7 Steps to Calm an Anxious Mind
Small acts of moment-to-moment mindfulness are the key to mellowing out your monkey mind, say Nina Purewal and Kate Petriw, the authors of Let That Sh*t Go. Their straight-talking guide chips away at anxiety: It’s not necessarily about blocking out your calendar to meditate, they say; although if that’s your jam—sure, great. But start, they suggest, with gently observing your thoughts when they cross the line between reflecting and ruminating. It’s an effort that, once you’ve given it some practice, is pretty small. And you could come out the other side with something pretty big: awareness, acceptance, authenticity, perspective, and—as you learn to hear yourself out—maybe some peace of mind.
How to Befriend Your Ruminating Mind
Sometimes we don’t even know it’s happening: We go from one thought to the next, innocently mulling over an issue. Maybe you’re debating whether a text you received from a friend was off-tone, or maybe you’re making calculated decisions about your next career move. Your mind can’t really help itself. It’s completely natural. It’s your mind’s job to think thoughts. But then you find yourself churning over the same issue again and again, and it’s ruining your focus, souring your mood, and interrupting your sleep—which means you might be ruminating yourself into a lather.
The cause? Possibly it’s that you’re denying your inner voice. It’s inevitable that our minds will toil over a decision here and there, but if an issue has been taking up an unnecessary amount of mental energy, it could be that you’re not listening to the most important person in your life: you.
A ruminating mind can actually be your ally. It’s stirring up shit for a reason, telling you that something might not be right. The problem is that we distract ourselves from this inner voice by unnecessarily scrolling through our phones or filling our schedules to the max. And by doing this, we neglect the part of that voice that might actually have the answers.
Until we’ve given the mind space to distill whatever issue we’re dealing with, it will continue to invade our mental energy. Once we can lean into what our gut is telling us and what our emotions are pleading to let us know, the ruminating mind will more likely subside.
Rather than getting frustrated with the ongoing mental racetrack, try to do the opposite: If your mind is shouting so loud that you can’t focus, hear it out. Take a minute—or an hour—to sit with it. Hand it a microphone.
Here are some tips to let that shit go. Meaning: Calm your mind, release fear, and get to the bottom of your authentic self.
Listen to your inner whispers.
Consider this: Your mind has two parts, the chatty mind and observing mind.
The chatty mind is the mode that we often associate with busyness, rumination, and anxiety. We call it the “monkey mind.” It unintentionally goes from thought to thought to thought, faster than we can even digest. (We typically think between 35 and 42 thoughts a minute. That translates to 50,000 to 70,000 thoughts a day. Who can keep up?)
The observing mind, on the other hand, simply observes what the chatty mind is doing. It sounds something like this: “Okay, now you’re stressing about that work deadline. Now you’re thinking about that argument that really upset you and what to do next. Now you’re wondering what to make for dinner.” The observing mind notices that the chatty mind is running off, and that is half the battle.
Once you tap into your observing mind, you can keep your chatty mind from going down so many rabbit holes. The observing mind is like a muscle: The more you use it, the more weight it can hold. So when the observing mind catches the chatty mind being chatty, you can calm it right down and bring yourself back into the present, which gets you out of that swirling headspace, even if just for a few seconds. It’s like your mind catching a breath of fresh air. And that allows you to become not only more present to the mind but also more acutely aware of what it is saying. It allows you to tap into the wisdom you already have.
When your observing mind catches your chatty mind running off to stress-land, one way to get yourself into the present is to breathe. Take a few deep, big belly breaths. Your body will give you cues when you’re stressed: Your heart might start to race, your palms might get sweaty, or you might feel a little squeezy; get cozy with these indicators and when you notice them, breathe. It’ll help the racing thoughts settle.
Lean into your senses. You can focus on how your breath inflates and deflates your belly, or how the air feels moving in and out of your nostrils. Notice what’s around you. What do you hear, see, feel, smell? If you’re out for a walk, look at the trees, the intricate folds of a flower’s petals, or even the patterns on the cement you’re walking on. This can bring you back to the moment in front of you.
This gives your chatty mind a little pause on what you’re ruminating over. It turns down the noise, so you can dial in to what your inner truth is telling you.
Sometimes the culprit behind a racing mind is that we’re not being honest with our own emotions. When we stew over an issue, we might be subconsciously trying to avoid feeling something we don’t want to feel, like shame, jealousy, or sadness. Our chatty mind might be giving us a nudge to look a little deeper into what’s going on. It’s not easy to feel all the feels. Sometimes we avoid going there because it’s too painful. But when you let that shit out, you can let that shit go.
