H ave you experienced waking up in the middle of the night to a mind replaying the details of yesterday’s disappointment or spinning a narrative about what will go terribly wrong today? Perhaps the answer you wish you had offered to the confused students in your class yesterday becomes immediately clear. Maybe you’re rehearsing alternative dialogue while experiencing the anger and regret from a conversation with a colleague that unexpectedly became heated.
Or maybe you’re familiar with your mind’s never-ending anticipation of tomorrow’s problem when you’re not planning for tomorrow. These thoughts and related anxiety distract you from now. Now might be your partner or child’s conversation, an unrelated project in need of focused attention, or lunch with a friend you don’t see often. Another common frustration you might have experienced when you’re trying to relax and take a break from work involves recurring disaster scenarios convincing you your project, which is nearing completion or almost ready to submit for publication, is doomed!
No wonder you’re tired and stressed. What can you do to experience some actual peace of mind? Or what might you try to at least turn down the volume when you’re trying to engage with family and friends or just have fun?
Accept that these thoughts are a normal part of the human experience. You’re not unique, flawed, or in need of fixing. The brain is constantly alert to threats. Evolution has prepared you to vigilantly scan the horizon for problems to solve. But when mind chatter or looping thoughts, especially negative ones, become an obstacle to sleeping, engaging with family and friends, and rejuvenating, why not experiment with strategies that might dial it down a bit.
Tried and True Strategies:
Flood your brain with something else to do so there’s no space for the distracting, unwanted thoughts. These are two I used for decades.
Movies—the dark theatre and intense storyline of something extremely different from your life can do it. Immerse yourself in the filmmaker’s story and tune yours out for a couple of hours. TV/Netflix/Amazon series, if they engage you enough, might fill the bill. Warning: these can be habit forming.
Intense exercise—try something that’s challenging enough that you only have mental bandwidth for focusing on breathing. The intensity only needs to fit your needs. If you’re not working hard enough, thought you will still engage actively in mental chatter. Yoga, of course, is designed intentionally to connect your mind and body and generate awareness of your thinking. Practicing yoga and related mind/body physical activity enhance your ability to notice thoughts as thoughts and redirect your attention at will.
While entertainment and intense exercise have their place, relying constantly or only on these strategies could potentially create new problems. In healthy or moderate doses, time available for entertainment and intense exercise is limited. Wouldn’t it be great to have strategies for the other times?
Long-term, More Versatile Strategies:
The following strategies are more readily available and potentially longer-lasting when practiced regularly. But if they aren’t yet in your repertoire, you may resist them or be tempted to dismiss them. Notice any reluctant and read on.
Treat the thoughts like information rather than truth. A great gift you can give yourself is developing some distance between you and your thoughts. You are not your thoughts! Approach thoughts, which pop to mind without warning, with some skepticism. Ask a few questions before readily accepting the unsolicited intrusion.
Decide if the information is worthy of your attention. Every thought is NOT worthy of attention. Don’t over react to the really crazy, scary, or humiliating ones. Treat them with the seriousness you give a commercial for your local ambulance-chasing attorney screaming about how he can help you. Engaging in thoughts that are NOT worthy of your attention can lead you to spin unflattering narratives about yourself, doubt your sanity, isolate you while fearing something unreasonable, and endless other dreaded possibilities.
Assume the information contained in the thought is exaggerated or incomplete or both. This assumption will reward you again and again because it is so often accurate. No need to accept my assertion that most unwanted thoughts are exaggerations. Notice words in your thoughts such as never and always as clues. Look for categorical thinking, “shoulds,” and one-sided accusations such as: that’s just the way I am; I’m not a patient person; or I’m always intimidated by powerful people.
Create evidence that reveals the thought is an exaggeration. Look to your past and present for evidence that contradicts the exaggeration. The more evidence you create, the quicker the thought loosens its grip on you.
Consider that a grain of truth may be embedded in the exaggerated thought. After bringing some needed perspective or balance to the exaggerated thought, where do you see a partial truth or a legitimate caution to factor into future consideration? When you find this kernel of truth, you can engage in some constructive thinking and take some reasonable, considered action. Plus, you’ve benefited from the automatic warning your brain originally generated. But you haven’t let your brain’s crude delivery of the message via random exaggerated thoughts derail you, distract you, or unnecessarily generate negative emotions you then believe you needed to avoid or drown out.
Try one or more of these strategies, especially the versatile, readily available ones, next time your scarce personal or family time is hijacked by unwanted thoughts (or rather information to be explored, complicated, examined, and weighed against reality)!