how to calm a busy mind

How to start working with our busy minds

Have you ever wondered how to work with a busy mind and difficult thoughts? Fiona O’Donnell from The Mindfulness Centre is here to help

This mind of ours is a wonderful thing, however sometimes we can meet some pretty unhelpful and dark thoughts. Especially as we try to sleep at night. Have you noticed that sometimes at work you think a lot about home and at home you can’t stop thinking about work?

Mindfulness training can help us to have some choice about the thousands of thoughts that come to our mind each day. We can learn to start observing them as mental events, which is called ‘metacognition’. It basically refers to the ability to become aware of the quality of the mind. And the ability to become aware of thoughts as they are coming into our awareness.

So how can we start working with our busy minds?

So much of the time we spend on autopilot, we don’t even notice the quality of our mind or the quality of our thoughts. We often don’t realise that allowing ourselves to get whisked in any direction with thoughts  can have a real effect on how we are feeling. And on how we are interpret events that are happening.

Very often when we have a painful emotional or bodily experience the thinking we do adds a lot of suffering. This is referred to the 2 darts of pain in mindfulness. The first dart of pain we can’t stop, however we have some power over the second dart of pain.  Exploring the body sensations with curiosity allows us to explore this present moment experience. Instead of moving into ruminative thinking about how or why this happened, which often serves to distress us more.

The power of our thoughts

According to Segal, Williams & Teasdale (2013), the creators of the 8 Week Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy programme, our thoughts can have a powerful effect on what we do and how we feel. They are often triggered quite automatically with similar thoughts continuing to loop through the mind.

By becoming aware of the types of thinking patterns that we are having, such as ‘why is it always me?’, ‘there’s no point in trying’, ‘I should be better’… we have some ability to stop. We can notice the thoughts and use the breath to ground ourselves in the present moment. This allows us some choice around following certain thinking patterns. For example planning a project in work, or choosing not to follow a certain thinking pattern, an old memory that keeps getting replayed in our mind, which serves to tell us ‘we’re not good enough’. In this way of observing the thoughts, we have an opportunity to widen our view and get some perspective. We also realise there may be other ways to think about the situation.

Habitual thinking

Being able to notice our thoughts can also allow us to notice some of the ‘habitual’ thinking that is occurring on a daily basis. There can be a subtle background of ‘I’m not good enough’ running through our experiences and our awareness. This can be going on quite unaware to us, until we start practicing this mental training of mindfulness. And it can be quite a surprise to notice how much this is happening.

These unhelpful thinking patterns can lead us in to a downward spiral. They can affect our moods and increase our levels of stress. We can very easily move from one thought, to another, and suddenly we are down a rabbit hole, lost in thoughts.

By noticing when we are lost in thoughts, we can choose to let go of them and focus our attention on our breath and body, which can support us. It can also help us develop some perspective around  thoughts. It is also worth mentioning that we may realise a need to give attention to unresolved emotional experiences in our past. We perhaps may need to spend some time with a clinician to allow some healing of old wounds.

It can be quite freeing to be able to step back from our thoughts and realise that they are not ‘you’ or ‘reality’. Some thoughts are very helpful and some thoughts are unhelpful and being able to see this and distinguish between the two can help us calm a busy mind.

Even being able to notice at moments of stress or anxiety that our thoughts are spinning is helpful. Having the ability to pause in the midst of this and do a 3 Step Breathing Space or come to the breath offers a new way to work with some of these automatic patterns.

Here are some of the things you can do with your thoughts:

  1. Just watch them come in and leave, without feeling that you have to follow them.
  2. See if it is possible to notice the feelings that give rise to the thoughts: the “context’ in which your thoughts are but one link in a chain of events.
  3. View your thought as a mental event rather than a fact. It may be true that this even often occurs with other feelings. It is tempting to think of it as being true, but it is still up to you to decide whether it is true and how you want to deal with it.
  4. Write your thoughts down on paper. This lets you see them in a way that is less emotional and overwhelming. Also, the pause between having the thought and writing it down can give you a moment to respond to it differently.
  5. For particularly difficult thoughts, it may be helpful to take another look at then intentionally, in a balanced, open state of mind, as part of your sitting practice. Let your “wise mind” give its perspective, perhaps labeling the feeling out of which, arises, and holding a sense of curiosity, as best you can: “Ah, here is sadness”; “Here is the familiar harsh and critical voice.”

For more details on mindfulness training, check out mindfulness courses at www.mindfulness.ie.

Fiona O’Donnell and colleagues from The Mindfulness Centre are presenting multiple talks on different aspects at WellFest 2019 in association with KBC on 11 and 12 May. To find out more and book tickets, visit wellfest.ie/festival.

Read: Gerry Hussey’s top tips to be calm and present