Can’t stop thinking? Is stress causing you to ruminate on negative thoughts?
It’s made more difficult by the fact that the more you try to stop thinking, the more you seem to think.
It’s a problem I’ve dealt with more than I’d care to admit, and it’s certainly not an easy one to fix.
But through experience and research, I’ve compiled 8 techniques stop overthinking, clear your mind and start living.
Letting go of negative thoughts and emotions definitely isn’t easy, but these are the techniques science says will help:
1) Distract Yourself
When you are starting to feel overwhelmed by your own thoughts, it’s time to find something else to think about.
Keep in mind that we’re not suggesting you run from your responsibilities, but rather you take a vacation from them for just a few moments at a time in order to regroup and come at things from a different perspective.
Distracting yourself gives you space and time you need to figure things out and concentrate on something less pressing for a while.
You could get outside and exercise. Focus on a project or a hobby that you love. Lose yourself in the newspaper or a good book.
For me, I find that exercise works particularly well. I usually go running. It’s a brilliant way to work a sweat, getting the body moving and let those feel-good feelings come my way.
Hilary Mantel says it best:
“If you get stuck, get away from your desk. Take a walk, take a bath, go to sleep, make a pie, draw, listen to music, meditate, exercise; whatever you do, don’t just stick there scowling at the problem. But don’t make telephone calls or go to a party; if you do, other people’s words will pour in where your lost words should be. Open a gap for them, create a space. Be patient.” [The Guardian, 25 February 2010]” – Hilary Mantel
Ronald Siegel, a professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School, writes this about the brain: “What we resist persists”.
Getting angry or upset you can’t stop ruminating will only cause it to get worse. You can’t “force” your brain to shut up.
So what’s the answer? Mindfulness.
Specifically, observing your mind and your surroundings in a non-judgmental way.
“Whenever you bring awareness to what you’re directly experiencing via your senses, or to your state of mind via your thoughts and emotions, you’re being mindful. And there’s growing research showing that when you train your brain to be mindful, you’re actually remodeling the physical structure of your brain.”
With mindfulness, we suspend judgment and unleash our natural curiosity about the workings of the mind, approaching the experience with warmth and kindness to others and ourselves.
Rather than try to run and hide from your problems or whatever it is that is plaguing your brain at that moment, dig into it and pay attention to how your body feels and what your brain is doing.
Watch yourself think as if you were watching a movie or a scene as a bystander.
We are so quick to try to turn the channel in our brains, but when you sit and watch, you might learn something interesting about yourself.
(If you’re looking for specific actions you can take to stay in the moment and live a happier life, check out our best-selling eBook on how to use Buddhist teachings for a mindful and happy life here.)
Sometimes it’s okay to turn off the thoughts and bury it for a while.
When things are heavy and you need more time and space to work through things, or if you aren’t in the right place to deal with the thoughts at that moment in time, you can push them aside and think of something else until you are ready.
Trying to deal with thoughts before you are ready is like trying to run a marathon before you’ve run even a mile. It doesn’t work.
Suppression is a useful self-help strategy for people to avoid painful emotions (like fear, depression, anxiety to control unwanted actions) for a short time.
According to an academic paper published in 1994, one method to implement thought suppression is to say to yourself “stop” aloud or even make a noise.
Research has shown this to be mildly effective. If you’re looking for total victory from thoughts, then clearly this isn’t going to work.
Thought suppression is best used with distraction, so when an unwanted thought appears, say “stop” and then focus on another task.
Clearing your mind is easier when you give your brain nothing to think about.
Meditation helps you clear your brain in a very real way and allows you to pick and choose the thoughts that get attention and the ones that don’t.
If you are really struggling to clear your mind and focus on things at hand, meditation is a great way to start with a blank slate, so to speak.
Meditation has become increasingly popular thanks to a growing body of research showing that it reduces stress and anxiety, improves attention and memory, and promotes self-regulation and empathy.
Christine O’Shaughnessy, a mindfulness instructor at Harvard, says that “doing meditation is like a fitness routine for your brain…It keeps your brain healthy”.
So, how do you practice it to clear your mind?
The first thing that needs to be understood is that meditation won’t clear the mind right away.
In fact, because you’ll be alone with your thoughts, it might cause you to have more distracting thoughts.
As Mark Epstein, M.D, says in his book Thoughts Without a Thinker, meditators quickly understand the nature of the “monkey mind”:
“Like the undeveloped mind, the metaphorical monkey is always in motion, jumping from one attempt at self-satisfaction to another, from one thought to another. “Monkey mind” is something that people who begin to meditate have an immediate understanding of as they begin to tune into the restless nature of their own psyches, to the incessant and mostly unproductive chatter of their thoughts.”
