Why is it so difficult to invoke mindfulness practices when we most need them? That's the question a friend of mine posed to me after acting reflexively and anxiously in a highly stressful situation, even whilst aware of the option of a more mindful response.
I could easily relate to this example because I find it very difficult despite years of trying to be mindful in these situations.
In the heat of the moment, our instincts are to act. And, If it's a particularly stressful situation, then our fight or flight response is in control, and then it's even harder to put the brakes on.
We're feeling the pain, and our brains drive us to take action. Once things have calmed down, we can often see that we don't need an action plan or even action; we just need to calm down and take a step back to think more clearly.
But I've often found that telling myself to calm down or some other nudge doesn't work in those moments.
That's because it's just another story. Our brains will always choose the anxiety and perceived threat of danger as more critical to action. It's fight or flight time, not story-time.
So, what's the answer?
What I try to do in those moments is prove to myself that I'm OK. That I am cared for. I focus on my breath, initially for three breaths. If there are too many distracting thoughts, I repeat the exercise for another three breaths.
The first time you try this in the heat of the moment, it will be hard. Trust me, over time, it gets easier. Slow in-breath, slow out-breath - and try to focus on nothing else.
This method works because we return to a more truthful present moment. One that's not about what might happen in the future. Or what we could have done in the past to prevent from being here in the first place.
It doesn't matter how we got here; we are here.
It's incredible how practising 10 seconds of self-care is more effective than almost anything else.
And whilst the breath is a good home-base to turn to in such times, use whatever works for you.
What do you think you would find comforting in the most stressful times? Maybe it's a photo of a loved one, or a favourite sight, sound or smell that does the trick?