Many thought patterns are habits created over years. If we get into a habit of dwelling on negative thoughts it can intensify and turn to anxiety. This blog introduces ways of calming the mind chatter that we all experience from time to time.
For some people this is simply an occasional feeling of stress and a challenge in getting the mind to become quiet or to let go of a particular internal conversation or focus.
For others, this mind chatter is a larger issue. It may be a constant occurrence that happens many times during a day. It may even be something that keeps you awake at night. If not controlled, it can lead to more serious issues.
I’d like to begin with a concept that many of our thought patterns are simply habits that have been created over a number of years. Sometimes we get into a habit of dwelling on certain negative or worrysome thoughts. If that pattern continues, it can intensify over time – and turn into anxiety.
A continuously busy mind, or an anxiety condition isn’t generally developed or caused by a single factor, rather a combination of things. There are lots of factors that can play a role, including personality traits, difficult life experiences, and poor physical health.
For our purposes today, knowing the original cause is not as important as creating your own personal, successful ways of reducing the internal stress and calming the mind. The benefits, of course, are numerous.
You may find that you will improve your ability to hold concentration for longer periods of time.
You may find that you will be able to get to sleep faster, and reduce the amount of times that you wake during the night because of a busy mind.
You may find that you experience an overall improvement in your health.
You may find that you will have a reduced craving for things that are unhealthy.
So let’s dive into some commonly used techniques for calming this busy mind. Its time to create some new ways of being, and new habits to engage when the busy mind shows up.
1. Increase Awareness:
Become present to your thoughts by spending time noticing them. This is as opposed to only becoming aware after the thoughts have created a negative emotional response. So how do we do this? Pick any time of day or night when you can allow your thoughts to run freely for about 5 minutes – without being forced to focus on any particular thing – and without being interrupted by outside distractions. This is not an eyes closed, or meditative practice (unless you prefer that). Simply a time when you can engage with your thoughts and not fight them. Imagine that there is a part of your mind that can operate as an unbiased commentator. It’s role is to make comments like: “we are having another thought about XXXX – insert topic”. Then it says: “And here’s another similar thought. In the past five minutes – we’ve had 6 of those types of thoughts.”
This is a form of cognitive distancing. In other words, the commentator helps to create a bit of distance between the thought and the resulting emotional response. It allows you to become a passive observer. It is important to train your internal commentator to become a non-judgemental observer. The commentator simply makes statements of fact – and does not ask questions such as: I wonder WHY that thought has happened? This question can easily lead the mind back into the story about causes, fears, potential outcomes, and so on.
2. Stop and Distract:
This technique can be used once you become aware of your thoughts – and hopefully you will get very adept at engaging this process before a thought triggers an emotional response. Not to worry though, this technique can be used at any time when you are experiencing a hyperactive mind, and whether or not you are having an emotional response. This process is designed to interrupt the current thought pattern. Here’s how it works.
First, you need to develop a few fun mental distractions. The idea here is that you give the mind something very different to focus on. This needs to be something that takes a bit of concentration or memory retrieval. For example –
Pick a room in your house and mentally go on a tour of that room and try to name every item in the room.
Go through the alphabet and name 4 animals and/or plants that begin with each letter.
Name and list everything that has the number 7 in it: 7 Dwarfs (and name them), 7 natural wonders of the world, the 7 seas and so on.
You could decide to work a math calculation, or plan your grocery list, or reorganise your shed.
The only key to remember here is that it needs to be something that is not connected to a stressful issue. If your disorganised shed causes you anxiety – then don’t use this example.
Okay, now that you’ve got your list of fun things to play mental gymnastics with – here’s what to do.
A. You notice that you are having negative or worrysome thoughts.
B. In your mind, Yell STOP!
C. Instantly begin one of your thought processes that we mentioned above.
D. When you are done with your mental gymnastics, relax and notice if and when the negative thoughts return. Don’t try to recall them – simply notice. If your mind wanders off in another direction – let it do so.
E. If the negative thoughts return again – go through the same process again. Continue this pattern. You will notice that the negative thoughts will reduce over time.
Like any human habit – this takes time, effort and practice!
Adults have a tendency to want and expect instant gratification. You didn’t become the way you are now in 20 minutes. You will need to commit to practicing different techniques and giving them time to work.
Reframing does exactly what it say it does. Imagine that your thoughts are images like a picture of a moment in time, or even like a movie. Let’s imagine that currently that image is in full colour – it is in a black plastic frame and is the size of a large TV that hangs on your wall.
Mentally, you are going to manipulate as many difference characteristics of that image as you can.
Change its size,
Change its shape
Change its colour
Change where it is hanging
Make it black and white, or colour,
Make it a still picture or a movie
Make it so blurry that you cannot even see the image.
Now shrink to such a small size and push it so far away from you that it simply disappears into nothing.
Now check back into the thought – and see if it is still quite so worrysome. If so, continue doing this until it loses its charge or negative impact.
Again this will take time, effort and practice to get really good and fast at this process.
Okay – finally our last technique for today. . . .another exercise that involves both thoughts and breathing.
4. The Thought Vacuum – or The Thought Pusher
This technique is great to use if you are having difficulty falling asleep or if you are experiencing an inability to hold focus on something during the day due to busy brain or anxiety. The goal is to practice decreasing the number of thoughts and the duration of focus on thoughts as they enter your mind.
Here’s what to do.
First – decide what metaphor you like more. Do you like the thought of having a thought vacuum that sucks up any thought just as quickly as it enters your mind? Or do you prefer having a thought pusher of some sort – that pushes a thought out of an imaginary door in your mind -and the door shuts very quickly once a thought is pushed out, so the thought cannot get back in.
Your breath is the vacuum or the pusher. Everytime a thought enters your mind, you breathe in our out (depending on your natural breathing cycle at the time). Both the inhalation and the exhalation are the vacuum or the pusher.
Imagine that this vacuum or pusher keeps the mental space spotless and clean at all times. Any thought that enters is a bit of fluff that must be vacuumed or pushed out as quickly as possible. When there are not thoughts entering – then the vacuum or the pusher does not move. That does not mean holding your breath. You simply return to gentle relaxed breathing without noticing it. Only when a thought enters your mind do you recognise the in our out breath that cleans the thought away.
Remember, all of these techniques will take time, effort, commitment and practice to be used with great affect.