You can honor your emotions by crying it out, talking to someone, or even having a good scream. When you allow yourself to feel those emotions, you can peel back the layers and get closer to your core self.
Let go of “shoulds.”
There really is—at the risk of sounding trite—only one magical you. No one else on this planet is meant to do what you are here to do. The more you own who you are at the core, which isn’t always easy, the less your mind will get the best of you.
The thing is, when we’re not true to ourselves, we end up adhering to other people’s expectations of us—the “shoulds” of life. Think about the last time you found yourself in a ruminating tailspin—it’s more likely than not that there were a few shoulds on that mental record: I should have a house by this age. I should pursue that relationship. I should have x number of kids. It’s important to understand where these shoulds are coming from. Parents? Friends? Some implicit law of society? If you really want all those things for yourself, go for it! But ask yourself whether you really do. Maybe you don’t care about making a ton of money, or perhaps you don’t want a relationship or kids. But the need to please can sometimes lead us to question our own desires and decisions. When you evaluate where the shoulds are coming from, you can better understand whether you’re living for your true self.
Catch your chatty mind when you find you’re on this path and use your observing mind to stop this kind of thinking in its tracks. Work toward actions that reflect what’s important to you. And once you do that, your mind will, over time, stop sifting through the things that matter to others and refocus on what you want for yourself.
Relaxation is another great tool to clear the swirling bullshit that is clouding the real inner you. And here’s the kicker: Relaxing is productive. When you relax, it activates your parasympathetic nervous system, which helps you better handle stress, curb worry, and calm the chatty mind.
Back in the day, our sympathetic nervous system—responsible for our fight-or-flight response—was activated if we were properly under threat (as in: We were getting attacked by a saber-toothed tiger). But nowadays, it’s triggered by much smaller stimuli: an argument with our partner, the unwelcome ping of another work email, or the intimidating length of our to-do list. When we activate the parasympathetic nervous system—remember, by relaxing—we actually become less prone to stress and negative thinking.
So take that bath. Meditate. Watch Netflix. Go for a hike. Just feed your soul without guilt. Because once you’ve taken that time for yourself, the inner you takes note. You’re building self-trust by doing things that are important to you, and you’ll notice how much you and everyone around you benefits from that rejuvenated state. You’ll have more patience, compassion, and energy.
Another way to slow down the chatty mind is with action. It might be writing down next steps on a piece of paper, or maybe it’s sending an email to address an issue that’s bothering you. These little actions will keep your chatty mind in check by telling it, “Hey, I’m working on this.” Then it’s no longer spinning in your head; it’s taking a trip with the email you sent or taking a seat on that piece of paper. You know when you need three specific things from the grocery store and it’s not until you write them down that they stop repeating in your head? Same thing.
Writing things down or taking action doesn’t always mean that you have the answer to whatever issue is in your head. You can even just write down how you are feeling; it’s not a solution to an issue, but when your mind notices you’re taking action, it’ll pull back on the reins a bit. And that makes it easier to let go.
When your mind is finally calm and you begin to get clarity, you might be tempted to berate yourself for not taking action earlier. You wouldn’t be the first. But this only sparks a new round of unnecessary rumination.
Remind yourself that you’re doing the best you can. We tend to live in this world that values instant gratification and quick fixes, but not every issue in your head can be solved in an instant. It can take days, months, years, or even decades to peel back the layers of your true self. But once you start hearing yourself out and taking those next steps, you’re on your way to a more authentic version of you, and the chatty mind will start to subside.
It’s important to know that our rational brain developed to help us survive. And most of the time, it’s on our side. But when we haven’t given our mind the attention and affection it deserves by hearing it out, calming it down, and owning who we are, it can start to spin its wheels. And that’s natural.
A ruminating mind is simply calling out for our love. We will forever have thoughts and get tripped up on certain issues. But when we catch our chatty mind, it can help us to deal with those thoughts more effectively. Be patient with yourself. There’s no destination in finding your authentic self; it’s a process.
Nina Purewal and Kate Petriw are the authors of Let That Sh*t Go: Find Peace of Mind and Happiness in Your Everyday. Petriw is the founder of Mind Matters, a Toronto-based organization focused on stress reduction for better mental health. And Purewal is the founder of Pure Minds, which offers mindfulness and meditation workshops for public and corporate groups.
This article is for informational purposes only, even if and regardless of whether it features the advice of physicians and medical practitioners. This article is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice. The views expressed in this article are the views of the expert and do not necessarily represent the views of goop.