Q is for Quicksand
“Let us not remain anchored in the quicksand of a waning past, and lose the war on obliviousness, but let us listen to the bracing sounds of new horizons, grasp the enchantment of the fleeting instants and seize the cleverness of the moment. (Could time be patient?)” Erik Pevernagie
Quicksand is a natural phenomenon - solid material that has been liquefied because of saturation by water. When in this semi-liquid state, the sand shifts easily hence the ‘quick’ in quicksand. Quicksand is usually sand or another type of grainy soil. When water in the sand cannot escape, it creates a liquefied soil that loses strength and cannot support weight; it yields easily to pressure and therefore sucks in anything resting on or falling into it. If we are stuck in quicksand, the more we fight it, the more stuck we feel, the faster we sink and we risk being pulled down deeper and deeper.
Most of us can relate to this sinking feeling at some time or another; we can become snared in a downward spiral, trapped by our thoughts, the more we think, the more we focus on the negative and perhaps recall similar scenarios. We then start talking to ourselves using descriptors about life where ‘nothing’ ‘ever’ goes right and ‘everything’ ‘always’ goes wrong and there is ‘nothing’ that we can do about it.
But we can always do something, even if it is ‘just’ changing our attitude.
"Feelings are something you have; not something you are." Shannon L. Alder
We are not our thoughts, we have all sorts of thoughts and this is natural and normal. We create our lives with the thoughts which are persistent and to which we give the most attention.
“As a single footstep will not make a path on the earth, so a single thought will not make a pathway on the mind. To make a deep physical path, we walk again and again. To make a deep mental path, we must think over and over the kind of thoughts we wish to dominate our lives” Henry David Thoreau
Our emotions aren’t the problem; what becomes a problem is how we react to our thoughts and our emotions, the way we respond and the coping strategies that we choose apply.
The quicksand trap metaphor is a metaphor for any situation, where if we continue in the same vein, it makes things worse not better. With quicksand, you don't sink unless you struggle and if you stop struggling you float. In life we don’t sink by experience a worrying thought or ‘unhelpful’ emotion, we deteriorate when we give our idle thoughts time and attention or try to avoid or resist or suppress things thereby feeding our anxiety.
We need awareness and to acknowledge how we are feeling but the goal is not to get rid of or avoid anxiety but rather to develop the skills and ability to recover ourselves quickly and easily i.e. to become resilient e.g. by looking at things from a different perspective, taking responsibility where applicable and re-framing our thoughts through practices like defusion. We can’t choose our natural emotions, but we can choose our responses and how we work through our experiences. We all have the potential to change our responses because resilience is a skill-set that can be trained and developed.
So how can we change our responses?
Learn to acknowledge and tolerate experiences rather than always seeking to avoid those experiences that we have no control over.
“That’s what life is all about. The obvious. The minute we start layering it with shades of grey, we start getting caught in quicksand.” Cristiane Serruya
Pare down a situation to the essential facts, strip away the ‘what ifs?’ ‘should haves’ etc
“Let your past be your spring-board, not your quicksand.” Steve Maraboli,
Let go of past baggage and focus on the present, the here and now.
“Meditation takes you out of your mind and possibly into the future, negative thoughts are quicksands that keeps you glued to your past.” Michael Bassey Johnson,
“The breath is the interface between the mind and the body. It is affected by and in turn can affect both the physical body and our mental state” Dan Peppiat
Concentrating on our breath. In quicksand, keeping our lungs filled with air would help to keep us buoyant and to keep us afloat. In the case of difficult feelings, breathing techniques can keep panic from weighing us down. Effective breathing can reduce stress levels and increase our sense of calm. When we become stressed or anxious, our brain releases the stress hormone ‘cortisol’, but when we take deep breaths our heart rate slows, more oxygen enters our blood stream and this ultimately sends a message to our brain to relax and this helps to lower our blood pressure.
“When your world moves too fast and you lose yourself in the chaos,
introduce yourself to each colour of the sunset.
Reacquaint yourself with the earth beneath your feet.
Thank the air that surrounds you with every breath you take.
Find yourself in the appreciation of life.” Christy Ann Martine
“Your emotions are meant to fluctuate, just like your blood pressure is meant to fluctuate. It’s a system that is supposed to move back and forth, between happy and unhappy. That’s how the system guides you through the world.” Daniel Gilbert
Remembering that the feelings we are experiencing are temporary states and will not last forever.
“You don’t have to control your thoughts, you just have to stop them controlling you”
Avoid negative thinking, it is like thrashing and kicking in quicksand, it only makes things worse. There is nothing wrong with acknowledging a difficult moment but using a temporary, transient state to predict a negative future is not helpful. We need to reframe our thoughts
E.g. “I’ll never be happy again” v “ I am really hurting right now and finding things difficult, but I’ll get through this”.
Once we have seen our meandering thoughts for what they are, the next step is to decide which to respond to and which to ignore.
“Inquiry appears to be a process of thinking, but actually it's a way to undo thinking. Thoughts lose their power over us when we realize that they simply appear in the mind. They're not personal. Through The Work, instead of escaping or suppressing our thoughts, we learn to meet them with unconditional love and understanding.” Byron Katie
The mind is a powerful tool and it can either help or hinder us. It is the key to flourishing and living an optimum life.
“The mind is a powerful force. It can enslave us or empower us. It can plunge us into the depths of misery or take us to the heights of ecstasy. Learn to use the power wisely.”
Cognitive defusion involves creating space between ourselves and our thoughts/ feelings so that they have less of a hold over us and we are not ‘fused’ or ‘entangled’ and don’t blindly accept them as reality.
“Defusion is relating to your thoughts in a new way, so they have much less impact and influence over you. As you learn to defuse painful and unpleasant thoughts, they will lose their ability to frighten, disturb, worry, stress or depress you. And as you learn to defuse unhelpful thoughts, such as self-limiting beliefs and harsh self-criticisms, they will have much less influence over your behaviour.” Russ Harris
By creating space it enables us to realise that just because we think something it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s true; thoughts and feelings are just ‘stories’ or narratives we are telling ourselves. Furthermore, these stories are not orders and we don’t need to react immediately or automatically follow their suggestions, we can take time to consider whether they may or may not be important or helpful.
Defusion is the antidote to fusion and its aim is to enable us to face a thought and see it for what it is, so we can make an informed decision as to whether we are going to give it any more of our time and energy. We can ask ourselves whether these thoughts are helping us towards living a rich, meaningful life of value or are they causing us needless pain and suffering?
Once we have been able to acknowledge that our state is not permanent and have used mindfulness and breath-work to re-centre ourselves, we are in a better position for the next step. Just like real quicksand, we cannot think ourselves out of a situation, we need to assess our situation honestly and realistically, look at things from different perspectives and then take deliberately determined action and make conscious choices to take the first step in the right direction, reaching out for support when we need it, focusing our attention on what we can change instead of wasting our energy on things out of our control.
“At a certain point, we have to stop ‘play time,’ start ‘construction time’ and get things going, instead of getting mired down in the quicksand of wishful thinking, clutching desperately to imaginary ‘dei ex machina.’ (" Swim or sink")” Erik Pevernagie