Stress. Tension. Anxiety. Busyness. We have too much to do! Too many hats to wear! Too many places to be! We believe life would calm down and the problem would be solved if we could just stop DOING so much. However, the problem isn’t all the things we are doing. Instead, it is our compulsive thinking, our too-busy mind.
We live in that crowded space between our ears, ignoring the wisdom of our bodies, ignoring the quiet whisper of spirit, ignoring the richness to be explored in the world around us. I read somewhere that we Westerners act as if our bodies are only here to carry our heads around to meetings. I laughed out loud because of the way that most of us live proves the observation true.
Anxiety does not have to be a way of life, however. There are ways we can get out of our heads and find peace.
Recognize that you are not your thoughts.
From the time we are born, we are subjected to external programming. We are socialized into “acceptable” thought patterns and behaviors. All the ideas of what we “should” be or do become frantic thought programs that result in tension and form a feedback loop between our thinking brain and our bodies.
The idea that we should be “successful” (according to someone else’s definition) causes us to construct never-ending to-do lists in our heads. These lists won’t let us rest, pushing their way to the forefront of our minds even when we are trying to have downtime, waking us up in the middle of the night to remind us of what we didn’t get done during the day or what absolutely must get done tomorrow.
How do we escape from the busyness? How do we opt out of the worry loop?
First of all, just stop. Realize that everything on that list is simply a thought, and you are not your thoughts. Instead, you control your thoughts. At first you might feel great resistance to the idea that you control your thoughts. No way! I’d never choose this racing, anxiety-filled mind that haunts my every waking moment!
Take a minute, however, to consider this: The simple fact that you can be aware of your thoughts proves that you, at your essence, are distinct from them. Once you realize that you have the power to observe your thoughts, you are in a position to choose a different mind-set.
Acknowledge your power to choose.
The majority of the thoughts racing through your mind did not originate with you. That statement may make you feel like a victim, but it doesn’t have to. You are a grown-up now. You can choose to stay a victim to anxiety and the expectations of society and family and friends and the media and . . . . Or you can claim your power to choose your own path.
Claiming your own power doesn’t mean that all the racing thoughts in your busy mind will just go away. It means that you can choose whether you want to identify with them or not.
The next time you feel overwhelmed by your thoughts, pause and notice them. Ask yourself, is this a thought, is this a way of being, that I want to maintain or is this an opportunity to choose differently? What we practice becomes a habit. Thoughts repeated form easily traveled neural pathways, but new choices claim new thoughts that can forge new neural pathways and new habits. Energy flows where attention goes. Which thoughts will you choose to give attention to? Which will you deprive of energy? You have the power to choose.
Be Here Now.
Instead of getting lost inside your compulsive thinking, try being in the moment. Here. Now. This is called Mindfulness, and there are several basic ways to practice this life-enhancing skill.
A very simple way to get out of your head is to practice mindful movement. Yoga is a powerful means of dropping down out of your thoughts and into your body. The gentle, grounding postures, the stretches, the feel of your body flowing through a vinyasa, all allow you to surrender to the moment. The rhythmic quality of walking or running centers you in the body and clears the mind. This is especially true if you are out in nature rather than on a treadmill.
Many people practice meditation to escape the tyranny of their own compulsive thinking. Meditation doesn’t have to be complicated or difficult. You can simply sit with your attention on your breath, or you can try one of the many guided meditation apps available on your cell phone. Meditation how-tos are available online and in your local bookstore. Mindfulness meditation classes may be available through your community hospital or yoga collective. Choose the form of meditation that resonates with you and commit to at least a trial period.
Practicing any form of self-care that you enjoy allows you to slow down and experience the present moment. Whether it’s plunging your fingers into the pungent earth in your garden, playing a tune on your piano, writing a poem in your journal, or simply having a cup of coffee on your front porch while listening to the birds sing, these moments allow you to be gentle with yourself and to embrace life divorced from compulsive thought.
It’s a tool. It’s not the boss.
Your brain is a wonderful tool. It remembers how to get to work and how to make a bed. Your brain can learn and keep you on task. Its fight or flight responses do their very best to keep you safe in an emergency. But still, your brain is just a tool. You decide what you feed your mind, what “programs” you will encourage and maintain and which ones you want to rewrite. You decide whether you’ll surrender to the tyranny of busyness or free yourself to live outside the self-perpetuating anxiety loop.
Stop. Take a deep breath. Choose peace.