Top Tip #3 – Differentiating Past from Present

Top Tip #3: Differentiating Past from Present

 Top 10 Tips for Troubled Times: Self-care tools to build resiliency and regulation

This is the third of my Top 10 Tips for Troubled Times – a guide to help you build your own First Aid Kit for dealing with times of stress and getting out of overwhelm.  I’ve built this up over a long time and these are my go-to tools, that you can build into your daily routine, to help build resiliency and regulation

Tip#3 is so fundamental to shifting out of trauma, stress and overwhelm – that often it’s not even clearly and explicitly stated.  It’s almost taken as read. 

It’s all about differentiating the past from the present, the THEN & THERE from the HERE & NOW.

The importance of this can’t actually be overstated…

Top Tip #3 – is Differentiating Past from Present

This is all about the importance of connecting with ourselves – a felt sense of ourself, as well as sensory information from our external environment, in the HERE & NOW.

Why is this important?

  • Our survival brain doesn’t know the difference between past and present, it doesn’t really have that concept – it’s all about the immediate, the here and now.  If it FEELS like something is happening right now, then our survival brain will respond AS IF it really was happening right here and now.  Even if what is happening is that we are remembering what something felt like in the past
  • Any memories laid down when we are in extreme stress, or in a traumatic situation, or one which we perceive as life-threatening, are not actually stored as what we usually think of as memories – in that filing cabinet in our head, where we know where we were and can pinpoint it in time (EXPLICIT memories)
  • Instead, they are held as IMPLICIT memories – experiences and patterns held in the body, not cognitively filed away.  This is because in extreme stress, the links between our lower brain and our higher brain go down – so that we can respond instinctively, and fast, rather than weighing up information more slowly with our thinking brain
  • It is also the case for memories from when we were really young, before our brain developed the structures to store memories explicitly up-top in our cortex – these experiences also get stored IMPLICITLY in the body, rather than EXPLICITLY up-top
  • When we are triggered into overwhelm, and our bodies bring up difficult memories and imprints/patterns from the past – they really feel as if they are happening, right here and right now – the whole constellation that experience – of what it was like in the past – the emotions, internal sensations as well as even external sensory perceptions such as smells, noises etc, perhaps how things look/ images, as well as accompanying thoughts, beliefs and meanings, can all be brought up – lit up if you like, as if what was happening in the past is really happening again now
  • That’s what if FEELS like – and remember, the survival brain and body are dealing in sensation and movement not logic
  • So in order to find our way out of overwhelm – it is crucial to recognise that this is what is happening, that what we are feeling is coming up from the past – and take steps to connect with ourselves (our own body) and our external surroundings in the present day, rather than identifying completely with sensations and perceptions that coming up from the past.  If we don’t do this DIFFERENTIATION piece, then those body-based memories and patterns from the past, can really take over

(This is one big reason why we can find ourselves doing the same thing over and over again, even though we think we should know better from experience!)

Your Simple Practice – Differentiating Past from Present 

You can build this exercise in easily with the practices you already have from the first 2 Top Tips.  This is great add-on – to help build regulation and resiliency – and most definitely my number 1 go-to in times of stress and overwhelm!

And just like orienting to safety, you can do it whenever and wherever you are – nobody need know you are even doing it!

Here are the simple steps below – give it a go, and see what you notice!

  1. Eyes open/Orienting practice – Sensing safety (from Top Tip #2)

This let’s your survival brain know it is safe in the HERE & NOW.

  • Feel your feet – maybe wiggle your toes a little
  • Find your seat – or any other point of contact – feel support under your pelvis, behind back, any other points of contact with your body
  • Slowly look around the room, one side then the other – make sure the head is turning around the shoulders – ORIENT to your surroundings, notice where you are
  • Whilst orienting to what is around you, Say out loud (if possible, but you can also say it inside to yourself), something like:
    • “ I can see that right now, I am safe”
    • “Right now, I am OK.  Right here and now, I am safe”

Keep looking around slowly, keep engaging those orienting muscles and tissues in the neck, throat, face.  Keep looking around, slowly slowly.  Slow it right down.  

2.   Differentiation statements – place and time

As you look around, say (out loud if you can) the following statements that differentiate past from present:

  • “Today is {today’s date} and I am in {specific location, in specific place}”

Be really clear about where you are, who is with you if there are others around, when it is (date, even time) – name the specifics.  This helps you get oriented – and also clear about present time and present location!  Remember, your survival brain feels safe when it knows where you are…

3.  Differentiation practices – present day age, present day size

a) Try this, as you look around:  say out loud –

  • “ I am looking around with my {insert present day age} eyes”

So, “I am looking around with my 44 year old eyes / my 26 year old eyes /my 75 year old eyes…”

And this is the really important bit – really try to look with your adult, present day eyes.

What do you notice when you do that?  Do things look different?  Do you perceive things differently? Feel differently?

Because if you are getting hijacked completely by memories from the past, whether you know what they are or not, this important shift in internal state, which can happen when you shift your sense of visual perception  – the ‘eyes’ with which you are seeing – present day eyes, not nervous system patterns from the past – can really help you shift back into the present.

b) Bring your attention to your body, your felt sense of your own body, in the present moment

  • It can help to gently squeeze or touch your own body, especially arms and legs – this can be helpful to bring your attention back into your present day body
  • Really notice your height, notice the length of your legs and arms, really take in and feel your body in the present day
  • The Grounding Exercise from Top Tip #1, is an excellent one to combine in here – to really get clear that you are really here and now!

See works for you – and what you notice as you do this 🙂

Remember, it is good to practice this multiple times a day (I’d suggest 5 times a day to start with if you can manage that, 5 – 10 mins at a time), as well as whenever things feel challenging / unhelpful thoughts are coming in, or you are feeling overwhelmed

And importantly, stick at this until you notice something shift.

Because, we can’t actually change the past.  In the present, right here and now, is actually the only place we can make sense of the past, integrate challenging memories and experiences and find healing, resourcing and recovery.  

 Building Your Tips for Troubled Times – stay connected for more step by step tools to add to this fundamental one!

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