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Learning to Tame the Unbridled Mind

A couple of weeks ago, I posted an article about my experience of entering the Coronavirus lockdown and described it as feeling like I’d been carried through a tidal wave. Now that the lockdown is established and we know it is going to continue for a few weeks to come, to continue the analogy, we are in that period after the tsunami where the water is retreating; we know which way is up and can begin to find our feet again. We’ve moved onto that next stage of survival, trying to cope with the here and now, the reality of living in lockdown and thinking about the longer term. The fall out from all of this is going to be immense and it could be overwhelming thinking about what it may mean for us individually, nationally and globally. There is plenty to be anxious about.

However, whilst anxiety and worry are natural emotions and almost everyone will be experiencing them just now, they are not very constructive and can become destructive. Anxiety usually centres around anticipating future occurrences or scenarios with a combination of worry, fear and a sense of unease. It is only a useful emotion if used it to anticipate possible events we can affect and take evasive or mitigating actions. If left unchecked worry and anxiety can become debilitating and damage our mental health, interfere with our sleep, cause stress and impact our immunity and physical health. (Another thing to worry about!) I touched on some coping strategies in my last article, but in this one, I want to delve into a discussion about anxiety, worry and emotional wellbeing and how to tame those unbridled thoughts.

I have borrowed the term “unbridled thoughts” to describe anxiety from Susie Hayes, an American acupuncturist. I participated in a webinar presented by her recently where she eloquently spoke about the process of thought from a Chinese medicine perspective. I found the term unbridled thoughts to be particularly illustrative of the thought process when we become involved in an unpleasant thought journey with our minds leaping from one thought to the next, playing out increasingly distressing scenarios, or where our minds become stuck in a circuit of thoughts going round and round. Many years ago, I was a slave to my mind and was unaware that it could be any other way. At that time, I was under a intense stress precipitated by caring for a seriously ill family member, having young children and a demanding job which I didn’t enjoy. Yes, that was a lot, but I worried myself to the point where I became ill. I fretted constantly, was exhausted, had frequent headaches and didn’t sleep well. My mental health significantly impacted my physical health. So, I am no stranger to those unbridled thoughts and the damage they can do.

The experience taught me the importance of self-care and the interconnectedness of our mental and physical health. It was also what led me to the study of Chinese medicine where mental and physical health are not treated separately but considered to be intrinsically linked. Chinese medicine recognises that mind and body impact upon each other. Pathologies can arise by body affecting mind and mind affecting body. It is for this reason that Chinese medicine places so much emphasis on looking after our mental health and why an acupuncturist will always assess the state of a person’s mind when devising a treatment strategy for any condition.

Chinese medicine places great importance on cultivating the mind to maintain a healthy balance between mental activity and relaxation. An under-stimulated mind is a fertile ground for inertia and despondency. Conversely, a mind that is over-stimulated can tip into anxiety, pre-occupation, and loss of the ability to switch off. If thoughts are left unchecked, they can swim around in our heads, bombarding our minds. Thoughts need to be acknowledged and then acted upon or put aside. In this current Covid crisis, there is a constant bombardment of news bulletins, stimulating our minds into worry about the consequences for our own lives, those around us and the wider world. Few of us are able to avoid or affect the impacts of this international pandemic, but it is possible to affect how we respond and react. How we react is a choice we can make.

Realising that our response is a choice is the first step towards getting a handle on our over-active minds. Let’s go back to the webinar I mentioned above presented by Susie Hayes. She described the physiology of thought and the three stages it needs to go through and the process of healthy thought. First a thought appears in your mind, it then needs to be assessed, and finally acted upon. For example, whilst writing this, I am thinking about tea.

