Living in your head
Where do many of us spend a large part of our lives? Regardless of whether we are in the shower, on our way to the shops, at a meeting or more worryingly even driving home, a growing number of people spend a disproportionate amount of time inside their heads. Like a DVD, we replay and fast forward our lives with running internal commentary and wonder why we feel like ‘time flies’ or that we are rushed, frazzled and exhausted all the time.
When going over things in our head, we don’t usually just go over these once or even twice. We go over them again and again and again and again. If something hasn’t gone as well as hoped, this constant re-living isn’t going to let us forget it. Similarly, if we are worried about a future event, we are literally programming our mind on what we don’t want to happen before we’ve even started. Should we be at all surprised when this plays out exactly as we have mentally imagined? Some people are scared of hypnosis – if only they realised the power of their own words to themselves!
Why so much of the time we spend in our heads is wasted time:
- This ‘self-indulgence’ is generally directionless (going round and round in circles) and less action oriented or purposeful. Rather than encouraging us for example to ‘Write that speech’, we are more likely to tell ourselves ‘You really messed up that speech’ or ‘You forgot to say x and y’ or ‘You didn’t include that great quote’ leaving us feeling our speech was a disaster.
- In over-occupying our head (or more specifically our amygdala), we tend to be more emotional than rational. When looking back or forwards, we often exaggerate when things haven’t gone so well and play them down when they have (at least where we are concerned. We are generally more forgiving of others!). This fruitless waste of energy leaves us emotionally and physically drained.
- Not surprisingly, this inward focus often goes hand in hand with stress, anxiety and depression. Think about it: when you’re worrying, anxious or depressed, you are highly likely to be too much in your head with a negative and gloomy focus.
- We miss out on real life. When we’re stuck in the past or projecting imaginary fears into the future, real life passes us by. On an emotional level, when we’re with others, we’re present in body alone.
- We waste time which is the very thing we’re short of. Whilst our money may increase over the years (we hope!), time doesn’t. We can earn more money but we can’t buy more time (not directly anyway although of course taking good care of ourselves helps).
Come to the table and stay at the table
Below are three examples to make you aware of how easy it is to slip off and hide indoors:
- A university student goes to their morning lecture. Interesting as it is, they go into their usual ‘I’m out of here’ mode and zone out. With their lecturer’s words effectively missed – they may as well have stayed in bed and skipped the lecture. Of course they’ll now need to spend twice as much time going over the topic than if they had not just turned up but also ‘stayed at the table’ in the first place.
- More damaging, you’re out for the day with your sister/friend/daughter. They begin to tell you what’s bothering them. When they go into the fine detail, your mind goes off for a wander only to hear them saying ‘You weren’t listening. No it’s ok, never mind. Forget it’. The moment has been lost.
- Or even this funny conversation I had I had with a friend recently: Me ‘Are you relaxed?’ Reply ‘Yes. I’m relaxed. My mind is active though’.
This last example here isn’t so unusual. Many people see their mind as a separate entity to themselves: often as an unruly, out of control and dominant unconnected force. The line ‘Whose mind is it anyway’ comes to mind here!
To think or not to think
For many years teaching methods used in Education have taken a more rational and analytical approach. Having spent many years being taught to think, it’s not surprising that most of us do a lot of it and don’t limit our active minds to our academic studies. What about the opposite? Were we ever taught how not to think, how to switch off our ever active minds – in other words, how to relax our minds? No but we should have been. (Good news: children in 370 schools in England are currently being taught meditation, breathing and relaxation techniques as part of a trial programme – it looks like there are pockets of activity in Scottish schools too and this is area of curriculum is only going to increase).
Is inside your head a healthy place to spend so much time? Be your own judge of this. Aside from worries, problems and fears, what else goes on inside your head? How do you speak to yourself? Do you talk yourself up? Do you talk to yourself nicely? Are you your own cheerleader? I suspect not. It’s rare for people to talk to themselves in the same way as they talk to their friends. We tend to be much harder on ourselves by putting ourselves down and quickly reminding ourselves of our inadequacies and failings.
Another good example I came across recently was from someone who would describe themselves as a poor sleeper. They regularly wake around 3am and can’t get back to sleep. When describing their previous night’s waking, we discussed them putting their racing thoughts and worries aside for a more suitable time in the day ‘Oh but I actually want to think about them at this time’. Maybe their mind wasn’t such an errant uncooperative. In their case, their mind’s night wandering was with their full approval. A much better choice would be to deliberately set a fixed time for thinking, reflecting and problem solving during the waking hours!
Problems of being stuck in our heads:
The list is long:
- We make silly mistakes. Haven’t we all had those conversations where we compete over which one of us has made the worst faux pas?
- We can’t remember past yesterday. The question ‘How was your weekend’ sends us racking our brains thinking ‘What on earth did I do at the weekend’.
- We forget names within an instant of being told them.
- We make a shopping list and forget to bring it.
- Talking of lists, we can’t function without lists.
- We feel overwhelmed.
- We get brain fog
- We question our ability to cope.
- If our overthinking extends to during the night, we don’t sleep well (You can read my recent Think Healthy Be Healthy blog on Sleep here).
Whether it’s just a bad habit, a lack of discipline or an unhelpful life strategy, overthinking consumes our time and us.
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A few wise words to leave you with from late 19th century US philosopher and psychologist William James:
‘The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another’.
‘If you can change your mind, you can change your life’.
‘Most unhappiness is caused by people who listen to themselves, instead of talking to themselves’.
And a few final words from me:
- Real life is out there!
- If you ever find yourself worrying about what others think about you, don’t bother – they’ll be too much inside their own heads to notice!
- If you think this article bears an uncanny resemblance to you, that’s what the first person I showed it to thought too!. Underneath, we are all a lot more similar to each other than we think.
I’m currently taking bookings for my new one-day workshop Own Your Year. Taking place in early January 2020, get in touch now if you would like to be emailed details of this exciting ‘no more need for New Year resolutions’ workshop. If you, or anyone you know, drives themselves and everyone else crazy by spending too much time in their heads and would like to clear their head and calm their mind, get in touch today to fix a telephone chat to find out more.
Image courtesy of Nik Shuliahin on unsplash.com.