“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” — Blaise Pascal
Whenever I’m feeling stressed, worried, or anxious about something, I know that I have two ways to potentially postpone or rid myself of these negative thoughts: 1) distract myself or 2) address my thoughts head-on. Distraction is the easy path, and I usually use substances (alcohol) or entertainment (Netflix) to go down this path. While this usually works in the moment — my attention temporarily ceases to focus on my worries — I find that they almost always return once I’m done distracting myself, and often have increased in intensity. Unfortunately for both myself and the rest of humanity, living in a smartphone connected, on-demand world means that it has never been easier to distract ourselves, and the quality of distracting content has never been higher!
Realizing that distraction was not a positive long-term strategy for dealing with the human condition, I’ve spent a couple of years experimenting with other strategies for quieting my mind in healthier ways. While there’s no magic bullet or quick & easy solution, here’s what I’ve found has been the most effective:
1.) Address health factors that affect the mind.
- Refrain from ingesting alcohol, sugar, caffeine, or other drugs that affect mental performance for a couple of days. Stimulants and depressants can have lasting effects on your mind for many hours after consumption, which can make your mind feel “busy” or “slow.”
- Get exercise, even if minimal. Even a 30 minute walk or a few sets of pushups can get serotonin and dopamine flowing in your brain, which can improve your mood and long-term memory, helping you to think more positively and clearly.
- Get high-quality sleep. My measure of high-quality sleep is that I remember dreaming and wake up feeling ready to get out of bed. Alternatively, after drinking or getting low-quality sleep, I often wake up in a “shocked” state not remembering any dreams, and don’t have any desire to get out of bed just yet. High-quality sleep is most easily achievable when you have consistent bed / wake-up times, don’t look at screens immediately before or after sleep, and don’t consume any stimulants or depressants prior to going to bed (see above).
After taking care of the basic health inputs (diet, exercise, sleep), there are a few activities which may help make some sense of your thoughts and clear your mind.
2.) Don’t consume any new content. In today’s connected world, we are almost always consuming some form of content — either an article, social media feed, podcast, television show, YouTube clip, song, book, or any myriad of other media. The first step to clearing your mind is to take some time to stop all of this stimulus.
- Quiet time: Now hold on a second, because this might sound crazy — try sitting alone in a quiet room for 10 minutes without any stimulus. This is hard. Very hard. What you’ll probably find is that your mind is jumping around haphazardly on a variety of topics and thoughts, while at the same time you keep thinking “I should get my phone and check Instagram / Twitter / email / etc.” If you’re able to stick it out, you’ll probably have some novel thoughts about something you wouldn’t have otherwise — perhaps an old friend that you want to reach out to, an idea for how to address a situation at work, or a random memory that makes you smile. Without the negative space of quiet time, devoid of the stream of new inputs, these thoughts don’t have room to make it to the surface.
- Meditation: Apps like Headspace and Calm have introduced guided meditation courses into the mainstream, and now have millions of subscribers between them. As Headspace’s website notes, some studies have shown that meditation can reduce stress & anxiety and increase focus, compassion, and mood, among other benefits.
3.) Actively get thoughts out of your head.
- Journal: A well kept journal is honest and thorough, recording not only the events of a day, but your reaction to them and thoughts about how and why you reacted in such a way. Forcing yourself to address your thoughts and actions in an articulate way is difficult but cathartic, and can lead to personal revelations and novel ideas.
- Write: Different than journaling, writing about a concept or idea you have allows you to fully flesh it out. This can lead to exciting moments of realization, connection, or serendipity in which you are able to verbalize an idea you previously “had a feeling about.” Whether you publish your writing on a blog or keep it to yourself, using writing as a tool to expound and clarify your thoughts and opinions on a topic is an empowering exercise which helps you explore the depth of your mind.
- Talk to someone professional (therapist) or trustworthy (friend): Turning your innermost thoughts, fears, desires, and worries into a dialog with a trusted person allows you to say them out loud, process them, and hear how someone else reacts to them. They may ask follow-up questions which make you further investigate your motives and morals. This supported introspection can be powerful to uncovering unconscious thoughts and motivations, which further empowers you to address them directly, instead of continuously distracting yourself from them.
Personally, I attempt to meditate, journal, and write everyday — but fail most days to accomplish all three (without even adding on the health factors…) While these actions are difficult to perform consistently, I’ve found that they are most effective at “clearing” my mind. A clear mind makes me feel more creative, productive, and generally happier — which I believe is worthy of all the effort required to achieve it.
Note: I am not a mental health professional, and the advice above is based purely on my own experience. Hopefully you find it helpful, but if you feel you need professional help for your mental health, please seek it out and do not be ashamed for doing so.