but then, it can also make therapy doubly hard.
However, the good news is that in doing your therapy, you should end up feeling more balanced with the right brain.
Christine, this might be helpful as it's one of things I teach in my program...and it might sound counter-intuitivie...if you were to allow yourself to enjoy the feelings of loving your therapist i.e. in contrast to noticing what you don't have...it might be enough to help you move through the transference more easily.
If you give it a try, let me know how it goes.
All the best,
Debbie (Yorkshire, UK)
Hi Shrinklady, I beginning to realise that I may have been disassociative all my life. I have lived with constant fear and shyness since a tiny child. In my adult life I have tried to combat this and can sometimes put on a very thin veil of normalcy. But most times people see through this and it causes them to dislike me a lot of the time - maybe they think I'm fake? Nothing makes me 'feel' anything. I feel a continuous flatness.
Hours and days drift by where I get nothing of worth done. I have felt suicidal in the past but am even beyond this now in the haze that I live in - it would take too much effort to end it all. I have lost all creativity and joy.
My dogs used to be the one safe emotional place I could retreat to, but now even they are moving beyond the veil into the numb place. I know they see this as their moods have become quite flat too. They miss me, I know. :-(
Everything has become confusing and my sleep is constantly disjointed and interrupted - sometimes I sleep 2 hours then wake for 4 hours then 2 hours more sleep. Sometimes I sleep 5 hours then awake till the next night, then 3 hours sleep then 5 hours awake etc.
I can no longer work as I am constantly exhausted and even the tiniest bit of stress is intolerable to me - like a silent bomb going off in my head and I have to remove myself from the situation. I am in the UK and we don't seem to have therapists that specialise in anything but 'talk about it and it will go away' therapy. I've tried that and although I did work through issues relating to my father it has not helped with this ongoing zombie like state I am forced to endure.
I remember very very few things from childhood and my early life and my memory seems to be broken. I can watch a film and the next day not be able to really remember what it was about. It's very distressing. :-(
My talking brain appears to be the only part of me that's alive - it appears totally distinct from my physical body - almost as if I live in my head and my body is somebody elses.
I'm sorry for the long rambling outpouring but to be honest there are pages and pages of things that are wrong but I know you can't help me so there is no point taking up even more of your time.
I have found it very interesting to read other people's experiences here though. I'm glad to think that maybe I'm not totally crazy, which was what I was beginning to think.
christine (SALISBURY, ENGLAND)
I am old now - 65 have seen therapists and end up dreaming while i've felt their ( only 5 mins left and i've earned my £40). i know my hurts and abuse i've had and play it all like tapes over and over, and the abuse continues. reading all this - just by chance really has opend some windows in my thinking, but still at bottom of mountain. very hard to climb out.
calm flat pleasing lots of people and don't know who i really am.........somewhere inside i grieve for the hurt child who is alone against the world.
I just read the 'end' and its ok i don't need a reasponse, perhaps younger person will see someone like me and try to solve their issues before life has passed by x
Thank-you for taking the time to post and to think of others when you are suffering. Please take care of that little girl inside you...she needs your love.
Can't break the habit. (rural Washington State)
I remember as a child I lived in the present. I was attuned to nature and people. But then I started fantasising and now it's such a habit. When I try to stay in the present, I find myself drifting into fantasy land again.
I really want to stop but it seems it's such a habit and I can't break it. I also think about the past alot and am worried about the future but I draw myself to the present and get relief knowing that "now" is safe.
I just want to turn off the fantasy habit. Thanks
Bryn (Vancouver, Canada)
It has become very apparent recently that i don't trust my partner when he is away from me. I don't mean like a couple of hours but when he takes 2 or 3 day trips into the city. It has come to the point where i am awake all night with anxiety and tightness in my chest worrying about 'what he's upto' and specifically 'who with'.
I am realizing i have intensely strong abandonment issues coming to the surface and im scared they are going to ruin a otherwise healthy relationship.
How do i stay open to my process of healing these issues, in relationship, without sacrificing a good thing. I'm beginning to feel he might not have the patience or understanding to work it out but i don't want to cling. Not so appealing!
William (quebec, canada)
I have trouble finding the present moment since I have stopped smoking weed on a regular base. My parents divorce in 2002 and since then my addiction to marijuana was very high. I guess I didn't want to accept the fact that they were not together anymore.
Also, I lost four school years because of that. Except, I quit smoking for a year now and I have trouble finding the present moment. I am going 22 in august and I don't know what I have.
I know I need to "get in touch with myself". As you describe, my mind is still in the parking lot.
That is exactly how I feel when I arrive for therapy. I have been racing around trying to take care of others, then do my job and my mind is still full speed ahead mode when I arrive. I talk about work or my concern about my family. There is no slowdown, no pause. I am functioning on the same level in therapy as when I first woke up that morning.
People think I am very strong, but its easy to be strong when nothing sinks in. I divorced my second husband about a year ago and I hadn't really grieved the end of our relationship or the fact that 2 of my children (first marriage) were diagnosed with bpd just before the divorce. I have been busy proving we would be fine. It wasn't until my ex-husband was accidentally killed recently that the loss of the relationship came rushing in.
I know I am flatlining. I am not there during therapy to make any progress. I am strongly considering finding another therapist. She was a wonderful help through marriage counseling and divorce, and it scares me to think of ending the relationship, but I have been seeing her over a year with little change. I don't think I would feel safe opening up to her now, even if I were in that frame of mind. If she made a negative comment to something I decided to share, I would be destroyed. I would like to see life in full color.
Helen (NJ, USA)
Mary's comments and and your response, Shrinklady, spoke to me. I can relate to what Mary calls flatness. My husband (a recovering alcoholic) tells me that I have a limited range of emotions, and I am just beginning to see why this is so. It is hard to feel things when I've become such an expert at turning off the emotions (unconsciously). I am in therapy (childhood trauma) with a kind PsyD who explains things much like you do, Shrinklady.
A hurtful situation occured today and instead of being my usual Scarlet O'Hara (in GONE WITH THE WIND), I caught myself turning off my hurt feelings. (in the final scene - she says "I'll think about this tomorrow"). This is how I've always dealt with hurt, block it out, don't feel, don't process. Today was different- I stepped back and allowed myself to feel hurt. Not a good feeling, but certainly the awareness was an AH-HA moment. I think this is what you are talking about by being present, yes?
Wow, Helen, that's a terrific example. Yes, exactly. You became present to your feelings.
I know there's pain in this journey yet I'm really happy for you. As I described above, in time, your nervous system will learn to manage a wider range of emotion. And even though it starts out with pain, as this journey unfolds, I know that you will find more joy. Scarlet O'Hara no more!
All the best on your journey Helen,
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