How to Live in the Present Moment
You’ve probably heard the AA aphorism, “One day at a time.” The idea is that thinking about staying sober for the rest of your life is too much to think about. It’s too overwhelming. You get caught up in thinking “What if this or that happens?” “How am I going to stay sober for the rest of my life?” and so on. “One day at a time” is a mantra that has helped many people through hard days.
Sometimes “One day at a time” becomes “one hour at a time” or even “one minute at a time.” That’s fine. In fact, the more you narrow that time horizon, the closer you come to that classic dictum of happiness, “Live in the present moment.” This is good advice for anyone, but especially anyone with a substance use issue. Ruminating about past mistakes or worrying about possible problems are typical features of major depression and anxiety disorders, respectively. Living in the present spares you from having to carry the weight of the past and future but it can be hard to do. The following tips can make living in the present easier.
Focus on the Process
For many people, the biggest obstacle to living in the present is that we feel the need to plan for possible problems. This is especially true of people who tend to be anxious. Prying your attention from your worries feels a bit like taking your eyes off the road when you’re driving.
To overcome this resistance, focus on the process rather than the end result. Living in the present doesn’t mean you give up on the idea of progress but rather understanding that progress can only happen if you act on the present. So, for example, you can be engaged in writing down some recovery goals and some steps to get there. You’re planning for the future, but you’re actively engaged in that particular activity.
Write Things Down
One reason we often don’t live in the present is that we have something we feel is important that we have to remember. Maybe you have a meeting after lunch or you’re supposed to call your mom, or you have a great idea for your friend’s birthday present, and so on. If you have to devote mental energy to remembering those things, they will take away your focus.
Instead, just write them down. If it’s an appointment, writing it down on a calendar or planner is always a good idea, but just writing a reminder on a sticky note is usually enough to get it off your mind.
Practice Mindfulness Meditation
Mindfulness meditation simply means setting aside a certain amount of time every day to deliberately practice being in the present moment. It could be as little as five minutes or it could be as long as you want. The exercise is about accepting whatever you experience in the moment without judgment and without your mind wandering off to the past or future.
Your mind will inevitably wander off, especially at first. When this happens, just notice that it happened. Just noticing brings you back to the present because you become aware of what your mind is doing.
Use a Grounding Technique
A grounding technique is when you deliberately notice sensations in order to ground yourself in the present. You can do this as part of mindfulness meditation or just any time during the day when you find yourself preoccupied with worries or otherwise unable to concentrate. A common grounding technique is the 5-4-3-2-1 technique. You notice five things you can see, four things you can touch, three things you can hear, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste.
This engages all of your senses and the mild complexity of the task keeps you cognitively engaged. However, you don’t have to go through this whole exercise to ground yourself. You can engage with any sensation. For example, you might notice the sensations in just your feet or you might notice the sensations of your breathing.
Forget About the Clock
Anyone who has ever had a job knows that the last 10 or 15 minutes of the workday are the longest. When you’re busy, you forget about time and focus on what you’re doing. When you start looking at the clock, you get restless. Time creeps by. You wish it were 20 minutes in the future and you were on your way home.
The same thing happens any time you’re too focused on the time. Part of your brain is always pulling you away from your task at hand to check the time. Try forgetting about the clock. If you have to do something at a certain time and you’re afraid you’ll get carried away and miss it, set an alarm.
Accept Your Emotions
Another major challenge to staying present is when the present feels pretty bad. Either you’re in physical pain or discomfort or you are experiencing challenging emotions. It’s normal to want to escape that situation, even if you’re just imagining how nice it would be if you didn’t feel so miserable.
Ironically, pushing away negative feelings only makes them stronger. The purpose of pain is to let you know that something is wrong. If you try to ignore it, it keeps tapping you on the shoulder. However, if you accept your discomfort and can be present with it without judgment, it typically becomes more tolerable.
This is especially important for anyone recovering from a substance use disorder because drugs and alcohol often serve as an avoidance mechanism. If you can look challenging emotions straight in the face and accept them for what they are, they have less control over you.
Living in the moment improves the quality of your recovery and your life in many ways. You’re more engaged in what you’re doing and you’re less bothered by rumination and worry when you live in the present. However, it does take practice. Focusing on the process rather than the outcome you want, practicing mindfulness, and periodically grounding yourself through your senses are great ways to spend more time living in the present.
At The Foundry, we know that recovery from addiction is about treating the whole person. That’s why we incorporate mindfulness meditation and trauma-informed yoga into our treatment program, along with evidence-based therapeutic methods and positive lifestyle changes. For more information, call us at 844-955-1066.