It goes without saying that our brains are necessary for so many reasons. Not only do they maintain our lives by keeping our hearts beating, lungs breathing and body systems functioning, but they also help us to navigate through life. Humans have the most advanced brains of all living creatures. We have the capacity for performing higher cognitive functions such as complex problem-solving, holding and recalling memories, and making conscious decisions about behavior. The brain works quickly and efficiently, especially when properly cared for.
As wonderful as the brain is, there are times when it seems to work against us. It helps us with problem-solving, but can keep us awake at night trying to solve the world’s problems in a matter of hours. Racing thoughts can keep us distracted from what is happening right now in our lives. They can increase our anxiety, worsen depression and make us miserable.
The brain’s tendency to overwork is not uncommon. Life is demanding and full of stressful situations, and they can be a trigger for a brain that is already burdened with a big job. To make it even harder, through our lives we have experiences that may create and reinforce negative beliefs about the world or ourselves. These beliefs then influence the way we think, behave, interact with others and the way we treat ourselves.
Now, keep in mind the brain is not trying to stress us out or do us any harm. On the contrary, the brain is only trying to do its job. It is trying to keep up with the world around it the best it can. The problem is that its perceptions regarding its job description may be way off, meaning that it is putting too much importance on specific problems that it cannot do anything about, and not enough on the things that would help it and us to function more efficiently.
The good news: There are things we can start doing today that will help to give the overworked brain a much-needed and well-deserved rest.
Slow down the thought process by saying it out loud or writing it down
We think faster than we can talk and write. Giving a voice to our worries, beliefs, or anything else that is mentally exhausting us gives us a chance to slow down the thought process and hear ourselves. It is also a great release. When we hold on to something that is stressful in our brains for too long, it tends to get bigger, uglier and messier. Saying it out loud or writing it down helps us to think of the issues we are dealing with in a more organized manner, and takes the pressure off the brain to remember the millions of things we feel we are required to remember every day.
Practice being in the moment
Our brains are constantly analyzing. This is helpful in the moment and is necessary for survival. However, sometimes the brain is too busy analyzing the past and worrying about the future to pay attention to what is happening right now. Overanalyzing the past and worrying about the future does not actually serve us. Instead, it keeps us distracted from information that we could be receiving in the now that would help us to learn from the past in order to be better prepared for the future. Practicing mindfulness, like paying attention to something specific (like our breathing, an object, a sound, a smell, or touch) on purpose in a particular moment, is a great way to get our brain back on track to being in the present. It doesn’t have to be time-consuming. Even taking a few minutes to focus on something in the present can get our brains refocused to right now.
No, life is not always fun and we sometimes have to do things we would rather not (like going to work on Monday morning, for example).
However, if we are finding that our lives are more stressful than it is enjoyable, it may be time to re-evaluate our priorities. Sometimes we have to look at the stressors (job, expenses, relationships, etc.) in our lives and decide if it is worth it to continue spinning our wheels to keep those things in our lives, or if we need to let those stressors go and find a way of living that is less stressful and more gratifying. This may mean finding a new job, downsizing expenses that are not necessary, and either improving or letting go of toxic relationships — both romantic and otherwise. Sometimes the exhausting spinning of the overworked brain is a sign that our lives are not working the way it is, and may need some sort of overhaul.
Identify and change habits that are reinforcing negative beliefs
The term “habit change” can leave people cringing and running for the hills. One reason for this is because habit change can feel overwhelming and potentially very uncomfortable if not downright painful. The habit change we’re talking about here is focusing on small habits, like putting ourselves down anytime we don’t accomplish our daily list of tasks, or frequently criticizing others for not living up to our expectations. Try to be aware, and when we notice ourselves doing something that makes us feel bad about ourselves or the world, take a breath, bring our brains to the present, and then do or say something that challenges the habit. Habits are formed when we practice them over and over so it may take some time for the negative habit to weaken and the positive habit to become more second nature. Be patient with this process and with ourselves.
Take care of ourselves
A tired brain is a foggy brain. When suffering from fatigue, the brain is more susceptible to following a negative thought down a deep and dark rabbit hole that can result in depression, anxiety, panic, or just plain misery. It may also be harder to pull ourselves out of that rabbit hole because when it is worn-out, the brain may struggle to access positive thoughts or to be able to be optimistic about life’s challenges. Getting enough rest and taking care of our overall health can make a huge and positive impact on our brain’s ability to do its job well. In addition to getting enough sleep, taking care of ourselves also includes (but is certainly not limited to) participating in leisure activities we enjoy, spending time doing things that are just for us, and making sure that our diet and daily activities make us feel good both physically and mentally.
Anastasia Pollock, MA, LCMHC, is clinical director at Life Stone Counseling Centers. She is certified in EMDR through EMDRIA. Learn more about her by visiting lifestonecenter.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.