It’s becoming more challenging trying to live a balanced life when there are so many obligations and so little time to get them all done. We plan for the future, while ruminating about the past. It’s easy to allow things to spiral out of control as we get caught up in the business of everyday life. But there is hope.
When thinking about my vision of calm within the storm, I remember the movie “A River Runs Through It,” which shows how the art of fly-fishing demands stillness, creativity, concentration and balance for one to be successful at it. A main character in the movie often struggled to control his emotions, except when he was practicing his skills at fly-fishing. He found solitude on the river, where he learned to regulate and calm himself through what we refer to as “mindfulness practice.” Through the rhythmic, intentional casting of the line, he retained balance while standing on the rocks in the midst of the raging river. The fishing line flew with wild abandon above the water, but the fisherman maintained control as he stood solidly on the ground, keeping his focus.
This is the extent of my fly-fishing knowledge, having never experienced it, but the movie left an impact on me because it mirrors what we experience in daily life. We allow our thoughts and emotions to lead us, like the fishing line whipping wildly above the current – up, down, sideways, back, forth – with nothing to guide them in the right direction. Our thoughts can hijack our ability to think clearly and with purpose. No guide, no focus leads to feeling out of control, and increases stress, anxiety and depression, making it difficult to enjoy life.
It’s easy to get trapped in the chaos – the raging river – which can easily sweep us downstream. I’ve experienced the drifting; it leads me further from my goal, while zapping my energy as I fight to regain control. I’ve also had to tread water while searching, sometimes blindly, for that rock to hang on to in the current. It’s during those times that I force myself to focus: There are ways to catch myself before being swept away.
I learned the power of finding balance while practicing mindfulness. Just as in fly-fishing, it takes skill, practice and patience. When our thoughts leap around aimlessly – media blasts, cell phone calls, to-do lists – just like the fisherman, we must remain still, notice where our thoughts are leading us, then gently guide them back to stable ground. Breathe deeply; then reel them back to center.
Mindfulness is the practice of paying attention to the moment, without judgment. It seems so easy until the first wave of emotion hits. This is why it’s called “practice.” When life happens, we react, turmoil ensues – and the cycle continues. Mindfulness is the stabilizing force to help guide us back to stable ground.
Distractions – “I should have …” “If only I had …” or “What if …” – keep us stuck, unable to move, frozen in time, stagnant. They set us up for anxiety and depression, and quickly deplete our energy. So, you ask: How do I stop being hijacked by my thoughts and emotions? The first step is to notice the signs of tension or stress in your body. Whether you feel tightness in your shoulders, body fatigue or headaches, your body stores your emotions before you attach meaning to them or are able to name what you’re feeling. Notice changes in sleep patterns, which are clues to your need for mindfulness. Listening to your body’s needs creates the base necessary for overall well-being. Then, you can work on mental health to maintain balance.
Practice mindfulness every day, until it becomes a habit. Focus on your five senses, breathe deeply, listen to music, play with your pets, guide your mind’s imagery, mindfully eat healthy food – all ways to refocus on the things that matter and the moments you can experience right now. These are things you can control that will help regulate your moods.
Your mind and body are interconnected, so caring for your body is essential for good mental health. During times of low mood, increased stress or anxiety, reflect on how your body is feeling, and listen to what it’s telling you through symptoms such as headaches, muscle aches, tension, fatigue. The easiest place to start when you’re struggling is to focus on just breathing; that will ground you while your next steps become clearer. This is practicing mindfulness. Through this practice will come peace, and with this peace comes the ability to handle anything that threatens to knock you off your feet. If you do get knocked down – and you will – return to the practice. Breathe deeply again. Focus again. Stay grounded, and ride out the storm. The storm will pass – again – and in its place will come renewed strength and a sense of mastery over life’s obstacles.
We don’t get stronger by avoiding our obstacles. We learn from our failures and our weaknesses, and we gain strength through our ability to overcome them. It’s only then that we are able to live life to its fullest and enjoy what it has to offer.
Allison White, ACSW, LCSW, CCDP-D
Wellness Alley, LLC