How to Manage Your Racing Thoughts

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This article first appeared on Happify

You know the feeling when your mind is racing at a hundred miles an hour. You feel rushed, there seems way too much to do, and there’s that gnawing feeling that you won’t be able to get through it all.

That’s how I used to wake up for years. Instead of easing into my day, I would wake up feeling already behind. It would affect my mood—I was rushed and short-tempered, and little things would completely throw me off.

I would also feel this way at different times during the day. When I was working, it would distract me and make me feel I wasn’t achieving enough. When I was with my children, listening to their long, drawn-out stories, it seemed as if there was tons of other important work I could be attending to. Never present. Always doing.

I tried mindfulness and it certainly helped. Bringing my attention back to my breath would keep my thoughts from getting ahead of me. I could be more present, more engaged with the moment and with the people around me.

But there was a problem. Sometimes the racing thoughts were very useful—bread needed to be bought; doctors’ appointments, booked; tasks, completed before the big presentation. Not attending to them meant more than just a slight bother. And sometimes it meant the loss of something far more profound. Because sometimes, these thoughts were absolutely brilliant, gushing through like water from a tap. Losing them in the depths of the breath seemed like such a waste.

How, then, was I to tell the difference? How was I to know when to listen and when to dismiss them? I found the answer in listening to my body—a guide we seldom tune in to, and especially not when we rush through our days, at the mercy of our mental chatter. Listening in allowed me to distinguish between three “selves” and to know which one needed my attention—or not.

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The Critical Self

The critical self shows up as tension in the body, because what’s racing through the mind are “shoulds” and other inflexible demands: “You should’ve been at the gym by now”; “You need to get your act together.” Whenever you feel that tightness, expand your body and take in a deep breath of gratitude. Tell yourself you’re right where you need to be in this moment. Say thanks for the opportunity of yet another day to make the most of your opportunities. Slow down your pace—ease into your day or take a moment to reflect on everything you’ve achieved so far. Remind yourself that you don’t have to prove yourself to anyone, much less to yourself. And with this assurance, think of what needs to be done next and step into it with joy and excitement.

The Socialized Self

The socialized self is a term I first heard from the wonderful poet Mary Oliver. It’s the self who thinks of all worldly tasks and responsibilities. It feels not so much like a tension, but a drive—unless, of course, it’s also accompanied by the critical self. The socialized self peaks in “musts” and reminds you of what needs to get done at work, at home, outside of the home. When you feel your mind racing with a list of to-dos, write them all down so they don’t hang like unfinished tasks in your mind and drain you of the energy to actually do them. It’s best to make it a habit to write this list at the end of your workday or at least an hour before bedtime. Your dream state is really profound when you end your day with positive thoughts of joy, gratitude, or accomplishment, and not lists of tasks and chores.

The Elusive Self

In some precious times, what’s racing through the mind is pure brilliance. It shows up as an excitement, a breathlessness, a pull that just draws you in. In her famous TED talk, author Elizabeth Gilbert mentions the poet Ruth Stone, who said poetry came to her like “a thunderous train of air … barreling down at her over the landscape.” I’ve felt it more than once when I’ve been writing for a while, or when I’m deep in trying to make sense of disparate bits of research and have taken a break to get away from it all. Suddenly, my mind begins to race—something amazing wants to pour forth. It’s not formed, nor clear, yet has an urgency to it that can’t wait for any critic or responsibility. If you’ve ever felt that rush, grab a pencil or a highlighter, a paper or a napkin—it really doesn’t matter—and scribble it all down as fast as it flows through you. Because it may be a while before it comes to you again.

I’ve since learned to deal with my racing mind by keeping a pencil and paper handy with me at all times. It helps me focus the socialized self and give voice to the elusive self. As for the critical self, it helps me to write it off!

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