My mind races a lot, and it creates a great deal of worry and stress for me. It keeps me awake at night, and distracts me during the day. How can I quiet the thoughts?
Signed: Racing Thoughts
Dear Racing Thoughts,
When our thoughts get stuck in a repetitive looping cycle, we sometimes call this rumination. It can be the brain’s attempt to try to find ways to protect us and to feel in control, through understanding and planning. Two common thinking themes tend to hijack many of our brains. There are thoughts that focus on what might happen at some point in the future. We call these anticipatory patterns, and they are usually our brain’s way of trying to predict the “what-ifs” of what might be coming, so we can feel more prepared or secure. And there are thoughts that focus on what has already happened in the past. We call these reflectionary patterns, and they are usually our brain’s way of critically replaying the things we already did or said, so we can learn and adapt for the next time. Both of these types of repetitive thought processes require a great deal of energy and are quite draining. They pull our attention away from our current reality (the present moment), which is usually where our focus is needed if we truly want to feel content and safe.
Human beings are the only species whose brain functioning has evolved enough to allow these future/past focused thought patterns to happen. But this advancement can be a curse when our attention is so largely on things that cannot be changed or that may never happen. There is literally an endless possibility of scenarios that will run through our minds the more we over-think a past or future event. And our thoughts connect to emotion in these moments, usually through a judgmental (and negative) lens. So instead of being a brief moment of reflection to help us grow and be more prepared for something new, this reminiscing and anticipating often leads us into a spiral of greater helplessness and overwhelm. These thought patterns can drag us into pits of anxiety, stress and depression instead of calm – ironically causing the very results that we were hoping to avoid in the first place.
The short answer for how you can quiet these unhelpful thought patterns is to find ways to recenter your focus on the present. We often refer to this as being mindful. Mindfulness is the ability to concentrate on the “now” in a factual (but non-judgmental) way. The more we focus on the past/future thoughts, the stronger the unhealthy loops become. (This concept is explained by Hebbs Law – “neurons that fire together, wire together”). There are all sorts of reasons why these ruminating patterns initially develop – past trauma or hurt in our life, a lack of self esteem/trust in our own ability, moments of failure and regret, etc. But when these thoughts become all-consuming, what once was a supportive form of self awareness and protection becomes the trigger for our current limitations and unhealthy fixations. And it is time to rewire the circuitry in our brains.
Some easy-to-learn mindful strategies that might help will include both body (somatic) and cognitive anchoring techniques. We want to redirect our thoughts and feelings to the truth of the present, where we feel safe and in control. The way we do this is sometimes called “grounding”. Body mindfulness often refers to activities that use our body physiology to override the unwanted thoughts in our brain by centering us on the current moment. Some examples include meditation; yoga; stretching or body wiggles; progressive muscle relaxation exercises; deep breathing techniques; nature walks; enjoyed eating/drinking; EFT (or Tapping); and body scans. Cognitive mindfulness refers to activities that change our thoughts more directly. Examples of these techniques include the 5,4,3,2,1 exercise or playing a solo “categories” game; colouring or drawing; working on a hobby; reading; saying the alphabet backwards or in another language; playing a game on your phone; and watching a skit by a favourite comedian.
Once we have disconnected ourselves from the past/future focus that was hijacking our thinking, we can begin to build a thought process that is more calming. (If we don’t replace the unhealthy thought patterns with a better alternative, our brain will return to the unwanted ones as soon as we stop the grounding activities.) Learning how to talk to ourselves in a way that keeps us in the present moment and that reassures us of our positive ability to handle whatever has happened/is about to happen is critical for a feeling of safety and wellbeing. We have to learn how to see the success and opportunity in moments that might otherwise seem daunting and negative. The ability to see the negatives is something we are actually instinctually born knowing how to do (our brain is hard wired for this). The ability to see things realistically (factoring in the positives with the negatives) is something we have to teach ourselves to do. And the key to doing this is lots of practice. We need to stop the process that is hurting us, and repeat the process that serves us best (trust in the now and in ourselves).
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