A common symptom of anxiety is the endless round of inner thoughts, that seem to drag us down with worry and dread. We wake up at night, our stomachs churn, and we are there again, ruminating. We play the same stories over and over. We worry about losing our home, losing our money, losing our jobs, losing our relationships, losing our health, failing in our creative endeavours. And we worry about those around us, and whether they will be OK.
Often, we know that the chatter is pointless. But it is as though we are addicted to the negative stories we play. At good times, we may be able to play positive stories in our heads, of success. But at times of high anxiety, we become familiar with a particular set of narratives. Things can only end one way, we feel, and that is with loss.
It’s very common to be stuck in such a spiral of anxiety, especially when external circumstances have changed, and knocked us off our feet. Equally, for some, anxiety and depression arrive almost without warning, creeping over us periodically, like stormy weather.
Here are six ways to reduce negative chatter in the mind, and therefore to get closer to mental health.
#1 – MEDITATION – Meditation is a practice designed to calm our anxiety. It encourages us to sit, and to realise that all the stories we invent for ourselves are unnecessary, and vanish like clouds when we become free from delusions. When such thoughts come to us, we learn to observe them, and ultimately to let them go.
#2 – FOCUSED ACTIVITY – Focused activity is where we stop doing everything else except one thing. It could be gardening, or drawing, or listening to another person… anything, as long as we channel our attention towards it. For a time, our anxious background chatter ceases, and we are in the moment with the activity.
#3 – BEING IN THE COMPANY OF OTHERS – We can visit friends and sit with them, or we can go and sit in a public cafe. Humans have evolved to be comfortable with a buzz of activity around us. It brings us out of ourselves, and activates thousands of pathways – neuronal, chemical, hormonal – which, when active, balance us into a comfortable flow.
#4 – A CHALLENGE – This secret is known by many parents. Set your child a little competitive or creative task, perhaps with a reward at the end, and watch that child become acutely focused. As adults, we can do the same for ourselves. The challenge can be large or small, but it should have a manageable beginning and an end, so that we can feel hopeful rather than despairing. It could be to tidy up one thing, or to write a poem, or to mow a lawn.
#5 – CONVERSATION – Conversation with others uses many of the neural pathways we have been using for anxious chatter. We can'[t do both at the same time. If we can find a friend to have coffee with or talk to on the phone, it occupies the channels previously used for negative rumination.
#6 – WORKING IT THROUGH CREATIVELY – We may need to go through a ‘dark night of the soul’, in order to re-encounter despair and darkness. The reasons for this can be many, but one is that it helps us to re-engage with others’ suffering. We know what it is like to despair, and therefore we are more in tune with others suffering in the same way. Many works of art and literature were produced this way.
Choose a method that seems right for you at the moment.
Here is a simple list of the above suggestions:
- Focused activity
- Being in the company of others
- A challenge
- Working it through creatively