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Alone With Your Thoughts

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Find it difficult to just sit with your own inner ramblings? Clinical psychologist Noam Shpancer, PhD, offers advice on taming the tumult and finding some mental peace and quiet.

Expert Source: Noam Shpancer, PhD, is a licensed clinical psychologist specializing in anxiety issues and a blogger for Psychology Today.

It sounds simple enough: Sit quietly, with nothing to do, and relax. All you have to do is kick up your feet and stare at the ceiling. Nothing in particular to do or think about? Bliss!

Well, maybe. Too often, the experience of being left alone with our own thoughts turns out to be anything but relaxing. In fact, it can be downright anxiety producing.

Distracting ideas, worries and feelings can come racing through our heads like kittens chasing a ball of string. (For more on the mind’s tendency to race, see “Monkey Mind”.) An anxious projection about the future may take up residence in our imagination and refuse to leave, robbing us of the relaxation we were seeking. We feel fidgety and eager to get up and do something to drive the thoughts away.

Learning how to handle these frenetic trains of thought can make sitting with ourselves easier and more comfortable. It can also teach us that negative thoughts are just that — thoughts, not realities that we have to run from, fight or respond to.

Psychologist Noam Shpancer offers a few simple suggestions for accepting and handling the inevitable mental, emotional and physical restlessness that shows up when we confront ourselves in solitude.

Barriers to Overcome

  • Neurological programming. Shpancer notes that one reason the brain doesn’t quiet down easily is that it’s designed to process external stimuli. “Part of our internal mental architecture is responsiveness,“ he says. “The mind is designed to take in outside stuff and make sense of it, so we are distractible by nature.”
  • Worries about the future. When unoccupied, the mind often fills in the blanks by strategizing about the future. But these forward-focused thoughts — which we believe will help us plan and prepare  — often take the form of anxious projections. A fleeting worry about money can morph into a growing cascade of concerns: What if I lose my job? What if we lose our house? What if we don’t have enough money to raise kids? The resultant onslaught of anxiety can make sitting quietly with our own thoughts nearly intolerable.
  • Fear of psychic pain. “You may currently be experiencing a difficult situation or dealing with a painful memory,” says Shpancer. “In either case, you could feel compelled to numb the pain by distracting yourself.” Sitting silently might create an opening for disturbing emotions you’ve been keeping at bay. Even if you’re not experiencing a rough patch, you may still find your mind turning to troubling ruminations (I wonder if John is mad at me . . . My parents are getting older . . . Maybe I shouldn’t have moved here . . . ).

  • Busyness as social capital. “In this culture,” Shpancer says, “we are raised with messages that equate noisiness and busyness with life, and silence and quietness with death.” Remaining constantly active can also be seen as a way of being responsible, productive and worthy, while quietude is too often equated with laziness or self-indulgence.
  • Being strangers to ourselves. Shpancer notes that our culture tends to value the external — what can be seen and touched — over internal states of mind and soul, so many of us are simply not well acquainted with how the mind works and are unfamiliar with the ways it can be directed toward peacefulness. Also, quieting the mind takes deliberate effort, which, if we’re unpracticed, can seem like more work than it’s worth in the moment.

Strategies for Success

  • Let go of perfection. Rather than hoping and struggling for a “blank slate” or total bliss, accept that your mind will produce plenty of thoughts. The key to creating a calm and quiet mental space is consciously choosing how you respond to  those thoughts — or whether to respond to them at all.
  • Be a spectator. You’ll be tempted to track your thoughts, follow their progress and even fight with them, says Shpancer, all of which will lead to internal noise and discomfort. “Instead of taking the thoughts and feelings that come into your head as the truth, or as you,” he says, “simply observe them as they come and go.” Think of it all as “theater in the mind” — as if it’s a movie you’re watching — not as something that is objectively true or inevitable.
  • Invoke curiosity. One of the best ways to just be with your thoughts without getting upset or anxious is to treat them as objects of curiosity, says Shpancer. “When a certain thought appears, what is it attached to? Does it bring other thoughts and feelings with it? Does it bring memories or bodily sensations?” Explore your internal landscape as a sort of tourist. You’re visiting, looking and learning.
  • Attenuate action. You may learn things about yourself in this process that inspire or require action — problems and issues can come up that require reconciling with someone, getting help, apologizing, etc. — but you don’t need to jump up and act right away for fear that you’ll forget. The important issues aren’t going anywhere. Keep a notepad or journal handy to capture big ideas and insights or urgent to-dos, if you like. Jot them down to clear your brain. Then return to your quiet time. Taking a few minutes to get your thoughts out of your mind and onto paper, says Shpancer, often leads to a sense of relief.
  • Breathe. If your thoughts are particularly negative or anxiety producing, use conscious breathing to stay focused in the moment and avoid fighting the thoughts or fleeing from them. Simply taking three deep breaths, counting to five while inhaling and five as you exhale, can help calm and quiet the mind.
  • Sense your surroundings. Another good way to handle disturbing thoughts is to bring your attention to the physical sensations you are experiencing in the moment: the pressure of your body on your chair, the warmth of your hands on your knees, the sounds outside the open window. “Just doing that,” Shpancer says, “brings you into the here and now in a rich way.”
  • Don’t get upset about being upset. “Scientific data suggest that periodic disturbing thoughts are very common,” says Shpancer. “So it is important to not attribute too much meaning to these thoughts to begin with. Like nightmares, or a child’s tantrum, they tend to show up, sometimes out of the blue, and then leave. A disturbing thought is not a sign of disturbance. Most troubling thoughts will go away on their own if we refrain from self-blame and attaching undo meaning and significance to them.”
  • Seek your center. “Being able to sit with yourself, to be comfortable with your internal world, is a skill that you develop like any other, with regular practice and discipline,” Shpancer says. The more you practice, the easier it becomes.

 

Illustration by James Yang

 

Jon Spayde is the author of How to Believe: Teachers and Seekers Show the Way to a Modern, Life-Changing Faith (Random House, 2008).

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