Sometimes all I want is for my brain to just stop thinking.
Today I found my mental space being taken up by more or less the same thought, for the entire day. It wasn’t until I got back to my apartment and opened my journal that I even realized this was happening. I was so caught up in thinking about that one thing, that I completely lost the ability to reflect on my thoughts.
You might be thinking, Grace, why would you ever want to think about your thoughts? Isn’t the point of this article to think less. Well actually thinking about our thoughts is exactly how we can hone the ability to think less. Being aware of our thoughts and being able to separate ourselves from them helps us regain control. When we are trapped in an obsessive cycle of thoughts, we have virtually no control.
This sense of being trapped in my thoughts got me thinking about how I ended up trapped in the first place. I tried to remember what types of thoughts my brain usually gets lost in. That’s when I realized that I’m never just thinking the same conclusion over and over again. Instead, when I can’t stop thinking about something, it’s because I’m trying to figure something out. I’m trying to figure out the answer to some question.
I’ve always loved questions, but I guess I never really noticed that they have a dark side. The sneaky thing about questions is that they have a direct line to your subconscious. And once we put something down there, it’s pretty hard to get rid of it. Unless we have resolved or solved it that is. So when questions get stuck down there, what else is your brain to do other than work tirelessly to try and come up with an answer. And how do we get an answer. We think about the question really, really hard. And don’t stop until we reach a conclusion. But what happens if there is no conclusion? What happens if this question is inherently unknowable, at least for the time being. The thinking never stops. Your brain goes into overdrive. And before you know it you’re trapped, unable to even recognize the trap you’re in.
So what’s the trick? How do we get out? Stop looking for answers to unanswerable questions. You might be trying to figure out what is going to happen in the future, how someone else feels, or how to change something that just can’t be changed. Whatever it is, it’s stealing your attention. Taking focus away from the present moment.
It may be hard, but the first step is just realizing that you’re trapped. This step alone puts you back in control. Next, it gets a little bit tricky. We can try explicitly to just stop thinking about whatever it is we’re thinking about, but we all know how that goes… don’t think about elephants. Think about anything but elephants. Boom those floppy-eared giants are stuck in your mind.
So instead of trying not to think about something, I try to focus on what I want to think about instead. Where do I want my energy to go? Because the thing is, when we get trapped in obsessive thinking we are sacrificing so much time, so much energy, so much effort, and so much willpower without even realizing it. And I know we all have other things that we’d rather be doing with those very limited resources.
Now sometimes my gut instinct is to lash out in retaliation against my obsessive thoughts. Sometimes I feel a push to do something reckless, something mindless, something, anything to take me farther away from my obsessive thoughts. But the thing about this approach is that moving away from our thoughts also moves us away from the present moment. It’s a temporary solution, but doesn’t address the root of the problem and usually ends up making it worse.
So back to our first solution. Refocusing our attention on what actually matters. I’ve found that the best solution for me is to focus on myself, taking care of myself, doing things I love and doing things that make me happy. Ask your subconscious some questions about yourself. Or some questions about the world if you want. There’s so much more out there than whatever one thing you’re focusing on. Go find something more fun, more rewarding, and more interesting than whatever one thing you are obsessing over.
Another tip that I learned is to think really carefully before you rope your friends into your patterns of obsessive thinking. I’ve found that when I’m really deep in a trap, I feel so lost and so confused about what to do, that I want to turn to my friends and ask for advice. I really trust all of my friends and so I hope that they will have more clarity on whatever has me turned around. The problem, at least for me, is often that because I’m losing my mind over an unanswerable question, no matter what my friends say, I am unsatisfied with their answers. Because well, there is no answer. So how can I be sure their answer is the right answer or the best answer? I can’t. And maybe then your friends start to get annoyed because you can’t stop bringing it up but also can’t accept any advice they give you. So learn from my mistakes and consider keeping your friends out of it. That means its up to you to stop your obsessive thinking. Now obviously there are extreme cases but in my experience, it’s not until I accept and assert control over a situation that I have any chance at changing what happens. So pay attention, look for obsessive thoughts, be wary of traps, and if you do get stuck, try to notice as soon as possible and find something else to devote your attention to.
I’ve come to believe that [sneaky] questions are the root of all obsessive thinking. You might not even be consciously aware of what question is triggering you, but if you dig deep enough, I bet you’ll find it. This is the dark side of questions. The dark side of the power of our minds. But how do we escape? What’s the answer to an unanswerable question? A different question, of course.