I’m driving into work. As the traffic slows approaching a junction, a car pulls suddenly into my lane in front of me, requiring me to slam on my brakes to avoid hitting it. I blast the car horn. The young driver and his friend make rude signs with their hands and screech away laughing.
Halfway through the work day I am still running this scenario through my mind and thinking of all the ways in which I might have liked to respond. Might still like to respond if given the opportunity.
The incident itself was undoubtedly unpleasant and difficult for me. Despite having done nothing wrong I was put in danger by the insensitive driving style of another driver, only to suffer what felt like a further injustice when they reacted as they did. I could not have done much to change my automatic reactions at the time of fear, anger and a sense of injustice. Yet the incident happened once. In the hours that followed, I have recreated this same incident in my mind many more times, each time reconnecting with the original feelings. If, by lunchtime I am feeling tense, angry, frustrated and violated, who can I hold responsible for this? The young driver with the insensitive driving style? Or my own mind, which has replayed this difficult situation again and again, in glorious technicolour and with added commentary all through the morning?
It’s interesting to note that one feature of the human mind is that it does not always make a distinction between what is happening in real time and memories that we are replaying. A memory can trigger the same emotions and responses as if we were actually going through that same situation again. So as I run through this situation in my mind over and over, I am subjecting myself to the same anger, fear and sense of unfairness that were triggered by the events at the beginning of the day. Does this do me any good? No, it doesn’t.
It is easy to become caught in patterns like this. The feelings that are generated are highly threatening, and demand a response. Unless we actively choose otherwise, our minds will turn to automatic pilot running and re-running the memory in problem-solving mode until we find an acceptable solution. Except of course in this, as in many situations, we are not going to find an acceptable solution. Which means that the urge to re-run the events in our mind is not going to be naturally switched off any time soon. Which means that the feelings of fear, anger and having been treated unfairly will remain pretty strong and probably influence our other interactions during the day.
Even if I recognise that my thoughts are not helping me, it can be tricky to stop.
One thing that won’t help is to give myself a hard time and tell myself to stop thinking like this. Fighting against how we think or feel is almost always counterproductive.
So how can I stop it? How can I help myself to cope when things like this happen? It’s not easy, but mindfulness training does give us some helpful possibilities.
I might tell myself that there is something more important I want to focus on right now. Then, whenever I notice that my mind has started to drift away from what I now want to focus on, I can simply gently guide my attention back to where I want it to be.
I might recognise that it is hard for me to feel the way that I do. Since when things are hard we all need to be able to connect with kindness to help us through, I might try to be kind to myself in some small way, maybe with calming self-talk, some relaxed breathing or a small treat.
I might take a little time to focus in on the body and gently pay attention to the physical feelings that come with the sense of anger and frustration. By dropping the storyline and focusing in on my tight chest and clenched jaw I can more helpfully direct my attention towards looking after myself in the moment rather than pulling myself with thinking back into the past.
With practice I notice sooner when I am being pulled into unhelpful patterns of responding in my mind after difficult experiences. I am beginning to sometimes make wiser choices which can help me to move forward in my life. And even when I haven’t made these wise choices for some time, I am learning to bring kindness to the experience and just do the best I can.