Your mind has a mind of its own and races around at one hundred miles an hour jumping from one thing to the next. Sometimes, the random thoughts that pop into your head are quite amusing. Sometimes, they send you straight into a panic. Most of the time, they’re of the negative and not-very-nice-to-me variety.
“I haven’t gotten a reply from my friend to my text about lunch tomorrow. They must have better things to do.”
“The check engine light is on in the car again. I can’t afford car repairs right now.”
“Did I give the dog his heartworm pill this month? If he gets them, it’ll be totally my fault.”
“I need to figure out something nutritious for dinner tonight because we ordered pizza last night. I’m such a slacker.”
…and that’s how it goes on a good day!
Four Causes of Mental Clutter
As you know all too well, modern life includes all kinds of built-in stressors. We’re all on information overload. You now receive five times as much information every day as a person did in 1986. Most of the news coming at you is negative because those are the headlines that get attention. The cost of living is up. Employment is down. Cancer rates are skyrocketing along with the global temperatures. The list goes on and on. When all of this mind sweat is coupled with the specific worries and concerns of your own life, sleep problems, health issues, anxiety, panic attacks, and depression show up.
Too Many Choices
While the ability to choose is equated with freedom and power, it’s a paradox. Having a choice can have diminishing returns when it comes to your mental health. With stores as big as football fields and millions of options at our fingertips, we’re drowning in too many choices. Psychologist, Barry Schwartz, found that increased choice leads to greater anxiety, paralysis, indecision, and dissatisfaction. More choice does not necessarily mean more happiness.
Too Much Stuff
Our closets are full of clothes we don’t wear. Kids have to add the latest toy to their collections and then don’t touch it. The media tells us every day that we have to have this detergent or that moisturizer to make our lives better. And we buy it. Literally. We fill our homes with things we don’t need and fill our time with tweets, feeds, and updates. About every minute something is dinging or beeping at you. Science has determined that more stuff equals more stress and unhappiness and that clutter causes stress. No surprise there.
Your Brain’s Natural Negativity Bias
Your brain evolved with a prickly hypervigilance — always on the lookout, ready to sound the alarm – because it kept your ancestors alive. Your brain still has this hair-trigger reactivity, but it doesn’t do you any favors today. This negativity bias causes your brain to look for, spot, react more strongly to, and remember negative stimuli more than positive. This means that your brain is wired to worry, overthink, and have a negative slant.
Four Ways To Declutter Your Mind
The good news is that even though your brain is naturally inclined to be cluttered and on-edge, you can change this by routinely calming your brain’s fear circuit while consciously engaging your thinking brain. Over time, with regular practice, and because of neuroplasticity, your brain can actually physically change its connections and patterns so that calm and decluttered become the default. Some ways the authors suggest doing that are:
When you focus your mind on your breath, it can’t ruminate, worry, or think about a gazillion other things. Slow abdominal breathing helps you connect with your body and initiates the parasympathetic nervous system’s relaxation response. The relaxation response is the opposite of the stressed out fight-or-flight reaction. It’s a physical state of calm, peacefulness which is the best baseline state for your health and happiness.
The authors suggest a consistent, daily deep breathing practice. You can learn how here.
The authors quote Deepak Chopra: “Meditation is not a way of making your mind quiet. It’s a way of entering the quiet that’s already there — buried under the 50,000 thoughts the average person thinks daily.”
Meditation is allowing thoughts to arise as they will, becoming aware of the thinking, observing it without attaching to or following it, letting it go, and returning to a state of mental calmness. Over time, your mind will become more settled and thought will slow down during a session. Because of a process known as familiarization, the more the mind is in contact with a mental quality, the quicker it can return to it. With repetition and consistency, your brain makes neuroplastic changes that strengthen the calm neuronal pathways so that they become the “go to” norm.
There is no “getting it right” in meditation. Trying to meditate is meditating. Your job in meditation is simply to observe your thoughts and redirect your mind back into the present.
Reframe Negative Thoughts
While the negativity bias is very real and gives your brain a pessimistic, anxious tilt, it can be overcome with intentional, conscious effort. Just because it’s the way your brain came wired, doesn’t mean it has to stay that way forever. Through the miracle of neuroplasticity, you can change the form and function your brain and you can do this with your thoughts.
In Four Steps To Take Control Of Your Mind And Change Your Brain, I explain the steps involved in thought reframing. They are:
- Relabel – Become aware of and identify deceptive brain messages and uncomfortable sensations. Consciously put a label on your experience as it’s happening.
- Reframe – Change your perception of the importance of your thoughts. Realize that they’re simply products of your brain that you don’t have to believe.
- Refocus – In the first two steps, you clear your cognitive field. Then, focus your attention on the moment in the direction you want to go and consciously do something constructive.
- Revalue – After the first three steps, the fourth step begins to happen almost automatically as the result of new thinking patterns. You begin to see thoughts, urges, and impulses for what they are: sensations caused by deceptive brain messages that don’t benefit you.
Teach Your Old Mind New Tricks
The authors write:
Truthfully, you will always struggle with some amount of negative thinking. You can’t overcome millions of years of evolutionary wiring through sheer willpower…However, you can manage the pain by being more proactive in what you allow to remain in your thoughts.
The authors list the following practices to Declutter Your Mind:
- Challenge negative thoughts and replace them. — You can’t always believe your brain. A lot of your mental chatter comes from your subconscious mind’s learned beliefs from childhood and past experiences, which may not work for you anymore. Become aware of your thoughts, challenge and change them. Byron Katie has an excellent four-step process for analyzing thoughts and turning them around called The Work.
- Practice acceptance. — Sometimes, your negative thoughts are true. At those times, analyze your thinking to be sure that you’re not exaggerating, catastrophizing or practicing black or white thinking. Your thoughts and feelings about the situation may be far worse than the actuality. Try not to add pain by struggling against reality. Accept “what is,” stop mentally fighting against it, and start working with it for your good.
- Take mindful action — Instead of exhausting your mental energy by jumping on the hamster wheel and going round and round over thinking and worrying, use your energy for constructive thinking and positive action. Make a decision. Make a plan. Figure out the next step. Distract yourself and do something completely different, like go for a walk, cook your favorite dish, or watch a movie, then come back to the issue with a new perspective.
- Set a worry timer. — There are going to be times when you just can’t stop fretting and thinking about a challenge. No amount of optimism can put a positive spin on the situation. Instead of letting your mind completely run wild and spiral down, let yourself to have a stress-fest for five to ten minutes. That’s right. Set a timer and get it all out. Express your worries and fears. Writing helps your brain process emotion and may even help you come up with a solution. When the timer goes off, no more worrying — until the next “worry time” if you need it.