Note to the reader: this article refers to a mind that feels like it’s constantly thinking, rather than hearing voices. If you are hearing voices this article from Mind may help.
I was teaching a relaxation class to a group of students recently, when I likened the feeling of anxiety to being on a treadmill.
You start with a slow walk which increases to a gentle jog – not always pleasant, but manageable – and the next thing you know you may find you’re hurtling at a pace, faster and faster, running at a terrifying sprint. You keep going, trying desperately to stay on the machine knowing, if you don’t keep up, you’ll fall off and get hurt. You can’t just halt the machine either; you have to bring the process slowly to an end so you don’t do yourself a serious injury.
The challenge is how to make the situation safe, when you don’t know what to do. So, when people – often with good intentions – say “just calm down” or “you’re over-thinking it” when you’re feeling anxious in fight or flight, or have reached a panic attack, you can’t just switch off – as far as you’re concerned something’s not “safe”.
Telling someone to stop thinking or snap out of it is impossible – the mind is designed to think, and when it’s in fight or flight survival is the key focus of attention.
More and more people say that happiness is a choice. As part of World Mental Health Day, and to fight the stigma associated with it, I wanted to explore the idea that when our mood is negatively affected, are we always in control?
People with poor mental health tell me consistently they feel really misunderstood; that they’re not attention seekers and if they could just “snap out of it” they would.
Sometimes anxiety has no story line and panic/depression just takes hold – it’s a challenge to manage anything when there is no obvious cause.
There may be insights when the experience is unravelled through talking therapy, or it may be that a series of factors including lifestyle, lack of sleep and relationships are involved – but sometimes there is no apparent reason at all.
Nearly all of the people I speak with recognise the feeling of having a noisy mind – swirling thoughts that won’t slow down – and one which is difficult to tame or quiet.
Living with a noisy mind is not always a precursor to a panic attack but can be a cause of anxiety and depression, especially if the noise continues over a prolonged period of time. It can be exhausting. If thoughts stop you sleeping at night, you’ll know yourself how your mood is impacted the next day.
People then learn not just how to hide their noisy thinking from others, but may find unhealthy coping strategies, like alcohol or drugs, even over working. You may also suffer with obsessive compulsive disorder: performing rituals to combat and control any thoughts, feelings or concerns that something bad will happen.
The noise is ineffable, it’s not necessarily a voice although sometimes it is the “should and shouldn’t” sound – “I shouldn’t be resting, I should be working/cleaning the house/studying” – and it becomes yet another stick to beat ourselves with, something else we’re getting wrong or failing at. It may look a little like worry to someone on the outside but it’s beyond any sort of worry we would class as “normal” or “day-to-day”.
Like the speedy treadmill, sometimes the first a person knows they’re in the grip of something awful is when it’s become a real problem. Sometimes other people notice before we do, and it may only be when we get physical symptoms like headaches and stomach problems (with no obvious medical cause) we make the decision to address it.
As far as controlling negative thoughts is concerned – and therefore our mental health – especially when those thoughts are automatic, leading to habitual, unhealthy responses, it takes time, education, effort and support to get better. It’s when understanding how the brain works in fight or flight is useful (I teach more about this in CBT sessions and wellbeing courses), and in particular finding out more about anxiety and what helps.
So do we have a choice to stop thinking? No. But there are things we can do to manage the mind.
The choice is in looking after our mental health to help avoid longer term problems and take some positive action. Here’s some ideas:
1) Have a chat with your GP if you’re finding your thoughts or the noise is difficult or unmanageable. A certain amount of worry is normal and sometimes necessary (eg. when going for a job interview, it keeps us on our toes). If you are feeling overwhelmed, your doctor may refer you for private therapy or talk through other interventions which may be useful. If you have been having thoughts about harming yourself, you can also talk to the Samaritans.
2) The nature of the mind as we get older is to be busy. You can re-train it, to become less noisy, through healthy coping strategies like Mindfulness and consider attending wellbeing courses either privately run or through local charities. Have a look at the Mind website to see if there’s anything happening in your area.
3) Cognitive Behavioural Therapy offers tools you can add to your list of things which can be useful, especially when you need to challenge unhealthy overthinking which is getting out of control.
You may also find this video of people sharing their experiences – and what helped – useful.
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