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Harnessing Our Racing Thoughts

June 26, 2017

 To stop over thinking, or ruminating as it is also referred, we first have to understand why we do it.  Our brains favor a hardwired “negativity bias,” located in our amygdala that keeps our subconscious scanning our environments for any kind of perceived threat to our physical or psychological safety.  If our brains perceive either type of threat, we have a psychological and physiological response called “fight, flight or freeze,” that will go into effect to keep us safe.  We’ve all experienced dry mouth, jitteriness, butterflies, or dizziness prior to a speech, game, interview or test. We fear, and often predict failure, social scrutiny, rejection or some other disastrous outcome. Overthinking is one example of this “negativity bias” that has become stuck in the “on” position as a way to keep us safe from real or perceived psychological threats.  (Siegel, 2007). Depending on our genetics and environment, we may fight, flee, freeze, or all three in any given situation. We are all wired to instinctually seek safety, but how we react will vary.

We might experience:

FIGHT

  •  Racing thoughts as we try to solve our sometimes, unsolvable feelings or circumstances. Ex: “This can’t really be happening.”

  • Temporary relief from feelings of helplessness because we feel we are actively doing something.

  • Verbal sparring in our mind between all parts of us, as self doubt and fear mount.

  • Feeling mentally and physically exhausted and unable to focus or concentrate on other things.

 FLEE (or flight)

  • Exhausted from trying to solve our circumstances and avoiding our feelings, we try to avoid thinking about it as a means to bring temporary relief.

  • We might literally put physical distance between the threat and ourselves.

  • Staying busy, but with no real progress towards our problems. We feel this ongoing urge to be running from something, but not knowing from what.

  • Feeling mentally and physically exhausted and unable to focus or concentrate on other things.

FREEEZE

  • We may feel frozen or stuck in our excessive thinking.

  • Fear of the “what if’s” keeps us frozen for a long time. “What if I get it wrong?”

  • No real progress towards relief or resolution, we can experience further discouragement.

  • Feeling mentally and physically exhausted and unable to focus or concentrate on other things.

Our bodies also experience the effects of over thinking ranging from body tension, shallow breathing, sweating, difficulty sleeping, agitation or lethargy, and change in energy, eating or sleep patterns.  Over thinking keeps us in our head, despite the fact our body is also sending us strong and valuable information.

We can regain a sense of safety by reconnecting to all of our parts; mind, body and spirit. It begins with feeling safe and familiar within our body, since it can hijack our thinking in times of perceived threat. Some of my clients work hard to just tolerate a feeling within their body before they can even talk about it. This is learned by devoting, a minimum of 3-5 minutes every day of being still, in a comfortable position, and simply noticing your breath. If your mind wanders, bring it back to your breath. Repeat each day for two weeks. According to Psychology Today Blog, “The Athletes Way,” by Christopher Bergland, (2014), calming our nervous system in this way sends a signal to our organs to “rest and digest,” creating an inner calm. Feeling this inner calm/safety then grants us the permission and patience to be curious about HOW over thinking may be serving us to feel safe from fear, rejection or other emotions. Neuroscience research tells us that mindfulness (intentionally focusing on our thoughts, feelings and body sensations without judgment), informs us how our experience is affecting our thought, feelings, body and beliefs; good bad or indifferent. This knowledge helps us get our needs met in healthy ways. Resting in this knowledge lets us drop our guard and release the fears that have been dictating our decisions. When we take action, hopefully we are able to disprove our fears when inevitable setbacks are experienced as a challenge, rather than a confirmation of our own self-limiting beliefs. Now we are able to set the pace of our growth, adjust our expectations, and offer ourselves empathy along the way.

There is a saying in recovery, “What resists, persists.” Too often we think if we release our denial, or drop our guard, and allow what persists within us, we will feel overwhelmed, exposed, or misunderstood.  However, the opposite is actually true. Much like holding a beach wall underwater, if we notice the pressure, release it slowly and often, and receive it with curiosity and kindness, we reduce our own tension and fatigue. When we feel less stressed and have more energy, it’s easier for us to drop our guard and access our innate curiosity, knowledge, and creativity as resources in meeting our needs. Each time we do this, we are learning how to identify and release pressure in healthy ways, avoiding more ruptures or chaos in our lives. Over time, we create a deep reservoir of resources from which to draw upon for self-care and joy.

Mindfulness is a very helpful resource to reduce over thinking. There is no prior knowledge necessary, and there is no right or wrong.

  • Inhale deeply through your nose as you ask yourself kindly, “What do I really need?” or “What am I trying to solve?” and exhale any guilt or self-criticism. Repeat daily for minimum of 3-5 minutes.

  • Imagining that a loved one or mentor tells you exactly what you need in that moment of vulnerability is also helpful. 

Being curious and open to learning about ourselves can make us feel vulnerable because it’s an admission there is still more to know about ourselves, and our world. We no longer fear not having the answers. Instead, we accept times of knowing, and not knowing, as part of the human condition. We increase our patience and reduce our reactivity to things we can’t control. “I don’t have all the answers, but I am still a whole person, worthy of the time to seek those answers.” Practicing giving ourselves permission to let go, again and again of self-criticism helps us stay connected to the good, rather than the critical parts of ourselves, and human nature.  Staying connected to the good breeds contentment and patience, allowing for more authentic expression without fear. Including asking others for help. Being kind and curious about getting our needs met in healthy ways can create a large space for joy and peace, allowing you to find it even in times of struggle.

 

 

 

 

“How Does the Vagus Nerve Convey Gut Instincts in the Brain.” By Christopher Bergland, Psychology Today Blog, May 23, 2014.

https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-athletes-way/201405/how-does-the-vagus-nerve-convey-gut-instincts-the-brain

http://www.mindful.org/mindfulness-and-learning-whats-the-connection/

“Mindfulness and Learning: What’s the Connection?” By Line Goguen-Hughes, Mindful.org, April 19, 2011

Siegel, Daniel, MD., (2007). The Mindful Brain. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, IncS

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