How healing the past can help you focus in the present
Have you ever found yourself trying to focus and get work done, but your mind keeps revisiting something? There may be little external distractions, but internally it's a circus.
For example, you might have found out that someone else just got the promotion you were dying to have, or you got some criticism that you're still rattled by, or you had a fight with a loved one and it hasn't been resolved. You sit down and try to put that aside to focus on what’s in front of you, but you can’t stop thinking about it. You might even play out different scenarios in your mind or replay the events in an incessant loop.
Our natural ability to focus and be present with our work is often greatly hampered by past experiences that haven't genuinely been overcome. We have wounds that have not been healed and they draw on our attention. The more wounds we have, the easier it is for us to get triggered. These wounds can even be experiences that we’re not consciously remembering, but are nonetheless taking up space below the level of conscious awareness. Unfortunately, we often hear the message of "just get over it, focus on your work, let it go". While this is possible (albeit difficult), I think a reasonable response to this is "how do I even do that?" or "I don't have enough energy, I already have so much on my plate".
I believe that a more compassionate and humane approach is to heal the wound. When we're no longer in pain (physically or emotionally), we're far better able to be present in the moment and focus on what is at hand, without needing to apply any force or discipline to do so.
I would like to shift your perspective on this and suggest that not being able to shrug it off may be a kind of gift instead of a curse. Because the thing that we can't stop thinking about is a part of us that is saying "I need attending to!", just like when your arm is broken, you feel pain. That is good. The pain (or in this case, not being able to stop thinking about something bothersome) tells us that something is wrong and needs to be addressed. And in many cases, there's actually a deeper wound below the problem you're currently noticing. The current annoyance can therefore be an opportunity to uncover and address that deeper cause.
The ability to ignore this signal of "pain" can have severe downsides. For example, there is some research showing that repressed or unexpressed emotions / needs, can lead to illness many years later.
(There are ways of simply shifting your focus that are effective and don't damage your health. But I think many of us are drowning in teachings telling us to "be more, overcome it, be motivated, get after it" etc, and it doesn't seem to be working. So I believe that a different tact is needed).
Why is it so hard to heal or overcome?
We easily get entrained in the same reaction every time we think about a problem. You may even find yourself having the same unhelpful reaction to other experiences that are only similar in nature. Over time this can have a significant ripple effect. It’s not uncommon for even one small thing to make everything harder.
Nobel Prize winner Eric Kandel discovered that within one hour of repeated stimulation, the number of neural bundles in a neural connection can double. In other words, the more you think about something, the more ingrained that pattern of thinking becomes. Thus, the harder it is to change using willpower. This is similar to how the more a walking trail is traversed, the deeper and wider that trail becomes. This is great when you’re learning something new and things are going well, because that pathway gets bigger the more you use it. But the opposite is also true. If you keep thinking about something you don't want, it becomes easier and easier to think that way, and harder to change it by thought alone.
A slight contradiction here is that we often need time to process distressing experiences. And if we try to never think "negatively", that often has a counter effect which can be very unhealthy.
You may have the best logical reasons as to why you should put this thing behind you. You may recognise your thinking pattern and know what you would like instead. You may know that ruminating on this without genuinely healing it is causing more problems, that it's affecting your interactions with people or that it's just plain unhelpful. But just knowing that intellectually often doesn't make a difference.
This is because it's not just in your head, it's also in your body. What I mean by that is that you probably feel a certain way every time you think about it. While there’s plenty of science to support this you can recognise it in yourself right now. Take a moment to focus on some bad experience that happened...
(do that now for about 10 seconds)….
...you will likely notice feelings or sensations in your body as you focus on some problem in your life. It may be subtle or it may be like a tornado. But what’s important to note is that what you're experiencing is probably not just a mental thing, it’s also a body thing.
Some common experiences are: feeling a pit in your stomach or a sick feeling in your gut. A tightness across the chest or a burdening weight on the shoulders. Or sometimes it’s just a feeling of anger, resentment, worry, sadness etc.
(By the way, if you can’t feel anything or it’s not very intense that’s not uncommon. Most of us haven’t grown up in an environment where the stuff that happens in the body is fully acknowledged. We tend to be praised more for being stoic and shutting down feelings than for developing emotional intelligence and working through things).
So trying to resolve that body/emotional component (which science shows is the major part of why we act the way we do) often requires more than willpower. You can't change your emotions just by snapping your fingers. There's more to it than that. That's why it's so hard to overcome. Your conscious thoughts and intentions are incredibly powerful, but your emotions and subconscious mind are far greater. That’s why a mind-body based approach is often much more effective for this kind of situation.
