What is it like when you cannot find an item that you need, your child whines, or you see someone toss an entire meal’s worth of McDonald’s wrappers and soda bottles out their window? Frustrating, annoying, and disgusting? Our brain automatically sends us messages in response to what we see, hear, or experience around us. What we do next defines how we live our lives. No one will remember what you were thinking, only how you behaved.
There is a startling realization which many notice as soon as they try to “clear their minds.” The realization is that you are terrible at clearing your mind. The good news is that it’s not your fault! Our brains are thinking all the time. Right now, you may be thinking about the words in this paragraph, or you may have noticed that you are not. Realizing that you either are or aren’t paying attention is noticing your brain in action, in real time.
Our brains have a job and they do it well. For better or for worse, our brains hate to take breaks or just chill out and quiet down. The same way our ears are always hearing, and our stomachs are constantly creating gastric juices, our minds are thinking machines which are constantly churning. One may be able to not think about a singular item for a period of time, but then the frequency of those unintended thoughts will actually increase shortly thereafter (Dan Wegner, 1994).
Try setting an alarm for 1 single minute and then begin writing down everything that goes through your mind. Then come back. What was that like?
Why Do You Care?
What is it like to be in conversation with someone and not be able to follow the flow because your mind is wandering to what you have to do later, to what you don’t want to do later, to why the other person chose that tie? Similarly, we often drive somewhere, or finish a conversation, and have zero recollection of how we got there or what went on.
This topic matters because it can be really exhausting, and sometimes downright confusing, when we let our minds do all the talking and walking, essentially dragging us wherever it wants.
If we do not begin to alter the way we interact with our brains and the people around us, we end up mindlessly going through our experiences. We may end up missing out on both the good and the bad and sometimes only really noticing the ugly.
All the Mind’s a Stage
Imagine you are in a theater with an empty stage before you and a floor full of seats. From stage left and stage right, information enters from the external world as you perceive it.
But this is unlike any other theater because the seats are populated by your internal experiences: thoughts and feelings. In response to the experiences which enter from stage left and stage right, these internal responses jump out of their seats and onto the stage. The most confounding part of this is that the internal experiences do not like to be stopped from jumping on stage, and some are quite powerful.
For example, as soon as a cookie enters your view and presents itself from stage left, the internal urge to eat it bolts out of its seat and onto the stage. There is no stopping it, really. Meanwhile, if you are at work and trying to concentrate on a spreadsheet—an item which you have put on your stage voluntarily—you may not even notice that hunger. However, it is on your stage. The next thing you know, your keyboard is full of crumbs and you did not even enjoy the cookie! You have eaten the cookie, to get hunger back in its seat, without even noticing it.
Another option that some people try, is to block the urge to eat; while working on that struggle, some very reasonable frustration at your coworker is able to slip right by you and onto your stage. In no time at all, because you are “hangry,” the wrong words are chosen during an interaction and your relationship takes a hit. It is tough being a stage manager.
This ongoing struggle with our internal experience can help us understand why we often feel physically and mentally exhausted after work. It also answers the all too often asked question: “Why did I just do that!?”
It gets worse, because letting this stage be run by our emotions is also one cause of anxiety, depression, interpersonal ineffectiveness, and many forms of emotional distress. Our brains are machines, similar to our stomach or ears, which are working all the time. The thoughts and feelings which “jump on stage” are actually our brains at work, doing their job. We may take it for granted that we need to react to each and every thought and feeling which arises. The good part is that we have a choice. We can respond instead of reacting automatically to this ongoing mental mayhem.
“Track-Changes”: First Track, Then Change
In his autobiography, Ben Franklin provided a checklist he used on a daily basis to notice his behavior and temperament. He realized that there was no way to change anything until we tracked it first.
For example, when anger—which is triggered by the lower, pre-verbal part of our brain— arises, our best intentions may automatically tell us to fight it off and try to control the urge as much as possible. Unfortunately, that is like trying not to think, which is very difficult short term, and if accomplished, usually comes back with a vengeance later. Counter-intuitively, one alternative is to drop the struggle and sort of let things be for the moment.
Here are three methods which will make the struggle easier:
Write it down: We let can use words to our advantage and alter an emotion to something more cognitive and less automatic. The act of simply writing it down changes our brains from being triggered emotionally, to focusing cognitively. On your stage, anger is a raging maniacal fire, but it also has a tag on its chest which reads, “Hi, My Name Is: Anger!“
Think it: Even giving a mental tag to an emotion in our minds helps reduces its hold on us. Repeating to ourselves three times “anger, anger, anger,” has been proven to alleviate the urge to respond to such a feeling (Hayes, 2005.)
Speak it: Sharing your difficult moments with others for a brief period of time has proven to help alleviate emotional stress. The best form of this is with a trained therapist, who can help you process the experience meaningfully, but any short-form of communicating one’s internal experience to another trusted person can promote a sense of well-being and reduce stress. Try not to spend too much time on negative venting though, because intentionally and repeatedly focusing on negative aspects of life without proper support can metastasize into to a negative temperament.
Any Happiness in This Post?
Try these exercises with the more enjoyable emotions you experience as well. It would be incorrect to assume these exercises only alleviate uncomfortable emotions. Amazingly, practicing these exercises during joyous and pleasurable moments in life will actually help you feel them more intensely!
Next time, try to really taste your cookies, totally enjoy and appreciate a smile, and really feel the sunshine on your face and the love around you. Write it down, mentally notice, and verbally share with others your joys and pleasures.
Let’s not let life just pass us by. Let’s try to live in real time.