Can you enjoy quiet alone time?
In a recent study by Timothy Wilson and his colleagues at the University of Virginia and Harvard, researchers asked college students to sit in an unadorned alone, without books or phones, for 6-15 minutes. Far from finding piece, the participants found the experience miserable, especially when they were asked to sit quietly in the "comfort" of their own homes. The authors' wondered, is itching for distraction just a college/young adult issue? To find out, they recruited adults of all ages to sit alone for up to 15 minutes. When given the choice to either sit alone or receive mild electric shocks, 67 percent of men and 25 percent of women opted to receive electric shocks then sit with themselves!
We may dread alone time when we don't have a strategy to be with ourselves. Imagine I asked you to imagine slice a sour lemon in half and squeeze the lemon into your mouth. Can you almost experience the sensations you would when you taste a lemon? Thoughts create sensations and bring to the moment vivid events removed from the now.
Ruminating, or thinking negative thoughts in a circular way, like being stuck on the mental equivalent of a teacup ride at Disneyland, actually predicts depression and can lead to impulsive behaviors, we'll do anything, even shock ourselves, to escape. Similarly, worrying, or finding yourself in a pattern of fearful thoughts, can lead to debilitating anxiety and panic. Many people describe emotional pain as more distressing than physical pain.
True freedom lies in honing the ability to sit comfortably alone with yourself. The good news is that if you learn to train your mind, you can experience so much joy. Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison noticed that people who mediate, or hone focus, are happiest.
Here's how to reclaim your solitude:
1. See your thoughts
Often, we are in autopilot with our thoughts. We might be walking and thinking about an annoying email we received earlier. The first step to getting untangled from your mind is to take notice of where your mind wanders. If you're at a meeting and thinking you sound boring, instead of getting stuck in that thought, you can even notice, "I'm having the thought that I sound boring..." which takes the edge off a bit.
2. Rethink your thoughts
What do you make of your thoughts? Some of us take ourselves way to seriously and believe everything we think! Have there been times you thought something and it wasn't true? Thoughts are just mental events, they're not necessarily facts. Realizing that is the first step to freedom! I can't tell you the number of times my clients convince themselves that they will be alone forever or never find a job... When they can see that thought and notice that's just a mental experience that doesn't predict reality, they can take the actions they need to take to build a good life.
3. Try leaves on a stream
If you tend to hoard your thoughts and get stuck in mental loops, you might imagine putting thoughts on leaves and letting each thought go down a stream. For example, if you had the thought, "I can't sit with my thoughts!" you can notice the thought, put it on a leaf, and watch it move down a stream... this is so different from being directed by your thoughts and jumping to check your phone!
When a repetitive thought keeps coming back, you can try singing it to your favorite song. My client really thought he was a failure and we had him sing, "I'm a failure," to the tune of, "Do you believe in magic," and the next time that thought came up, it was funny rather than depressing. That thought doesn't show up much anymore.
5. Track your tech time
Take a few minutes to try to think about how much time your online. Again, running from yourself may not be moving you where you want to go. We are comically bad at knowing how we spend our time. A new app called Moment helps you track how much time your online.
6. Practice mindfulness
A lot of people assume they just can't focus or sit. Mindfulness, or learning to be present in the moment, structurally changes your brain. Like weight training, the more you practice the more able you are to sit with yourself. Researchers are beginning to think of learning to sit with yourself mindfully is preventive medicine for people prone to depression or anxiety.
7. Focus on what your grateful for
If you're mind tends to drift toward your mistakes or your disappointments, actively try to think about what you did well or what makes you feel grateful. If in quiet moments, you tend to ponder your faux pas, guide your mind toward what you did right today.