If social isolation and physical distancing made me realize one thing it’s that we’re never alone. Not in a freaky way, like someone’s watching us. (Although after watching the series “Person of Interest” on Netflix, I’m not so sure anymore. But that’s beside the point).
We’re never alone because our mind keeps us quite busy, doesn’t it? It listens to all of our thoughts, and without a filter, it likes to question them, shut them down or completely sabotage them. Especially, if we plan to do something new, something that’s not necessarily comfortable.
During the lockdown, how many times have you thought about waking up early and working out? Now, come your 6 a.m. alarm, how many times did you talk yourself out of it and slept in instead?
Across the time of human evolution, a lot has changed in our environment, but very little, if any, within our biology. Our mind’s ultimate purpose is, and always has been, to keep us safe, alive and comfortable in the now. It doesn’t care how your present actions will impact you two hours later, as long as the now is cozy.
That’s why it’s so easy to lay on the couch, eat something sweet, that reward the dopamine center of the brain, and watch TV. It’s certainly safe, and as far as your primordial brain is concerned, you might get chased by a lion tomorrow, so you’ll burn off those calories anyway.
Except, in our world, you won’t. The only lion and threat you’ll face is the chance to fail, face something you’re afraid of or get embarrassed. Although those are certainly not sharp-teethed predators, physiologically your body and brain will experience the same stress response as it would if it was back in the Stone Age.
To avoid that stress of failure and anxiety, your mind steps in causing a mental battle between what you can do to stay cozy and remain the same and what you should do to grow and evolve.
Telling yourself that you’re not enough or can’t do it, is just not true. The only thing that’s stopping you from achieving anything you set your eyes on is your mental chatter. It knows that you might fall along the way or feel stress, and it wants to keep you away from that. Yet, to grow, falling and some stress is pretty much required.
The good news is that you can find a way to dial down that mental chatter and don’t let it sabotage your personal growth. You can’t quite turn it off. Or at least, I haven’t been able to. Among a few interventions I’ve tried, however, what helped first is becoming aware and acknowledging that it’s there without giving it energy. The saying, “don’t believe everything you tell yourself” is so true.
In fact, research done in 2005 by the National Science Foundation found that the average person has about 12,000 to 60,000 thoughts per day. Of those, 95% are exactly the same thoughts as the day before, not to mention, 80% are negative. No wonder, millions live in constant anxiety.
So, here are five ways to dial down your mental chatter and take back control of your thoughts.
The first step in taking control of something you feel conquered by, is recognizing that it’s there. And even so recognizing as it’s creeping up on you. Are your thoughts working for you or against you? Do you procrastinate on projects, put off lifestyle transformations? Staying in your comfort zone is easy, but what isn’t, is recognizing what’s keeping you there. Most likely, it’s just a quiet sound that grabs the back of your shirt just as soon as you’d cross that line into growth. It can be so subtle that after a while you automatically just give in and stop trying altogether. Next time you’re up for something new, take note when your mind will try to tell you “hold up, you don’t have to do that…” That’s your cue to do it anyway.
Inhaling and exhaling happen automatically. Most of us don’t even give it much attention. It’s controlled by our autonomic nervous system (ANS), the same machine that makes sure our heart keeps on pumping and all other involuntary body functions work as they were intended to. The ANS has two branches, the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). While the former is dominant in the event of stress, the latter is during rest and relaxation. They should balance each other out through stress and adaption.
However, when your negative mental chatter just won’t keep quiet, it’s keeping your SNS in an overactive state. Staying in that state for extended periods can wreak havoc on your body and nervous system causing a chronically elevated stress response that can lead to all sorts of problems with your mental and physical health.
I’ve found breathwork to be highly effective. Taking control of my breath helps to take control of my thoughts. Plus, even upregulate the parasympathetic response. The stress created by that mental chatter causes physiological responses such as increased cortisol, a rise in blood pressure, elevated heart rate, anxiety and shallow breath. Change only one of those, your breath, and all the others will respond. Noticing and slowing down your breath will tell your brain that everything is okay and it will restore homeostasis. All it takes is a 10 to 15-minute breathwork (there’s a ton of Youtube videos that can guide you). My favorite right now is the Wim Hof Method.
Grounding and Sun Exposure
These two, I’ve found, are best when going hand-in-hand. To make sense of this one, we must start at the notion that while your state of mind can affect your body (physiologically), the same is true the other way around; your body can influence your state of mind. Grounding and sun exposure fall in the second category. Grounding, or earthing, has an electrical effect on your physiology, and the sun has an energetic frequency effect on the body.
Spending too much time indoors surrounded by electronics and under artificial lights increases the body’s positive voltage and may disrupt its circadian rhythm, which will keep the sympathetic nervous system active and the mental chatter loud.
By going outside, walking in the park or on the beach barefoot, the earth’s negative ions help the body reduce inflammation and oxidative stress and balance the nervous system. Pair that with Vitamin D and full-spectrum wavelengths of light from the sun, and you’ll immediately notice a shift in your mood, and your sleep will improve too.
Next time you’re having a mental battle, step outside, even if just your back yard, and take a walk around or sit down in the grass, read a book and notice the little things around you. An ant might walk up your foot or a butterfly land on a rose petal. Or, feel as the breeze touches your skin. These might sound silly but nonetheless work well.
Whether you can or can’t dance, it doesn’t matter. Put some music on and start moving your hips, bob your head, swing your arms left and right or jump up and down. One of the best ways to stop your mental chatter is a pattern interrupt. Think of it this way: if your friend just won’t stop talking about their annoying boss, would they stop if you started dancing in front of them, or even grabbed their hand to dance along? Sure, they would. Your brain will stop banging you with negative critique too as soon as you start dancing. Why? Your body prefers being happy over being miserable. There are just too many negative distractions around you that keep your focus away from being happy. Remember, 80% of your thoughts a day are found to be negative.
If you want to take control of your mental chatter, do something that’s fun. I doubt anyone could give me one reason that dancing isn’t. Humans have been doing it from the beginning of time after all. If it worked then, it sure works now too.
I can’t sing, nor was I ever trained to do so, but put on a Disney soundtrack and I’ll sing like no tomorrow. Why? It makes me feel good. Well, there’s also some science behind it. Singing activates your vagus nerve and increases your vagal tone. The vagus nerve is part of the parasympathetic nervous system and connects the brain to various organs throughout the body, such as the heart, lungs and the gut. What does it have to do with singing? It’s also connected to your vocal cords and the muscles at the back of your throat.
Singing just a few tracks will increase your vagal tone that may improve your physical and mental health. You’ll be so focused on the lyrics of the song that your mental chatter will not stand a chance trying to get in the way.