But the effects of meditation will be felt over time, where you’ll find that your attention will be more controlled and calm.
To begin meditation, here are the 4 steps to get you started:
1) Select a time and place that will be free of distractions and interruptions.
2) Get comfortable.
Find a body position that makes you relaxed and comfortable.
3) Try to get into a relaxed, passive mental attitude. Let your mind go blank.
If thoughts and worries appear, just acknowledge them then go back to trying to be relaxed and thoughtless.
4) Concentrate on a mental device.
You could use a mantra, or a simple word, that is repeated over and over. Or you could stare at a fixed object. Whatever it is, the goal is to focus on something so you block out thoughts and distractions.
Once you get good at doing this, you’ll look forward to devoting 20 minutes to it each day.
Here’s a video describing the neuroscience behind why breathing exercises help you tune into your senses:
(To learn more about how to practice meditation, check my ultimate guide to meditation here)
Sometimes you have to just replace a bad thought with a good thought and keep on going.
While it’s not the most effective way to deal with your thoughts, substituting one thought for another can start a process that will help you tap into your thinking in a more productive way later.
It’s like putting one foot in front of the other: you have to start somewhere.
When you are stronger and can face your thoughts, you can start to retrain your thoughts instead of just replacing them.
So if you want to clear your mind, remember that you can let go of unwanted thoughts by substituting it with a more desirable thought. This is where positive affirmations might help you out.
Research has found that a personal mantra (a phrase you repeat silently to yourself) can benefit your brain in the short-term and long-term.
Published in the Journal of Brain and Behavior, the study found that silently repeating a positive personal mantra “quiets the mind and reduces self-judgment”.
According to the research study:
“The pattern of neural activity that constitutes your silent thought becomes easier to conjure over time and becomes increasingly effective in countering negative thoughts or feelings.”
So if you notice that a negative thought is creeping into your consciousness, replace it with a positive one.
Here are some examples of personal mantras that you can use when you need to:
“I love myself.”
“Nothing bad is happening.”
“I meet limited circumstances with limitless thoughts.”
“I am willing to see this differently.”
“I am doing all that I can.”
6) Write it out
Research has found that writing down your negative feelings eventually helps you clear your mind and release them.
Because writing helps your mind slow down and structure the information in your head.
Writing is therapeutic because you can release your emotions by expressing them and understanding them.
Journaling helps you express your painful feelings in a safe environment. No one is going to read what you write.
You might be angry, or sad. Whatever it is you’re feeling, let it out. Process those feelings.
If you’re wondering how you can begin journaling, try asking these three questions:
How am I feeling?
What am I doing?
What am I trying to change about my life?
These questions will give you insight into your emotions and prompt you to think about the future.
Writing down what you are going to change gives you the ultimate responsibility to change your life.
Understanding that you hold the cards for creating a great life is empowering. You don’t need to rely on other people for you to take responsibility for your life and shape where it’s headed.
When you’re feeling stressed and you can’t stop thinking negative thoughts, the last thing that you’d think would help would be exercise. After all, exercise is a form of physical stress.
However, research suggests that physical stress can relieve mental stress.
Harvard Health says that aerobic exercise is key for your head, just as it is for your heart:
“Regular aerobic exercise will bring remarkable changes to your body, your metabolism, your heart, and your spirits. It has a unique capacity to exhilarate and relax, to provide stimulation and calm, to counter depression and dissipate stress. It’s a common experience among endurance athletes and has been verified in clinical trials that have successfully used exercise to treat anxiety disorders and clinical depression. If athletes and patients can derive psychological benefits from exercise, so can you.”
According to Harvard Health, exercise works because it reduces levels of the body’s stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol.
It also stimulates the production of endorphins, which are natural painkillers and mood elevators.
An Irish study published in the journal Physiology + Behavior in 2011 found that exercise stimulates the production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein involved in the growth of new neurons.
Interestingly, the researchers called this a type of “cognitive enhancement”.
8) Breathing exercises
Simple breathing exercises can also help to reduce stress and increase relaxation.
Rapid, erratic breathing is a common result of stress. But slow, deep, regular breathing is a sign of relaxation.
According to a study published in Frontiers of Human Neuroscience, slow and even breathing saw “increased comfort, relaxation, pleasantness, vigor, and alertness, and reduced symptoms of arousal, anxiety, depression, anger, and confusion.”
Therefore, if you learn to control your breathing to mimic relaxation, the effect will be relaxing.
