4 Core Mind Habits Helped by Mindfulness

04/09/2015 10:46 am ET | Updated Jun 09, 2015

What is your Mind Habit?

Habits become autopilot when they are 1) in some way rewarding (increase pleasure or decrease pain) and 2) practiced repeatedly. There are four typical habits, which become apparent when we practice mindfulness. Can you identify your Mind Habits?

Knowing our particular mind habits helps us to monitor when we have moved from productive and helpful aspects, to the annoying and counter productive. Here is a brief description of each, and a skill to counter and redirect to the present moment.

1. Future Tripping. This is the one I relate to most strongly. It's like my mind is a small child, bouncing up and down on the back seat of my vehicle, shouting, "What's next? What's next!?" This can be rewarding because it often leads to me initiating new projects and getting things done. This is my auto-pilot mode. But, as with all mind habits, if future tripping is not kept in check, it can lead to trouble. When we future trip, it is usually about some "possibility." But just as the nervous energy can lead to productivity, it can also lead to anxiety, frustration, and (as in my case) pushing too hard. This mind habit is most commonly associated with symptoms of hypo-mania, anxiety and worry.

The Remedy: Slow Down! If future tripping is your auto-pilot mode, it is critical that you notice when excitement is morphing into frustration and irritability and then actively choose to slow down. Paced breathing is a good skill to use here. When you find your mind racing and pressure building, STOP, and pace your deep belly breaths counting to three on the in breath, counting to five on the out breath.

2. Past Tripping is like a claw from another time that can jump up and grab us. This habit is related to thoughts of regret, "if only," and "why me?" As you might imagine, this is the mind habit most often associated with past traumas and depression. Small reminders and triggers can easily activate old mind scripts, which activate the same old feelings and emotions. The mind repeatedly travels back in time, as if it can solve the problem from long ago (which of course it cannot). Chewing on old hurts can become a habit too. The rewarding properties are less obvious. But it is a bit like biting down on an aching tooth. The strong pain in some ways feels better than the dull ache. But this mind habit is almost guaranteed to hold you in a depressed mood. The practice of this ruminative thinking becomes the autopilot habit, which must be actively worked against.

The Remedy: Catch the Mind Wandering -- Redirect. If this is your default mode, it is essential that you notice it ASAP and then redirect your attention to the here and now. This can be very difficult because it feels like you need to attend to these thoughts. Moving away from them feels a bit invalidating. Listening to sounds around you is an excellent way to get out of your head and back into the moment.


3. Judging: Can be particularly enticing and reinforcing. This auto-pilot mode of thinking gives us a small boost to how we feel about ourselves compared to the target of our judgments. Judging is related to a sense of righteous indignation. But the all mighty "shoulding" can be toxic. Our opinions of how things should be, lead to beliefs of what is fair and unfair and holds us stuck in irritability, anger, and hostility (or passive aggressiveness). When practiced over time, we no longer see our opinions as just that, our opinions, and not facts. We become grumpy because the world is not accommodating our view of how things should be.

The Remedy: Compassionate Reframing. It is important to actively work against this mind habit by taking the other person's perspective. When you catch yourself judging, ask yourself, "What is being left out?" and "What might be a kinder interpretation of this person's behavior?" Then actively practice Loving Kindness by wishing the person well.

4. Spacing out, checking out, distracting, daydreaming. This one is particularly elusive and insidious. It is reinforced through negative reinforcement. This means that it reduces discomfort. The mind wanders off when faced with uncomfortable thoughts and feelings. This auto-pilot mode can appear like an attention deficit or Narcissism. When this becomes our default, we can also see difficulties in our interpersonal relations, because others take it personally when our mind wanders off at crucial moments.

The Remedy: Holding attention in physical sensations. Because this auto-pilot habit is so elusive, it can be very difficult to even recognize that it is happening. It just feels like we are thinking about something, but don't recognize the drift. Anchoring attention in the soles of the feet, or the sensation of our bottoms in the chair can help stabilize the mind drift. This will help you to stay present to the moment, and possibly preserve your relationships!