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Sensory Focus: Back from the Future

Woman mindfully present

Humans have an amazing ability to travel through time.  

The summer of 2020 will mark the 35th anniversary of the classic time-travel movie “Back to the Future”.  I loved watching Marty McFly and Doc Brown as they travelled between the past, present, and future in the DeLorean time machine.  But did you know that humans have always had the ability to time-travel, and we often do so unintentionally?  

Of course, I’m not talking about physical time-travel (sorry if I disappointed you); I’m referring to mental time-travel.  Our powerful brains have the ability to travel to the past through our memories, and travel to the future through anticipation of what might happen next.  This sophisticated ability to mentally time-travel is one of the things that sets us apart from other creatures on our planet, and has helped humanity thrive.

This mental time-travel also has an effect on our moods, both positive and negative.  

Pleasant memories from the past and looking forward to good things in the future, has a positive effect on our mood.  On the other hand, ruminating on negative memories can cause feelings such as sadness or regret, and is associated with depression; and focussing on future worries can trigger distress and anxiety.  Mental time-travel can even set off our body’s built-in alarm system and cause us to slip into a fight or flight response (see my previous blog post Anxiety: Fight, Flight, and False Alarms).  

As I write this blog in the midst of the COVID pandemic, many people are finding that mental time-travel is causing them some distress.

For example, we may find ourselves worrying about the future possibility that ourselves or our loved ones could become seriously ill, or imagining the state of our future finances because of the effect on our jobs and the economy, or wondering if we’ll experience future waves of this pandemic.  Our ability to time-travel into the future and imagine what could come next might not feel very helpful at the moment.

So how do you turn off the mental time-travel and return to the present moment?

I think we all know that it’s much easier said than done.  A mindfulness exercise, sometimes referred to as “Sensory Focus”, allows us to practice this skill.  Sensory Focus is the very simple act of tuning into your five senses one at a time.  As you notice sensory details you spend a few moments focussing on them and taking them in.  You can practice Sensory Focus (to some extent) any time or anywhere, but most people find it easier and more effective if they are in a pleasant environment, especially outdoors in natural surroundings.

My experience using Sensory Focus myself and with clients is that practicing it can “train” our brain to stay in the present, and we become less likely to engage in unhelpful mental time-travel. Sensory Focus is also a tool that can help when we are in the midst of difficult moments and feeling anxious, angry, or depressed.

To demonstrate, I’ll describe myself practicing Sensory Focus as I sit out on my deck with a cup of coffee, and you can follow along.

I usually like to combine Sensory Focus with diaphragmatic breathing, so after a few deep breaths, I start with my sense of sight.  I look around and I notice details - especially looking for things that are pleasing to the eye.  I notice the blue of the sky and focus on it for few moments.  I notice the cherry blossoms on the tree across the street.  I notice the gleam of the sun shining on a parked car.  

Then I take a couple more deep breaths before I move onto my sense of hearing.  I listen intently and notice the sounds going on around me; the sound of my daughter playing; a bird chirping in a nearby tree; the sound of my breath as I inhale and exhale.  

I take a couple more deep breaths, and then move on to my sense of touch.  I notice the sensations I experience through my skin.  The feeling of the chair underneath me.  The feeling of the slight breeze on my face and on my hands.  The warmth of the sun on my skin.  

Then a couple more deep breaths in through my nose, now focussing on my sense of smell at the same time.  I notice the fresh smell of spring in the air.  I think I catch a hint of the cherry blossoms across the street.  I bring my mug up to my nose and take in the aroma of my coffee.  

I take a couple more deep breaths, and then take a sip of the coffee, really savouring it and focussing on the flavour, even holding it on my tongue for a moment to really experience it’s rich taste.  I take another sip and savour it again.  I finish the exercise with a few more deep breaths, pulling them deep into my belly, and enjoying the sense of calm that I experience.

Sensory Focus is simple, but it’s not always easy.  

I didn’t mention in the above description that my mind tried to pull me away from the present moment multiple times and time-travel without my permission!  Suddenly I was thinking about some memory from the past, or I was thinking about something that’s coming up in the future.  For example, noticing the parked car reminded me that I needed to fill up my car with gas, which had me time-travelling to the gas station and wondering about exposure to the coronavirus.  

I can almost guarantee that your mind will wander as you experiment with Sensory Focus, but try not to get frustrated.  Remember that it’s perfectly normal to get distracted.  Just notice the thought, and maybe have a chuckle at how easily you can time-travel, and then go back to tuning into your senses.

I recommend that you set aside some time to practice Sensory Focus for at least a few minutes every day.  

I also encourage you to try Sensory Focus when you feel distressed, even for just a brief moment if that’s all that the situation allows. It’s also beneficial to try and tune into your senses at random times during the day as well.  Some great opportunities can be while you’re eating or drinking, going for a walk, taking a shower, or any other sensory-rich experience.  I hope that the more you practice tuning into your senses, the easier it will be for you to stay in the moment and avoid the mental time-travel that leads to ruminating about the past or worrying about the future.  

I would love to hear about your experiences with Sensory Focus. Feel free to email me at [email protected].  And if you are needing counselling support, especially during this difficult time of the COVID pandemic, Sojourn Counselling & Neurofeedback is currently accepting new clients for videoconference or telephone sessions.

0208589001587514122.jpgAbout the author: Eli Norman is a Registered Clinical Counsellor who works with individual adults, and couples from our office in North Vancouver and via videoconferencing.

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