As a child, and much into my adulthood, I spent countless hours worrying about things that I could not change, things that I had no control over, and often things in the future that never even happened. This created a lot of suffering for me — often unnecessary suffering — that I had difficulty finding a way out of.
We all can get caught in this kind of mental “time traveling.” This is part of our human conditioning, and one of the places our mind defaults to when we have down time. We ruminate about the past. We worry about the future. We get caught in self-referential thoughts such as “how is this going to affect me?” and “what are they going to think about me?” These kinds of thoughts pull us away from the present moment, and often, they can spiral us into negativity, fear or overwhelm.
But what I have learned through mindfulness practice is that as I become aware that I am time traveling, these kinds of thoughts often loosen their grip. They just become thoughts — mental constructs — not absolute truth. And from this place of awareness there is more space to intentionally choose where I want to rest my attention, rather than getting pulled away automatically to places far and away.
Sometimes we might simply choose to rest our attention on being more compassionate with ourselves, holding ourselves gently while letting go of replaying the story we are spinning in our heads.
This mindful awareness is a skill that we can practice, and we can teach children how to do this too. Here are some suggestions for how to help the children in your life (or the inner child within you) with their worries.
1. Talk to children about “noticing when you are taking a ride in the time travel machine.”
This machine likes to take us to far away places in our mind, to situations that either happened in the past, or imagined situations that might happen in the future. You might be replaying something over and over in your mind that happened yesterday, or last week (or longer) (i.e., “I’m worried that I hurt Sam’s feelings when I said that thing to him yesterday and he won’t like me anymore”).
You might also be imagining something in the future (i.e., “I’m worried that I won’t do well on this test” or “I’m worried that I won’t know anyone at this party and I’ll feel stupid”). When you have those thoughts, notice that you have stepped into the time travel machine.
2. Once you notice that you are in the time travel machine, remind yourself that you can’t change the past or fix something that hasn’t happened yet.
You can only influence what is happening now, and this is really the only moment you can live from. So step out of the time travel machine and look around right now and notice what is happening.
One way to do this is to bring your attention into your body. Notice what is happening in your body. Are you aware of places that might feel tight or tense? Is there warmth or coolness, pressure, heaviness, tingling, perhaps rumbling in your stomach, or something else? Be curious about what this feels like in your body. You don’t have to make it go away. Be friendly to these sensations and know they are just signals your body is giving you.
You might also bring your attention to your five senses. This is a great way to reconnect with the present. Notice what you are seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting or touching right now.
3. Notice your worry thoughts without being caught inside your worry thoughts.
Imagine your worry thoughts are like ships floating down a river, or trains going in and out of a train station — or planes taking off and landing at the airport (or some other image that might come to mind). When you are being caught inside your worries, it is as if you are being pulled away by every ship or plane or train that passes by. When you are noticing your worries with mindful attention, it is like you are standing on the bank of the river and watching the ships float by, or standing in the airport terminal watching the planes land and take off, or standing in the train station observing the trains as they come and go, without hopping on board.
You can learn how to watch your worries by practicing focusing your attention on your breath. Your breath is like a home base, like the airport or train station or riverbank. It helps to anchor you in the present moment.
As you focus on each breath coming in and going out, you will likely notice that your mind starts to fill with thoughts that will want to pull you away. Some of those might be worry thoughts, or perhaps other thoughts, such as “I have to remember to ask mom to buy snacks for me” or “am I doing this right?” or “this is boring.” It is normal to have a constant stream of thoughts. Just notice them, and keep bringing your attention back to your home base, to feeling the sensation of the breath as it comes in and as it flows out of your body. Watch the planes or trains or ships as they come and go.
4. Be kind to yourself.
Name how you are feeling. Are you scared, worried, frustrated, agitated, … or something else? Imagine that the worried part of you is like a very young child or a scared pet, and that you might put an arm around it, or offer it comfort in some way.
You might also picture someone (real or imagined) or something (like a pet or a special place in nature) that is a source of support, comfort, or strength for you. You might sense that you are not alone but are held in the loving presence of whatever brings you strength.
5. Finally, ask yourself: is there anything I can do right now to improve my situation or the thing that I am worried about?
Make a list of any things you can think of. If you are worried that you hurt someone’s feelings the other day, you might apologize to them, or sit next to them at lunch and be extra kind to them. If you are worried about a test coming up, you can make a study guide, set aside some time over the next three days to study, plan to review the material with friends, or seek extra help from your teacher. If you are worried about feeling alone at a party, you might reach out to a friend to see if you might go together, or rehearse how you might go up to others and initiate conversations.
Practicing stepping out of your time travel machine may not make your worries disappear, but it will help you to relate to them differently and find greater ease in your day.