The problem with your big human brain (and why your pets are stressing less)

While your brain is an amazing machine, too much of its brainpower can often be dedicated to useless worrying. Find out how to stay in the moment, just like your furry friends.

Humans are brainy creatures. Having such fantastically complex machines housed within our sizeable craniums provides us with a very large evolutionary advantage over all those cute, furry creatures we keep for pets. We can process loads of information, perform incredibly complex tasks and come up with all sorts of sophisticated, civilisation-changing inventions. Unfortunately, our big human brains are also prone to getting caught up in a great deal of really useless stuff.

If you have a cat, you will have no doubt looked across at it and felt incredibly jealous. While you are stressing about the bills and the housework and whether Donald Trump will become President, they are just blissing out in some nice warm spot, purring away with the sunshine on their belly. Your cat is in the moment and loving it.

If you have a dog, you will also have noticed its amazing ability to be in the moment. Go for a walk and while you are worrying about a meeting, wondering what to buy your mum for Christmas or trying to micro-analyse that awkward date you went on, your dog will be having the time of its life simply chasing, sniffing and weeing on things.

When feeling stressed you probably wish you could be calm and in the moment, just like your chilled-out cat or dog. Of course, your 21st century human life is busy, complicated and far more demanding than that of your pampered pets. To deal with it all, you need to spend a little time planning for the future and learning from the past.

But not too much time.

When you keep worrying about what’s to come or re-hashing the same old stuff, over and over again, you miss out on the here and now. That’s important because life is what is happening right now.

Practise mindfulness and you will notice that your big human brain is constantly working. In the course of a day it will serve up many thousands of different thoughts for you to deal with. Only a small proportion of these thoughts will be of much use. Many thoughts will drag your brain away from the present moment. Many will be your brain attempting to problem-solve things which are outside of your control. Many will be thoughts which keep getting replayed over and over again like old episodes of M*A*S*H.

The first step to becoming more mindful is to notice when your attention is being dragged off into the past or future. When you do this, you are developing what psychologists call meta-awareness. When you learn mindfulness, you will learn to let go of the many thoughts which aren’t of much use. You don’t need to struggle against these thoughts or push them away. The far more beneficial approach is to simply thank your brain for these thoughts, before bringing your attention back to the present moment.

You can return to the present moment by literally returning to your senses. You may take a moment to notice the sights, smells and sounds around you. You may feel the pressure of your feet pressing into the ground or the sensation of air filling your lungs as you inhale. If your cat or dog is nearby you may take a mindful moment to feel its fur against your fingers, whilst really appreciating all the warmth and unconditional love this small-brained animal keeps giving you.

One of the great things about mindfulness is that it’s a skill you can apply in any situation. You may use it when your mind is racing and you are trying to get to sleep. You may use it when you are busy and stressed at work. You may use it when you’ve just hit eight awful golf shots in a row and ready to throw your clubs in the pond and give up on the whole stupid game.

When you train your brain to keep returning to the present moment, you can spend far less of your time battling with many of those stressful, useless thoughts. Instead of being absorbed in the past or future, you can bring attention to the amazing real world that surrounds you. Like your dog or your cat, you can really enjoy what’s happening in the here and now.