Here’s how to do deep breathing:
1) Breathe in slowly and deeply through your nose, while focusing on your stomach going up.
2) Hold your breath for 4 seconds.
3) Exhale thinking about how relaxing it is, for 6 seconds. It can help to exhale with pursed lips.
4) Repeat this sequence 5 to 10 times, focusing on breathing slowly and deeply.
This a great way to reduce stress, and you can do it for as long as you like. The other benefit is that you can do it wherever you like.
9) Learn to live in the moment
One of the best ways to clear your mind is to simply focus on the task at hand. Not only is living in the present moment useful for clearing your mind, but it leads to a higher quality of life as well.
Using an iPhone application called Track Your Happiness, Harvard psychologists found that daydreaming is associated with lower levels of happiness.
The study periodically polled more than 2000 adults who reported what they were doing, whether their minds were wandering and how happy they were.
About half the time, the participants were thinking about something other than the task at hand.
According to the study, “the ability to think about what is not happening is a cognitive achievement that comes at an emotional cost.”
The study found that people who daydreamed less and were more likely to focus on the task they were doing in the present moment were more likely to be happy.
The question is, how can you train your brain to live more in the present moment so you can more effectively clear your mind?
According to neuroscientist David Rock, using “micro meditations” throughout the day is one of the best ways to rewire your brain to activate your “direct experience network” in your brain compared to your “default brain network”.
Micro meditations are essentially meditations that you can practice over short periods of time, no more than 1-3 minutes at a time, throughout the day.
The key here is to focus on your breath for 1-3 minutes every hour throughout the day.
It’s best to do equal breathing – which is inhaling for 4 seconds through your and nose and then exhaling for 4 seconds (similar to above).
Using your breath is a great way to relax, and by using this “micro-meditation” during stressful or overwhelming parts of your day, you can improve the way you face those feelings and situations, allowing you to become aware and calm.
To turn this into a habit, set up an alarm on your phone every hour or so. The more you do it, the faster it will become a habit.
Mindfulness is like a muscle, you have to exercise in order for it to gain strength.
(To learn more specific techniques to live in the moment, check out my best-selling eBook on the no-nonsense guide to using Buddism for a better life here)
10) Get into nature
Research has shown that “forest bathing”, the act of spending time in a wooded area is great for clearing your mind and reducing stress.
“Nature can be beneficial for mental health,” says Irina Wen, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist at NYU Langone Medical Center.
“It reduces cognitive fatigue and stress and can be helpful with depression and anxiety.”
David Strayer, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Utah, said in The National Geographic that being in nature allows the prefrontal cortex, the brain’s command center, to dial down and rest.
Indeed, neuroscience and psychology have begun to indicate – with measurements from stress hormones to heart rate to brain waves to protein markers – that when we spend time in green space “there is something profound going on” according to Strayer.
In fact, a study from the University of Medical School analyzed mental health data from 10,000 city dwellers. They found that people living near more green space reported less mental distress, after adjusting from a range of different factors.
What most researchers suspect is that nature works mainly by lowering stress. Studies have found that stress hormones, respiration, heart rate, and sweating calm down when we experience even short doses of nature.
The good news is, this is a relatively easy suggestion to implement to help you clear your mind (assuming there is some sort of park near you).
Make an effort to go for walks or spend time in nature. You can also practice breathing exercises (mentioned above) while you’re at it.
To clear your mind:
1) Distract yourself: Distracting yourself gives you space and time you need to figure things out and concentrate on something less pressing for a while.
2) Practice mindfulness: Rather than try to run and hide from your problems or whatever it is that is plaguing your brain at that moment, dig into it and pay attention to how your body feels and what your brain is doing.
3) Suppression: One method to implement thought suppression is to say “stop” aloud, or even make a noise. Research has shown this to be mildly effective.
4) Meditate: If you are really struggling to clear your mind and focus on things at hand, meditation is a great way to start with a blank slate, so to speak.
5) Substitution: Let go of unwanted thoughts by substituting it with a more desirable thought. This is where positive affirmations might help you out.
6) Write it out: Research has found that writing down your negative feelings eventually helps you clear your mind and release them.
7) Exercise: Exercise has been shown to reduce stress which is helpful in calming the mind.
8) Breathing exercises: If you learn to control your breathing to mimic relaxation, the effect will be relaxing.
9) Learn to live in the moment: Micro meditations are essentially meditations that you can practice over short periods of time, no more than 1-3 minutes at a time, throughout the day.
10) Get into nature: Studies have found that stress hormones, respiration, heart rate, and sweating calm down when we experience even short doses of nature.
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