- Mindfulness can redirect your thinking away from habitual stories and the default mode network.
- Research shows that you can volitionally switch attention to reduce negativity.
- By grounding in the here and now, you can get present and feel safer.
Do you have a negative soundtrack that plays over and over in your head? It's not uncommon.
For example, I once worked with a client who in the first session kept interrupting me while I tried to get basic background information.
"My father, he abused me, he mistreated me," she repeated time and again.
Finally, I asked her a question designed to shift her attention away from her brain's history channel and towards a more present-oriented task.
"I'm curious," I asked, leaning forward. "Have you ever tried to count how many times you tell yourself that story in a day?"
My patient's jaw dropped as she raised her hand to her chin.
"It's funny you ask that because I have tried to count it. But I always lose track," she said, her head drooping slightly. Her eyes momentarily brightened when she added, "But I've noticed that I'm a lot happier when I don't tell that story."
That is a classic example of someone being stuck in what neuroscientists refer to as the brain's default mode network or DMN. If you're not occupied with a task or focusing on something, it's very common for the mind to wander off to the DMN.
This network, by the way, is mostly self-referential and concerned with things related to our own story and narrative. This is the ego's identity and what I like to think of as the story of "I," "Me," "My," and "Mine."
Stories from our personal "history channel" are often hard-wired because we've told them and rehearsed them so frequently. It's like getting your car tires stuck in a rut and the more you spin the tires, the deeper they dig the rut.
Fortunately, research has shown that the DMN can be altered by using mindfulness to shift attention from mind-wandering to present-moment awareness. A study with veterans showed how patients with post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms were taught how to use mindfulness to turn on a different brain network—the present-moment "salience network." The result was that these veterans learned to shift attention away from depressing and anxious mental states to the present moment—where they felt safer and more at ease.
There are several ways to change your history channel. What you need to do is use mindfulness like a remote control to shift you into the present moment, through tasks or sense awareness. My new book, Simply Mindful Resilience, contains several detailed methods for changing the history channel.
Here is an excerpt from Simply Mindful Resilience. As you go through this practice, remember this one thing: you control the remote.
Change the History Channel Practice
- Keep track of the number of times you go to the old channel in a day. Do this without blaming yourself. The purpose of keeping track to to help you begin to recognize when you've gone to the history channel.
- Every time you notice the old channel, interrupt it by stating the following words (mentally or aloud) to yourself: "It's not me. It's just the old channel playing." In this way, you reframe what is happening.
- Next, turn your attention away from the channel by taking a deep in-breath. Then, exhale slowly while stretching your arms or hands out in front of you. You might even imagine holding a remote control in one hand as you press the button on the remote.
- Now, say the words to yourself, "I am switching to the present-moment channel." Finish changing the channel by very closely noticing your surroundings, seeing a favorite color, hearing sounds, and feeling your feet on the ground—as well as your outstretched arms.
- Lastly, finish by saying (mentally or aloud) to yourself: "I have now successfully changed the channel to the present moment channel." You can even name the channel with the call letters of your creation, such as K-NOW or W-NOW.
- After you've tuned into the present moment channel, see how many new things you can notice and enjoy. Repeat the above steps as often as needed, regardless of how often the old channel keeps popping up.
Changing your history channel takes time, so enjoy the process. You might try different ways of accessing the present moment channel, such as taking a walk, spending time in nature, walking the dog (they're usually in the present moment channel), trying a favorite hobby, or having a chat or lunch with a friend.