To genuinely resolve a negative past experience without bullshitting yourself and saying that you’re “over it” and that it’s “no big deal” when it ACTUALLY DOES FEEL LIKE A BIG DEAL AND YOU’RE NOT OVER IT AT ALL AND YOU CAN'T FOCUS BECAUSE OF IT!!! You need to access that change through a different doorway.
There are some relatively structured processes you can use to access that other doorway, the doorway into the subconscious, into the body.
One of these tools that you can use to get significant results is called “Tapping”. If you’ve never heard of it before, you can learn the basics below. If you’re already familiar with it, feel free to jump to the next section in this blog where you’ll get some tapping prompts and ideas.
“Tapping” (EFT) is a scientifically proven, mind-body connection method. It allows you to rapidly reduce the emotional intensity to situations in your life. Science shows that when you reduce that intensity, you are more intelligent, resourceful and resilient amongst many other things. You’re better able to see problems from new perspectives and take more efficient action.
While knowing what to do is powerful, we can often have resistance to doing the things we know. With Tapping you can reduce and sometimes completely eliminate that resistance. This isn’t just a mental hack, this is something that has profound effects at the level of your nervous system, your biology, and your subconscious mind.
Tapping involves lightly tapping on acupressure points on your body while focusing on a specific problem. This physical action of tapping sends a calming signal to your brain and body. The result is that the problem that once caused you distress, now has little or no power over you. In other words, you’re removing what’s in the way rather than using more force.
Remember to take responsibility for your own wellbeing when using this.
Tapping: how to do the basics
1) Identify a specific negative experience (past, present or future) to work on. This can be the thing that is preventing you from focusing, that you keep ruminating on.
2) See if you can feel any emotion or physical sensation when you focus on this. (eg: feeling stressed, angry, tightness in your chest, pit in your stomach etc). Identify the level of intensity for you right now on a 0-10 scale (0 being no intensity, 10 being maximum intensity).
3) Tap the side of hand point continuously while saying the following 3 times:
“Even though_____________(insert problem), I deeply and completely accept myself”.
eg: “Even though I’m stressed by this project, I deeply and completely accept myself”.
(Note: If the last part of this statement feels off, you can try using “I accept I’m feeling this” or “I’m OK right now”).
4) Gently tap the 8 points about 7 times each with your fingertips while repeating a brief phrase at each point, that reminds you of the problem. eg: “feeling stressed”, “this project”.
5) Test to see if there has been any change on the 0-10 scale of intensity or a change in emotion/physical sensation.
6) Repeat until intensity is 0, adjusting statements to reflect any changes you experience.
keep in mind that these are just the basics of one method. You may either need more knowledge or the guidance of a trained practitioner to get the results you want.
You will get the best results with Tapping when you focus on your specific situation and use your own words to accurately describe it. However, having some prompts can be helpful to get you started. I encourage you to use the following as starting points rather than strict rules to follow. Use what resonates with you and discard what doesn't:
Even though I keep thinking about_____________(voice what you can’t get over), I deeply and completely accept myself.
Even though I feel_____________(voice any feeling or sensation in your body eg: “anger” or “a tightness across my chest”) about it, I deeply and completely accept myself.
Even though I just can’t get past it no matter how hard I try, it simply won’t go away, I deeply and completely accept myself.
Even though the main detail that gets to me is_____________(voice a specific detail that is most persistent. eg: “the way he looked at me”, “when she said…”, “the fact that…”), I deeply and completely accept myself
Even though what should have happened is_____________(voice how things should have gone. eg: “I should have been able to give that speech without stumbling on my words”), I deeply and completely accept myself.
I encourage you to let yourself be petty throughout this process. Sometimes it's the little things that really get to us. And sometimes the little things are really just covering up big things. Using Tapping allows you to remove each layer so that you can see what is really bothering you.
We also live in a world that can be cold and hard at times. Maybe the reason something is getting to you is because you haven't had a proper sleep for a long time because you're always working to be able to pay rent or because you're so stressed you can never fall asleep. There are no easy answers to this, but having some compassion for ourselves and others can be a useful soothing and often healing balm to carry with us.
The EFT manual by Dawson Church
When the body says no: the cost of hidden stress by Gabor Maté
Biology and the future of psychoanalysis: A new intellectual framework for psychiatry revisited by Eric Kandel
The biology of belief: Unleashing the power of consciousness, matter and miracles by Bruce Lipton
Cover Photo by redcharlie on Unsplash
Side of hand photo adapted from Andrik Langfield on Unsplash
Tapping points photo adapted from Albert Dera on Unsplash