I’m noticing that I’m a bit thirsty and cold, I’ve been sitting here a while. So now I decide whether a cup of tea would be a good idea and what to do about that, then I take action. I could pause writing this, and make myself a cup of tea. Or I could decide, that I am on a roll with my thought process and I will decide to make myself a cup of tea later when I’m finished and dismiss the thought. That is still action. I assessed the thought and decided to dismiss it. Now what if I don’t dismiss it or take action? I would allow the idea of tea to keep circulating in my mind, distracting me from what I’m doing and begin to lose focus, allowing my mind to wander and lead onto other thoughts I can’t act on.

The important take-away from this is, have a thought, decide what to do with that thought and take action or dismiss it. However, what if it’s a thought with a great deal more emotional weight behind it? What do we do if it’s about something we can’t take action on due to the Coronavirus, such as “I want to see my Mum, I’m worried about her” or “my IVF cycle has been cancelled, I’m 39, when will it be lifted, will it be too late…?”. The lockdown may be throwing up lots of things like this and because there is no action we can take these thoughts may be coming up thick and fast. Thoughts circulating in our minds throw up questions we don’t know the answer to with repercussions we may be afraid of. What can we do with those? The principles are the same in terms of the physiology of the thought described for something simple such as wanting a cup of tea, however, they may have more significant emotional weight.

In my previous blog, I mentioned the importance of being able to identify and differentiate the emotions that we have or they can become entangled and confused. For thoughts with such emotional weight, we do need to acknowledge them and feel their significance, but we do also need to be able to recognise when we are powerless to act upon them. The more significantly emotional a thought is, the more likely we are to feel the power of it throughout our body, perhaps in our chest, shoulders or stomach. Being able to notice and acknowledge our thoughts and recognise the feelings throughout our bodies helps us take some control over our busy minds.

Worrying and overthinking cannot fix the situation we are in but does damage our physical and mental health. However, acknowledging the emotional thoughts and beginning to accept the uncertainty and our powerlessness in the situation, will begin to bring some peace. The decision or action on these thoughts is to accept a situation and being able to reconcile yourself to the fact that no amount of thinking or willing the situation is going to change things. It just is what is and we are where we are.

The practice of meditation, really does help to make this process easier. It helps to break the destructive cycle of negative thought, brings you out of your head and into the moment. This in turn resets your body’s physical reaction to the anxious or worrying thoughts, helping to slow your breathing, calm your heart rate and shift your body from the fight or flight (sympathetic nervous system) mode into restore and relax (parasympathetic nervous system) mode. When you are in the fight or flight mode, the focus of your body’s functions are diverted away from digestion, reproduction and balancing hormones and the immune system. It is so important to be able to switch of the flight or flight mode, because if it continues for any protracted period of time, it can have significant effects on your general health, fertility and overall wellbeing.

In this difficult time, I have been grateful to have the time to develop and enhance my own meditation practice. I have to admit, this lockdown and whole situation threw me through a loop, I forgot all the self-care I spent so long learning and preaching for a few days there. But, I did have that knowledge to fall back on and was able to restore my sense of calm and balance through meditation. It is very easy to fall out of the habit of it and to forget the benefits you get from it. However, given the time and a little bit of effort, it is very easily learned. Many people I’ve spoken to in the past have said that they have tried meditating and just couldn’t get their minds to switch off, or couldn’t focus. I was that person too before I learned more about it and got the right guidance. Meditation is very easy and anyone can do it straight away, but isn’t something you can just do without any knowledge of what it is. It is important to note that it is not about emptying your mind, but rather being able to objectively acknowledge the thoughts going through your mind and being able to bring your attention back to a central point of focus such as the breath. Having some guidance in the beginning will help you to get started. There is a plethora of books, YouTube tutorials and apps available to introduce you to the basics and develop your practice. I honestly can’t recommend meditation highly enough, if you’ve never done it before or are a bit out of practice, it is definitely worth using a guided meditation or downloading one of the apps to help you get started. I shared a few links in my previous post, here they are again, along with a couple more.

Guided mindfulness meditation with Sam Harris

Article introducing Meditation

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