I literally couldn’t sleep last night because I knew I’d be writing this first post in the morning and couldn’t wait to get started. The ironic thing that you learn as a child on Christmas Eve and pre-birthday nights is of course, that the faster you fall asleep, the sooner the morning will come. It’s counter-intuitive because all you want to do is ruminate on the upcoming day.
But there is no better way to drag out the night than to stay up thinking. Even if you do manage to fall asleep, your thinking inevitably follows you into your slumber and leads to this cerebral sleep- a melange of dream and thought. Then you wake exhausted, though it doesn’t usually matter, because at least the day has arrived.
Out of all the reasons to have insomnia, the best has got to be that you’re excited about your life and can’t stop thinking about it. I mean, really, I’m not complaining. If I had more sleepless nights like this, that would be fine with me. It’s the nights of worrying-based insomnia that I’d like to cut down. Those are far more frequent and they leave you feeling like a train wreck in the morning.
Anyway, my night got me thinking about how our thoughts affect our body. It has been my experience that having a lot on your mind can disrupt your body’s normal functioning. For example, worrying about a presentation can make you lose your appetite or even became sick to your stomach. Similarly, thinking about all the things you have to do in a day can make it impossible to start working on any one thing.
Thinking and reflecting on your life and your goals is important. But when it comes time to taking action (or inaction in the case of sleep and relaxation), thought can be a problem. Being overly conscious will stop your body from doing what it want to do, every time. No matter how tired you are, you won’t be able to nod off if you are thinking.
Why Do We Over-Think?
We become addicted to thinking quite simply because it’s exciting. It provides us with a sense of validation. Daydreaming and imagining a promising future makes our hearts race. Even worrying about the bad things in our lives gives us a sense of excitement. If you have a lot of problems, it means you have a lot going on in your life. There’s something meaningful in that.
Shutting Up Your Head
A lot of self-help gurus (and Buddhists) talk about being “in the moment”. I have always found this to be very trite advice that sounds good but is hard to put into practice. It’s like- yeah, thanks. I’ll get right to that…
Here are some practical tips I’ve discovered for silencing my thoughts and allowing the unconscious ‘body’ side of the mind/body dichotomy to take over.
1. Remind yourself that over-thinking now will hurt you later
Over-thinking is an addiction that provides you with a sort of high. That’s all it is. Know that the more you think, the less action you are going to take (if anything, just due to fatigue the next day).
2. Make a list, set some goals, or write out your thoughts
Often when I’m up worrying or can’t focus on an assignment, this is the only thing that will help me. The same thoughts often come in cycles and sometimes just getting them all out and in a tangible form will take care of the problem. Scheduling tasks and errands into the upcoming week often helps me regain a sense of control.
If you’re upset or mad at someone (or even really happy), just writing out a little monologue and purging yourself, is tremendously helpful. I sometimes write letters to the people I’m mad at (then I password-protect them or tear them up).
3. Do something else
Do something that requires less/no mental energy. Take a walk, watch a DVD, read some fiction, listen to your ipod. The idea is to do something that will shut your head up for a while.
Finally, I just want to reiterate that I am not advocating giving up thought all together. I am a huge fan of goal-setting and I really believe that every great achievement begins with a specific thought and conscious planning along the way.
It’s also very important to take the time to acknowledge your accomplishments and be proud of them. If you don’t ‘stack your wins’ and use them to increase your confidence, you will constantly be looking outside for validation. Learn to appreciate your achievements and feel good about them.
What this post is really about is not dwelling on your thoughts to an extent to which it interferes with your productivity. Be excited about your life or worry for a little while, let it run through you, and then put it aside so that your mind can focus and your body can relax.
I want to know what you guys think. Do you have any other tricks you use to silence your thoughts when they are getting in the way? Share them in the comments field.
Aaand now I do believe it’s time for a nap…