When I was a student psychotherapist I had an epiphany moment when I thought I had found a cure for anxiety. I must stress that I am not generally prone to grandiosity and, of course, it wasn’t long before I discovered than my insights had all been seen before. The epiphany was borne of a moment of striking personal insight that could only have been seen as revelatory to a person used to living with an anxious mind.
I was walking down Whitechapel Road in the East End of London with my mind churning about something I was worried about. Eventually, I realised that I needed to calm down. I instinctively took a deep sigh breath and I looked up. And there, right in front of me was The East London Mosque. How had I not seen it? It is a very large, visually striking building and I had almost walked right past it. I hadn’t seen it because my visual attention had been locked into my thoughts. My eyes had been focused on my anxiety, not on what was actually in front of my face.
Here was my epiphany.
In that moment I understood one way to quieten an anxious mind, a step towards developing peace of mind, a way to connect with the wider mind of spirituality. You take a deep breath and you turn your attention outside of yourself…to the external world…..to the present moment.
Now, this might be blindingly obvious to many of you, but, to me, someone who had spent, to this point, most of her life lost either in a book or in my own thoughts, it was an absolute revelation.
The theme of this year’s World Mental Health Day is psychological first aid. For me, the ability to shift my attention from inside of my mind to the outside world is my ‘go to’ medicine in my mental health first aid cabinet. I call it my ‘Stop, Look’ procedure when teaching it to clients. If you find that your mind is locked in anxious thoughts, make the choice to stop, take a long breath, breathing in for a count of 3 and out for a count of 5, then turn your attention to your external environment. Name everything you can see, hear, smell, touch, in the simplest term; ‘I can see a desk, I can hear the traffic, I can smell my perfume, I can feel the key board under my fingers’. Alternatively, if the outside world is causing you distress, for example if you are on a busy tube train or with people you don’t like very much, turn your attention to your inside world. Attentional flexibility is essential first aid for anxious minds. Give it a go in honour of World Mental Health Day.