January 31, 2016

Developing A Healthy Relationship With Time

In reality, the only time something can actually happen is now, in the present moment. But those who struggle with sexual abuse trauma often spend a significant amount of time in either the past or the future in the attempt to flee from the present moment. It’s important to learn to live in the present, however, because the present gives us an opportunity to act.

Awareness and Choice

Can we choose to be a certain way regardless of what is happening in the outside environment?  Can we choose to act a certain way regardless of a hard experience from our past? The answer to these questions is a resounding “yes.” The real problem is that we haven’t fully grasped our amazing capacity to do this.

One of the greatest lessons of this concept comes from Viktor Frankl, author of the best-selling book, Man’s Search for Meaning, who was a prisoner of war during World War II.  Imagine having all of your freedoms and possessions stripped from you in an instant: your home, your possessions, and the relationships you hold dear in your heart all taken away. Regardless, Frankl taught, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way…between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

Finding this sacred space between stimulus and response requires increased awareness. The only way to find this place is to slow down and live more fully in the now. Most of us are missing some of the valuable lessons that life is trying to teach us because we are largely unaware of them.

To illustrate this more fully, consider this example:

You are in the grocery store walking down an aisle. Suddenly, you see an individual that reminds you of your abuser. It is likely that your brain sends a signal of immediate alarm that you are in danger. One part of your brain, the limbic system, cannot differentiate the past from the present and is just doing its job to warn you of a perceived danger. You feel yourself get nauseous and walk out of the store without finishing your shopping. You drive away distraught and frustrated that you cannot find peace.

Alternatively, you can be more aware of the present. As your limbic system screams out at you that you are in danger, you take a moment to be aware of the present. You acknowledge the feelings that the limbic system is having. Another part of your brain, the prefrontal cortex, makes a conscious decision that the individual you are seeing is not your abuser; you are not in danger. You refocus your thoughts and continue shopping. The result is you have accomplished some level of healing through awareness — living in the present. The perceived danger did not derail your day. You’ve successfully finished your shopping and left the grocery store empowered by your ability to choose your responses to normal triggers that will appear in day-to-day living.

Past, Present, and Future

If you think about it, the concept of time is what gives life meaning. Recently there has been a movement towards learning how to live more fully in what is called the “now.”  In reality “now” is only made possible because it is connected to a past and a future.

Learning to live in the present, or in other words, becoming aware of the here and now does not dismiss the importance of the past or the future, but it does put both in perspective. If neither the past nor the future existed then nothing would make sense in our lives because it wouldn’t be connected to anything to provide context and therefore it wouldn’t matter what we did in any given set of circumstances. There would be no consequences because there would not be a future to be concerned about.

All three components of time — the past, present, and future — are all necessary to understanding our experience. Learning to have a proper relationship with each of these components of time is what mental health is all about.

You have the opportunity to write your story going forward, moment by moment, as you become more conscious, more aware of the present, and choose to live in the now.