Have you ever been somewhere beautiful, maybe on a vacation with the people you care about most, yet you just can’t seem to get out of your head? You feel unable to enjoy the moment and relax even though this is the very thing you came here to do? Your mind then starts beating you up for not enjoying the time away? I know mine has!
It’s natural for our minds to wander
Our minds have evolved to look out for danger, solve problems, plan for the future. It is quite extraordinary what the human mind can do, but there is also a dark side to this. There are times when we do not want our minds to be solving problems, planning for the future, or dwelling on the negative, but we can’t seem to shut it off.
Unfortunately, this is because we can’t shut off our mind. More and more research is actually showing that the more we try to stop our thoughts the more this can backfire.
The rebound effect
One famous study asked participants to try and not think about a white bear for 5 minutes. Can you guess what happened? Well, they spent the entire time thinking about white bears! Interestingly, afterwards this group also ended up having more thoughts about white bears than a control group who was instructed to actively think of white bears, suggesting that asking someone to not think about something could produce a rebound effect where they end up thinking about it more.
If we can’t make our mind not think about something as simple as white bears, how are we supposed to stop our mind from thinking about the bigger and more personal issues present in our lives? Relationship issues, financial issues, thoughts of not being good enough?
Of course, sometimes we need to think about our issues. We might have real problems that need to be addressed, or changes that need to be made. In these times our minds can be quite effective.
However, in times when we want to be in the moment, whether that be engaging with our loved ones, focusing on a specific task, or even trying to fall asleep, this dark side of our mind can creep in and pull us away from what we are doing.
What to do?
One way to better handle our mind in these times is to practice not reacting to thoughts when they show up. Instead of getting caught up in our thoughts, we practice seeing thoughts for what they are, simply words or pictures going through our mind. Like anything, this takes practice.
My favourite exercise that does this is called Leaves on a Stream, try it out for yourself below. Obviously, we might not be able to do a formal exercise like this if we are in the middle of doing a specific task. It is better to think of an exercise like this as going to the gym for your mind. The more you exercise this muscle. The better you will be able to detach from unhelpful thoughts in the moment when they naturally show up.