My friends and I were discussing our various sleep issues the other day. Five out of six of us complained about “mind racing”. That is, when the lights go out, our brains light up. Whether it’s tasks left undone, plans for the next day, or just worrying about things, they say this night time mind racing interferes with their sleep. NIGHT TIME? They are describing 90% of my life! I have imaginary family fights, imaginary school issues with the kids, even worrying about a future health crisis with my husband when he’s healthy.
Dear Ms. R,
Mom and Dad, in their consistent generosity had promised us their used Oldsmobile 98. The plan was to fly from Texas to Calif., then our family of five would drive back home. Disneyland was the slated highlight of our return trip. I had even sold two great tube amplifiers to fund the trip. Then Dad threw in the curveball: he wanted us to pack in another family member to go to Disneyland. In doing so, we would be crammed like sardines AND one of the kids would be without a seatbelt. I refused. Dad got mad and threatened to jerk the car away from us. I blew a major fuse and told him to forget the whole deal, that I was calling immediately for return airlines tickets and not to expect us back in the foreseeable future. He was equally as hostile. My Mom was crying, as was my wife, both pleading for peace. Tickets in hand we furiously stormed out the next day. Then, then, then… I realized I was in my car, in my driveway, with the vacation still two weeks off. What the hell just happened? I was sweating and my face red with the beginnings of a headache. I had imagined the whole nightmare scenario! Lightning fast, my bizarro brain had created the WORST. FIGHT. EVER. I was justifiably deeply concerned about my apparent mental state.
[Jumping ahead a few weeks, a fight never transpired; my great Mom and Dad gave us the car as planned, and Disneyland, though very expensive, was great fun for all of us. It turned out to be a fine vacation, and a great journey back home.]
Why then share the incredibly bizarre and stressful imagined experience that transpired in my driveway? It was a turning point for me as I realized two separate entities were running my life. There is the Body of John, and disturbingly, the Brain of John. My brain was working and concocting weird scenarios at will, without my permission. Ever sweat it out thinking about Thanksgiving with the family that might turn out terribly- and it didn’t? Ever anticipated a horrible day at work that instead was a totally normal day? You fretted about not preparing well enough for a test, perhaps imagined the scene where you sat at your desk in a cold sweat not knowing a single answer - but instead did well?
There is justification for advanced worrying if the concern helps you to better prepare for the upcoming event. If one worried about looking like an idiot for a presentation to a group of people, it might help him (her) to put in some extra effort in the preparation. However, thinking what would happen if you had a blowout on the way to your presentation would seem like The Brain working on its own. Anxiety can be caused by real events. However, it can also be caused by our random thoughts that have no real basis in reality. If my clients knew how many times I’ve had to stop myself from fights taking place in my head as I shower, they might reconsider coming in seeking my assistance. However, I have discovered that these self-perpetuated mental negativities are incredibly common. I also believe that women, who seem to think personal thoughts more than men, suffer from this problem of “thought wars” more than men. What then to do about this self-imposed state of anxiety?
# 1: Take careful note of how often your thoughts run away with you. Imagining future scenarios, re-living aggravations, etc. are all included in our brain doing what it wants. This beginning step is not good for our self esteem. Sorry.
#2: Purposely make yourself think about other stuff. The last “anticipated” family squab I was imagining in the shower was replaced by planning each piece of electronic equipment I was in the process of spraying with a contact cleaner. It's almost impossible to make ourselves stop thinking about something. It's more successful to put another thought in its place.
#3: Understand our weakness and the power of our brain. My fun electronic chore was accidentally lost to the imagined argument in my head. You have to patiently and repetitively guide your thoughts over and over and over.
#4: This skill needs a million times of practice to get good. You need to remember to own your brain for a month, six months, ten years.
We all have plenty to worry about. It’s a huge waste of energy to fight imaginary battles. I know part of my fervor is personal, but after so many years I still maintain something of an authority problem; I don't like to be told what to do, especially by my brain, working apparently independently of me. So I ask: who’s in charge here- me or my soft little brain? As a result, I have a significantly reduced number of imagined anxious times by consistently guiding my thoughts.