When your thoughts keep racing, your natural reaction is to resist, trying to will your mind to stop the seemingly endless loop. Or, you hitch a ride on the anxiety express, obsessing about the difficult situation or big fear.
But controlling a racing mind rarely works.
Accepting your speeding thoughts and shifting your attention elsewhere.
Scott Symington, PhD, a psychologist and author of “Freedom from Anxious Thoughts and Feelings,” says that we can think of our internal world as a movie theater with two screens: The screen in front of us is made up of life-giving thoughts, feelings, and images, while the second screen, off to the side, houses our worries, fears, and insecurities.
We can’t control what the side screen plays, nor can we shut it off. But we can ensure it stays in our peripheral vision.
Here’s how to focus on the front screen, while the side screen fades into the background.
Catch thoughts early.
Thoughts gradually build up into a racing mind as we become more and more concerned about an issue. The key to breaking the vicious cycle? Intervene before the cascade.
For early detection, understand what typically sets you off, so you can rotate to the front screen. To start, says Symington, jot down your frequent worries, feelings, and images.
Watch your thoughts.
Racing thoughts can become upsetting because of our self-judgments, says Regine Galanti, PhD, a psychologist and author of “Anxiety Relief for Teens.” Rather than berating yourself or believing you shouldn’t have racing thoughts, simply observe them.
When your mind takes off running, watch your thoughts as you’d “watch the scenery through a train window as it goes by,” says Galanti. Or, observe your thoughts like clouds in the sky or leaves on a stream.
Plunge into a pleasurable task.
Shift your attention away from anxious thoughts to an enjoyable activity, like cooking, painting, or writing that proposal for your favorite client. To get fully immersed in what you’re doing, describe the steps to yourself and use your senses, says Galanti.
Disconnect from racing thoughts by connecting to someone you care about. For example, says Symington, send an “encouraging text or offer support to a colleague.” You can even keep a go-to list of kind gestures on your phone whenever your mind starts racing.
When we overly engage with our thoughts, our breathing becomes shallow, or we even hold our breath, notes therapist Tonya Swartzendruber, LMHC. Slowing down your breath can slow down your thoughts and help you gain some distance.
To breathe better, says Swartzendruber, count to three as you inhale, pause, and then exhale for three counts.
Notice your surroundings.
Refocusing on your external environment is a great way to reduce anxious energy and gently ground yourself in the present moment.
To start, play the color game by naming everything you see that’s a specific shade (like blue), says Galanti.
Or, try Symington’s 5-minute grounding exercise:
- Intently listen to surrounding sounds.
- Pick something pleasing to study, like a picture.
- Notice how your body feels in your seat.
- Smell something with a pleasant aroma.
Work it out.
Run, bike, swim, or participate in some other aerobic activity. It may seem counterintuitive but getting “a bit out of breath helps to calm your brain activity,” says Joyce Mikal-Flynn, author of “Anatomy of a Survivor: Building Resilience, Grit, and Growth After Trauma.”
Your brain remains calm “by synthesizing and releasing calming and relaxing brain chemicals, or neurotransmitters, like dopamine, serotonin, and endorphins,” she says.
When your mind just won’t quit, acknowledge what’s happening and as Symington says, act in a way that reflects the best version of yourself.
Sometimes, that’s a call to a friend and sometimes, it’s taking an extra breath.