images-1Brain hiccups.

We all get a case of them now and then. For some they are fleeting and all a person has to do is to take a deep breath, visualize their departure, and poof! They’re gone. Not so easy for the rest of us. If I counted up the moments I spent trying to escape the broken record of my thoughts, it would be – no kidding – at least a decade of my life.

Here are some techniques I’ve been using lately to catch the cycle of nonsense and return to the moment, or, more realistically, at least be able to engage in what I’m doing enough to fool everyone that I’m really paying attention and not running numbers in my head.

1. Throw out the garbage.

In her brilliant book, “What To Do When Your Brian Gets Stuck: A Kid’s Guide to Overcoming OCD,” author Dawn Huebner, Ph.D., offers a useful analogy for those of us who need to read kids’ books to understand our neurosis. Think of your brain like a garbage pail, which needs to sort what gets thrown away and what stays. Then literally draw the trashcan and the thoughts that are floating around inside. Circle the things that are worth keeping (or thinking about), put an X over the things that should be discarded (don’t justify the brain power), and mark with a question mark those things that you’re not sure about.

I’m going to add a fourth category: a place of purgatory for the thoughts that you know are important but can stop obsessing about. Example: I have a decision floating in my neural passageways for which I have already run the numbers 245 times and flipped 15 coins (10 heads, 5 tails – but I still don’t know). It’s time to put that baby to rest by simply moving it over to the “to sort later” pile.

2. Make fun of yourself

I find that saying aloud, “This is ridiculous!!” sometimes gives me a moment of respite from the repeated thoughts. Laughing at my neurosis has become a core element of recovery—a fun (as fun as stuck thoughts can be) to make sense of the madness that’s happening within my noggin.

3. Patronize the thoughts

I talk to the thoughts as though they are my kids. “Hey, guys, can you quiet down up there?” Because, if you think about it, the noise is similar to the ruckus that my daughter makes when she is doing handstands in the landing between staircases. And she usually begins the show right as I sit down to the taxes or some other lovely activity that requires concentration and brainpower.

4. Put on the earphones

You most likely have had the pleasure of going into a coffee shop looking forward to a moment of solitary bliss, and a mom and her three kids sit next to you, the littlest one hanging out at your table and the mom thinking it’s adorable. Then the guy behind you gets on his phone and thinks everyone in the place wants to hear his conversation with his boss on the latest sales numbers. The volume on my Pandora hits maximum.

That’s what you want to do to the annoying noise within the coffee shop of your head. You don’t need to hear a screaming kid who is apparently adorable when he screams or a salesman announcing his last numbers. You want peace and quiet, if only for that half-hour. So get yourself some imaginary headphones and turn up the volume.

5. Shift activities

Say you can’t stand it anymore. You are doing the laundry, trying to write a blog, saying the rosary – whatever – and the broken record won’t quit. So stop. Change directions. Shift actions. Call your mom instead. If you are at work, get up, grab a cup of tea (preferably decaf since the caffeine tends to aggravate unstuck thoughts), or take a bathroom break. A simple change in activities can sometimes signal to the brain that you have had enough, thank you very much, and that maybe the thoughts should take a bathroom break too.

6. Practice anxiety management techniques

Tamar Chansky, Ph.D. is a pro at coming up with ways to tame anxiety. In her book “Freeing Your Child From Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder,” she recommends these exercises to manage anxiety:

  • Diaphragmatic breathing, or balloon breaths. Take deep, slow breaths from the diaphragm (not the chest), breathing in through the nose to a count of three and out to a count of three without holding your breath, saying “relax” silently on the exhale.
  • Progressive relaxation. Starting with the toes and working up to the head, then and relax each body part.

7. Be a cheerleader

We forget how difficult reigning in our thoughts can be. Sometimes it requires a heroic effort, and one worth acknowledging. I always feel better when I stop for a minute and appreciate what I’ve accomplished despite the brain clutter. It never hurts to pat yourself on the brain and say, “Well done.”

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Therese Borchard
I am a writer and chaplain trying to live a simple life in Annapolis, Maryland.

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