Brain Dumping for the Stressed and Anxious

Image Credit: MikaBesfamilnaya via Bigstock

Ah, the brain dump. A mind-clearing tool popularized by David Allen’s Getting Things Done. Writing down your thoughts in this manner should close “open loops” in your mind. In theory, it should be a simple process. And usually, it is.

Yet if you’re anxious or under a great deal of stress, your thoughts might be spiraling too quickly to even make sense of, much less write them down. The thought of attempting to organize this chaos may be overwhelming. At the same time, you’d do anything just to clear the mental clutter.

Luckily, there is a way to adapt the brain dumping process for even the most stressful of times.

The Real Source of Your Overwhelm

It’s true — your mental space can become so compressed that it’s hard to even consider clearing it out. But we have to make time for this kind of clean-out. Otherwise, we might wind up with a mental mess.

With brain dumping, the actual removal of these mind tangles isn’t the problem. It’s processing them.

Think of your brain dumps like cleaning a room a la Marie Kondo. The first step is piling all the items in a certain category together. That’s rarely the difficult part.

The hard part comes when you’re facing the pile. It‘s the dread that accompanies the realization of how much you have to do.

The cure is giving yourself permission to complete the process in stages. You don’t have to complete this process in one fell swoop. Instead, take breaks between the steps to reduce the overwhelm.

Once you’ve given yourself this permission, you can get on with clearing your mind via the brain dump. Let’s dive into how to do it.

Dump It Now

The “dump” phase of the “brain dump” is what first comes to mind when considering the phrase. Yet, this part of the process takes some getting used to, especially if you tend to overthink. In fact, it can be downright uncomfortable if you’re feeling particularly keyed up. Why? Because you have to do one thing:

Write down everything you’re thinking.

Considering most people would prefer to shock themselves rather than sit alone with their own thoughts, this can be an awkward proposition. But it is the heart of a brain dump.

So pull out a pen and a piece of paper (yes, analog is better than digital in this case) and write down everything that’s on your mind.

No matter how silly you think it is. No matter how stupid it sounds. No matter how much you think it doesn’t matter.
Write it down.

It may take a few attempts for you to start recording everything. But try not to dismiss your thoughts. If you don’t write them down, they’ll continue bouncing around in your head in an endless loop. And that’s exactly what we don’t want. And always remember, if you start to feel overwhelmed, take a short break, then start again.

Here’s a key point to keep in mind: don’t judge the thoughts. Once you do that with one, you’ll fall down the rabbit hole of analysis of every thought. It feeds the overthinking loop and results in page paralysis. End result? Nothing goes on the page and your mind is now even more cramped than before.

Organize It Later

Once you’ve dumped everything you possible can onto the page, ask yourself two or three times: Is there anything else on my mind?

On the first ask, your brain will likely dredge up a handful of items. Get those on the page too. But by the second or third time, you’re thoughts will be definitively “tapped out.”

Congratulate yourself. You’ve officially reached the stopping point for the “dump” portion of the brain dump.

Now, take a five to fifteen minute break.

The break is important. You need enough time to step away from your thoughts, especially if your brain dumping session has been especially emotionally charged. At the same time, you don’t need to procrastinate on examining those thoughts.

After the break, return to your brain dumping materials. Skim your list of thoughts first. See if any patterns jump out at you on the initial read through. Are certain thoughts related to each other? Is a specific topic on your mind more than anything else? Decide on a system of marking these related thoughts (underlining, starring and circling all work well). Then, use the patterns as headings to reorganize everything else on a second sheet of paper.

Can’t find a pattern to your thoughts? No worries. It may look like a jumbled mess right now, but you may not be thinking about broad enough categories.

Instead, read through the list again, looking for two categories:

  • Things you need to do
  • Things you’re worried/concerned/stressed about

While you may not be able to fit every thought into these categories, most of them should fit in one or the other.

From there, pull out a second sheet of paper. Divide it in half. Then, write your “to-do” items on one half of the paper and your “concern” items on the other half.

The “to-do” section is fairly simple to deal with. These items need to go into your task manager app or onto your formal to-do lists. Once you have them settled there, it closes the loop. Thus, your mind should be able to let go of them. After you complete this stage, take another five to fifteen minute break, then return to work with the “concerns” list.

The “concern” list is a little more complex than the “to-do” sector. When I conduct a brain dump during a stressful time, I find my “concerns” fall into three areas:

  • Concerns that seem silly when written on the page
  • Legitimate concerns that are somewhat within my control
  • Legitimate concerns that I can’t do anything to help

Here, I’m defining “legitimate concerns” as any item that at second glance, I say: “That’s not a throwaway concern. I have a right to be worried about it.” It could be anything from a project at work to worries over a family member or friend.

You may find a similar pattern on your “concerns” list. The “silly” ones can be crossed out. They’re the items that might sound worrisome in your head but seem much less important when down on paper.

For the legitimate concerns within your control, consider the smallest next step you could take to move forward on the item. Think as small as you can. The goal is to create a small task that helps ease the overwhelm and concern rather than increase it. Once you’ve determined the small action, add it to your “to-do” list.

Unfortunately, legitimate concerns outside of your control are another beast entirely. Often, these things can be life-changing events — which makes them that much more difficult not to worry about.

So here we’re not looking to do anything about the concerns, we’re simply looking for relief from them. This is an art in itself. First, we have to acknowledge that these things are outside of our control. Not making this acknowledgement will only make the thought intrude into your mind more.

Then, we have to do something to help relieve the mental burden. On occasion, simply writing down the worry can help. Otherwise, use a method that helps ease your mind about these worries. For some, it’s prayer. For others, it’s journalling. For still more, it’s talking to someone else. Find a method that works for you and make use of it.

Routine Hygiene

Hopefully, clearing out your mind with a brain dump like this will provide relief once you’ve finished your first attempt. Repeat the process as many times as necessary to get your mind clear, no matter how close together the sessions are.

When you reach your clear-minded point, it should take a much longer time for your brain to reach cluttered status. But, the brain dumps will be much more effective if you use them routinely before you’re feeling overwhelmed. More frequent use also usually means shorter formal dumping sessions as well — a welcome time-saver for anyone.


In the end, brain dumps are a fantastic tool for clearing out the mental clutter that builds up day-in and day-out. And with these methods, even the most stressed and anxious among us can clean out some mental space.

If you have any other tips for conducting a brain dump, please feel free to share them in the responses!