Why Can't I Shut Off My Mind?

The body holds a key.

Posted Jul 12, 2018

Beth came to therapy because she could not stop her mind from worrying. She’d obsess about the same things over and over, getting stuck in a loop that didn’t lead to resolution or peace of mind. She’d wake up obsessing about her future and blaming herself for past mistakes. Intellectually she knew she just had to do her best and take everything a day at a time. But she could not quiet her mind.

Ruminating, as defined by Webster’s Medical Dictionary, is “obsessive thinking about an idea, situation, or choice especially when it interferes with normal mental functioning; specifically: a focusing of one's attention on negative or distressing thoughts or feelings that when excessive or prolonged may lead to or exacerbate an episode of depression.”

Ruminating feels awful and is exhausting. Many people resort to prescription medications like Klonopin and Xanax to help calm the anxiety that drives ruminations. But there are other ways, more lasting ways, to calm anxiety and experience some relief.

It helps to first learn a little about the relationship between ruminating, anxiety and core emotions. I diagrammed it for Beth on the Change Triangle:

Hilary Jacobs Hendel
Beth, like most of us, tune out emotions and body sensations. She goes up into her head, moving up the Change Triangle.
Source: Hilary Jacobs Hendel

Core emotions (fear, anger, sadness, disgust, joy, excitement and sexual excitement) are natural, universal, unavoidable, and automatic. And core emotions produce energy for survival actions, like preparing us to run fast to avert danger. Sometimes emotional energy has nowhere to go. The result is anxiety: trapped energy swirling around our body. It feels terrible!

Both core emotions and anxiety are visceral; they are called “feelings" because when we become aware of them we can literally, physically feel them. Our natural tendency is to avoid uncomfortable sensations, so the brain–often unconsciously–leads us to disconnect from our body and escape into our thoughts.

Just as anxiety is trapped energy churning in our body as a result of avoiding the feelings of core emotions, ruminations are thoughts churning in our minds to avoid feeling the sensations of anxiety. The way out? Work your way back around and down the Change Triangle: tune into your body, discover which core emotions are at work, and safely process them. When the body calms down the mind will soon follow.

I asked Beth, “Can you scan your body from head to toe and share what you notice?”

Beth immediately said that she was anxious.

“How do you know you are anxious? What physical sensations tell you that?” I asked.

“My arms and legs are jittery, my heart is beating fast, and I feel agitated.” Beth did a great job noticing her sensations. This ability to notice the specifics of how her body felt would be a key step to quieting her mind.

The recipe for a calmer mind is getting better at welcoming emotions. Quiet minds have learned through practice that the discomfort of safely experiencing our emotions is temporary, while avoiding emotional discomfort can lead to lasting anxiety, ruminating or other debilitating defenses and symptoms like depression, self-harm, obsessions, eating disorders and addictions. 

Over time, Beth learned to safely listen to her core emotions and sometimes act on them. She validated her deep sadness from having virtually no relationship with her mother, allowing herself to cry both alone and with me, and fully accept and mourn her loss. She took night classes to finish her degree which eased her fears. She learned to stop judging herself or her emotions and to give compassion to the parts of her that suffer without comparing her hardships with those of others. With each of these steps, her body and her mind calmed.

Noticing and getting comfortable with the emotions in our body is the main practice for diminishing our worries and ruminations. 

Ready to try a little experiment?

Scan your body from head to toe. Use the sensations and emotions charts to put words on what you are experiencing, which helps calm the brain. Stop at your head, heart area, stomach, abdomen, and limbs. Write down the sensations, however subtle, that best describe any anxious feelings in your body. As you do this, be sure to have a loving stance towards yourself: try not to judge anything you notice and strive to be as compassionate to your pain as you would be to a beloved friend, child, pet, or partner.

See if you can name all the core emotions you are holding that are underneath the anxiety, again without judging or needing to know why or whether they make sense. Consider everything on this list: Fear, Anger, Sadness, Disgust, Joy, Excitement, Sexual Excitement. You may find more than one. Name them all. 

To stop ruminating, we must work our way clockwise, around and down the triangle by actively shifting our attention to our physical sensations. Once reunited with our bodies, we breathe slowly and deeply to lower anxiety. Then we name, validate and process our core emotions one at a time. 

This is science: the neurobiology and physics of emotions.

Hilary Jacobs Hendel
Validating, naming, and experiencing core emotions calms the mind and body.
Source: Hilary Jacobs Hendel

Getting comfortable with the physical sensations produced by our anxiety and emotions is one of the secrets to calming the brain and healing psychological distress caused by adversity and childhood trauma (wounds none of us escape just by virtue of living). And, it is a practice, not a perfect. It’s not necessarily a quick fix either. However, with work, the brain and body absolutely heal moving us towards peace, calm and greater connection to our authentic self. Hard work now, leads to greater peace for a lifetime.

Congratulations for getting started! A+ for trying!