Psychotherapist Sophie Papageorgis lives with pulmonary hypertension and is passionate about helping others with the condition. Here, she explains how being ‘present’ can make a difference to your mental health.

Click here to read about Sophie’s own experiences of PH.

“If you want to be happy, do not dwell in the past, do not worry about the future, focus on living fully in the present.” – Roy T. Bennett.

Understandably, our past experiences form a huge part of who we are today. And many of us (with or without pulmonary hypertension) have probably had some frightening experiences that at times make us question ourselves, others, and the things that have happened to us.

As humans, we naturally worry about what could happen and what could go wrong, doing a lot of stressing and wondering ‘what if?’ Life events can feel overwhelming at times, and it makes sense that we would be concerned or worry about them.

But what happens when we find ourselves dwelling on the past, or constantly worrying about what the future may hold? At those times when we find ourselves wishing that things could have been different, having regrets, or fearing what might be around the corner, it can become all too easy to suddenly realise that you’re not really living, more just existing.

To quote the American writer Mark Twain, “I’ve lived through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened”. We’re probably all guilty of stressing ourselves about what may go wrong, and it invariably doesn’t happen. Even if it does, worrying doesn’t change the outcome, but takes away the joy of living in the moment. Getting sucked into the past or future is exhausting. But what can we do about it?

Mindfulness is a big one. It is all about living in the moment; being aware of your surroundings, noticing and being aware of sensations, and just accepting them however they are and allowing them to ‘be’. It can take some practice to learn how to slow your mind down, and at first, it’s tricky when your brain wanders off. But you can learn to bring it back, stay with your breathing, and listen to what’s around you. Focus on things around you that attract your attention, like a pretty flower or lovely birdsong – things that make you feel gratitude or appreciative. You can even try things like mindful walking, mindful eating, even mindfully brushing your teeth! It’s all part of staying present in the here-and-now, slowing your mind, and ultimately improving your wellbeing.

Breathing exercises can be beneficial. I can feel a bit of a twinge writing this as I know that breathing exercises can be a bit hit and miss when you have a lung condition! I use mindfulness apps on my phone and know that some of the ones they suggest, like breathing in for four and out for eight, do not work for me (how can you breathe out for eight when you’ve taken in half that much air?!) However, focusing on your breathing, slowing it down, and making it deeper, can all help with grounding and staying present. Find the rhythm that works for you, I reckon!

Make a deal with yourself that you won’t worry about things that are entirely out of your control, or past events that can’t be changed. Because, frankly, what’s the point? It takes a LOT of energy to worry, and you can worry all day and all night long if you want, but it won’t change anything (other than making you tired and grumpy probably). As the Dalai Lama wisely said: “If a problem can be solved then there is no need for worry. If it cannot be solved there is no use worrying about it”.

However, we are all human and so we are going to worry. Asking yourself things like ‘will this be important next week?’ or ‘what would I tell a friend?’ can help give another perspective on concerns. You could try setting aside ‘worry time’ once a day for around half an hour (not too close to bedtime), and every time a worry comes up you tell yourself that you’ll worry about that later. When worry time arrives, if you’re still worried about those worries, then you spend those full 30 minutes worrying – and then you put them away for tomorrow.

Never underestimate the power of writing down your thoughts. This is an excellent way of staying in the present. It gets them out of your head, creating distance from them. Worry monsters also like to eat worries or hang onto them for another time! Journalling helps get in touch with how you might be feeling, giving yourself time and space to let your thoughts flow. And the more that come out, the more you can slow them down, pay attention to them, and give them a bit of thinking time – rather than having them rushing around your head like a whirlpool.

So next time you find yourself feeling sadness about the past, or panicky about the future, maybe have a go at slowing down, not constantly keeping busy or multitasking, but getting in touch with yourself and your feelings.

We can’t change the past, although at times we may wish we could. We can’t control the things that have happened to us. We can’t always control the things that are going to happen to us. What we do have some control over is ourselves, in this present moment.