It was the middle of the night, a cold breeze knifing its way through the slightly cracked window. Suddenly, a familiar sound rose up out of the night, breaking me out of a deep slumber. It was the sound of garbage bins moving, bins that act as a blockade to my yard. Wind alone couldn’t budge those 55 gallon receptacles, indicating the presence of a potentially dangerous intruder trying to gain access to my property.
Instantly, my brain flew into full crisis mode, thinking that within seconds, this unwelcome intruder may be just steps from my back door. Eyes wide open in a full state of panic, I emphatically threw back the covers, jumped out of bed and prepared for battle with whatever was closing quickly on my personal property.
And then I paused. Hesitating a moment longer, I began to let my mind process this impending showdown. Not knowing what was on the other side, I needed to consider all possibilities. During that brief moment of reflection, an accidental moment of slowing my hyperactive brain down, I realized it wasn’t the garbage bins that were generating the noise. There was no imminent threat after all. It turned out to be my wife’s stomach reacting angrily to the previous night’s endless shrimp extravaganza at Red Lobster.
For a few fleeting seconds that seemed like an eternity, I was convinced that there was an impending danger present. Though I couldn’t possibly have been more wrong, it was the story processed by my anxious mind that convinced me it was true. Thankfully, a wipe of the brow and a collective exhale later, I understood there was no crisis and was able to go back to sleep.
How often do we create stories that turn out to be as fictional and far-fetched as this one? Our brains may be our most amazing asset yet they can also wreak havoc on us every so often. Next time your brain starts to spin out of control, use these five ways to calm an anxious mind.
Determine reality vs. fantasy
When the brain begins to run wild, there is no limit to its creativity. Your brain operates under the supposition that all stories are real. It doesn’t process whether something is fact or fiction. It’s up to us to snap ourselves out of an anxious state by actively processing whether or not the story is true. This process is called cognitive distancing.
From a chemical perspective, our brains often exist in a negative or depressed state while we are asleep. When we are awakened unexpectedly, we may see reality through a distorted lens until the brain has a chance to produce the positive brain chemicals that result in positive or normal moods.
Trust history for a reality check
As our minds race, conjuring up worst case scenarios, we need to stop and ask ourselves a few “gut check” questions. For example, ask “how many times has this scenario happened before?” Or ask, “does this scenario make real-world sense?”
We have a built in fight-or-flight response that humans use to protect themselves from impending threats. Think about the adrenaline rush you feel when you avoid a near collision on the highway. Your brain reacts a potential danger by filling your body with adrenaline enabling you to act quickly to avoid the danger.
Sometimes the fight-or-flight response comes out at the wrong times or when you least expect it. We may feel bursts of energy at inappropriate times such as in the middle of the night. A good rule of thumb to help calm your mind in these situations is to ask yourself if the current thought running through your mind is helpful or necessary. If you deem that it is not, quickly dismiss it and use one of the mindfulness practices provided below.
When a brain starts to spiral out of control, it can be as difficult to slow down as an eighteen wheeler barreling down a mountainside. If you find yourself in that state, start by practicing mindfulness.
Deep breathing is a quick and easy way to start the process of slowing your mind. Take a deep breath in for about four seconds, hold it for at least one second, then exhale for another four seconds. If counting is not your thing, simply say the words “inhale” and “exhale” as you do each; it will act as a mind distractor.
Another easy method for achieving mindfulness comes by tightening various muscle groups. Start with your feet and tighten all the muscles for a few seconds at a time. Work your way up to your legs and so on. By the time you get to your head, you will see that your brain has calmed down and you’ll likely feel better.
Live in the now
We’ve all had past experiences that have left us scarred in some way. Dwelling on past failures or bad experiences does not serve us in the present. What’s past is past, leave it there.
For about twenty years, I had a recurring nightmare that I was going to fail out of college. The dream must have occurred over a hundred times and it was always the same. In the dream, I’d wake up and realize that it was the last week of classes and I hadn’t attended any classes or completed any work that quarter. I believed I was doomed to fail.
While a fair amount of stress certainly comes with attending college, I’m not sure where this “story” came from. I earned my degree, effectively managing a double major and compiling a pretty decent GPA. Apparently a deep-seated fear of failing may have driven me to succeed, but somehow that fear ended up on an endless loop deep within my brain that manifested in my dreams. Once I learned to laugh about this recurring nightmare and take away its power, it finally went away.
Change your location, change your perspective
Negative thoughts can happen anytime, day or night. If in a dream state, simply opening your eyes will help you snap out of it. If you are work, school or sitting around at home and your mind starts to race, get up and move around. Changing your environment will change what your brain processes, quickly breaking the cycle of negative thoughts.
Another simple but easy fix to a mind filled with negativity is to force yourself to smile. You may initially resist, mostly from feeling silly, but it’s very difficult to be angry when you are smiling. The simple act of making yourself smile has the ability to ward off a negative playlist in your mind.
Everyone’s mind races from time to time. For some, it may be a regular occurrence. If you find your mind’s racing is getting the best of you, acting on one or more of these five steps can help calm a racing mind can help you quickly get back to a normal state.