Racing thoughts can manifest themselves in different ways. Sometimes they take the form of ruminating when you can’t stop repeatedly going over the same negative thoughts.
Another form is processing, where you revisit sources of stress or anxiety. You may be rehashing and processing an event over and over again, but there seems to be no obvious solution. So it comes back to the forefront of your thoughts – especially during quiet times at night – after being temporarily repressed.
And then there is the movie screen: You may experience your thought process like a film that plays in your head at night. In this situation, the images pass quickly in the imagination while you lie awake with your eyes closed.
If that’s you, then I show you a simple exercise on how to better deal with your racing mind in this article.
Shows keep changing, but the screens remain unchanged
Let’s face it: Screens are ubiquitous in the modern world. We hang them on our walls and call them televisions; we carry them in our bags and call them laptops; we hold them in our pockets and call them smartphones.
Literally, everything we can imagine is on these screens, from heartbreaking love stories and funny cartoons to ripping horror films. And then, at the touch of a button, an analysis of the latest stock market movements.
But have you ever thought about the fact that regardless of what happens on the screens we carry with us, the machines that deliver the images remain unimpressed? That means every horror will pass; every childish mischief will end; every loving moment will cease, and even the dullest scene will eventually end.
The shows keep changing, but the screens remain unchanged!
Why we so easily become the story on the screen
Our thoughts, feelings, memories, and sensations are exactly the same; they’re like clips from a show on the screen. Some of them are joyful and make you happy and content. Others are frightening and make you anxious and depressed. And yet sooner or later, they all pass.
And just like the screens, your awareness process remains unchanged!
It’s easy to get lost in what’s happening on those screens. A good film can make you forget that you sit motionless for hours doing nothing but staring straight ahead. And similarly, you can lose yourself in your own experiences without even realizing you’re living them.
It can be fun watching a film in a safe place. However, it can be a nightmare when you get lost in repetitive mental patterns that have become so pervasive and all-consuming that you forget you are aware of them.
In a sense, you forget that you exist at all. Instead, you become the story and the clips on the screen. Then life runs on autopilot, and the direction life takes is based solely on mindless habits.
How to regain the ability to choose: notice what’s showing up!
Although your racing mind may seem like something beyond your control, it actually takes almost nothing to break its spell and regain the ability to choose. You just need to pay attention to what comes up. And then name it, with an attitude of appreciative curiosity. Here’s how.
“I’m scared.” “I have a pain in my throat.” “Oh, look at that. There’s the thought that I’m going to die alone.” Whatever comes up, notice it and name it. Observe your thoughts and feelings like a film playing on the screen. Look at them impartially, with an air of calm and careful enjoyment: with appreciation.
If you are curious, bring care to the process. Don’t observe and describe your experience to only dismiss or believe it – slow down and give this awareness process time so that you can become present to what is.
Maybe you will discover something new or valuable in your experience, maybe not. So be open to what you might find. Either way, you will learn more about your own history and habits of thought. Either way, you show up.
Where in your body can you feel the pain?
It often helps to imagine your painful thoughts and feelings as an object. So if your pain had a shape, what shape would it have? What color would it be? Does it have a smooth surface or a prickly one? How much does it weigh? And where in your body can you feel it? The more concrete, the better.
For example, you can imagine your pain as an air balloon. While observing your pain (or, in this case, your air balloon), exhale slowly. Continue until your lungs are empty, and then pause for three seconds. Then slowly breathe in again and imagine your breath flowing in and around your pain (or, in this case, your air balloon). Continue to breathe in this way as you open and create space.
As you breathe into your pain, continue to observe it. Your air balloon may get bigger or smaller. It may stay, or it may disappear. Believe it or not, both are okay!
Don’t try to get rid of your pain
The point is not to make the pain disappear, but to learn to live with it without dictating your life. You can stop fighting it and re-engage with the world around you and do what really matters to you.
Like any other skill, the ability to give space to difficult thoughts and feelings takes practice. It can feel uncomfortable at first, but the more you do it, the more natural it becomes.
Each time the pain arises, notice it, name it and then observe what happens with an attitude of appreciative curiosity. You can visualize the pain’s shape and color and where it is in your body. And when you have pictured it, breathe into it, open up and give it space.
And the best part is that you can do this simple exercise any time during the day or night while awake in bed.
I do this whenever I feel uncomfortable. It helps me tremendously to accept what is instead of getting stuck in an unhelpful “trying-to-get-rid-of” struggle which would only increase my unease.
So try it out, and let me know if it helps!