There are only two possible states for the mind to be in: internal reflection, or external focus. Internal reflection is what you typically consider thinking – you’re puzzling over something, figuring out to solve a problem, replaying a memory in your head, etc. External focus is when you turn a corner and a stunning view makes you gasp, or you really feel the warmth of someone’s skin on yours. Of course, the mind is almost always doing both of these things at once, but the reason I’m reducing the mind to these two states is because it’s really helpful to me in dealing with overthinking and anxiety.
When I get anxious, I start thinking about a past event or an imagined future (the only kind of future, really, right?). If it were just that, it might be fine. But my brain then goes and starts this cannibalistic recursion where I think about my own thoughts about something, endlessly imagine possible permutations, replay the same event over and over again… it’s a downward spiral. Sometimes I lose a lot of sleep over this because I just can’t stop. When I’m in this state, it’s impossible to divert the mind from anxious thinking to calm. No matter what, the anxious thoughts take priority and barge in again.
The only other option is to get the mind feeding on something that isn’t internal. The only other option is focusing on the sensory input that the body is sending in. Consider your heartbeat, or the mindfulness classic of your breathing. This is an endless stream of data, never static, always changing, and it’s something that the mind can do nothing about. It’s the biological equivalent of watching waves crash or a fire crackle. Ample fuel for the frenzied mind to consume, and it provides you with a real alternative to indulging those unwelcome thoughts.
It does take practice to learn to focus on those things instead of being led along by the mind. I and many others are unused to truly focusing on the present. This is what mindfulness teaches. I use Headspace, which costs money (though there is a free trial), but there are heaps of free options for guided meditation and mindfulness apps. I meditate for 10 minutes a day in the mornings before work, and then sometimes use a sleep meditation if I’m having a rough night. When I started, I did 5 minutes a day and skipped weekends. That’s all it takes.
I’ve heard a lot about meditation, with people claiming that it’s transformed their lives. It hasn’t quite been that impactful for me, but it’s a very significant tool in my battle for mental health. When I stop using it, I notice demonstrable, significant declines. When I pick it back up again, I find improvement. This post, as well as encouraging others to give it a try if you feel like it might help you, is a reminder to myself that even if I feel like it’s not helping, it’s definitely actually helping.