If you’ve ever set up yourself lying up in bed at night or sitting at your desk in the middle of a workday with a brain that feels like it’s going a mile a minute, you know how uncomfortable and distracting it can be. A racing mind can make it difficult to concentrate, read, carry a conversation, feel calm and centered, and, of course, sleep. But there are some useful ways to help slow down or even completely halt your mental sprint.
1. Focus on breathing
This is a technique commonly used in meditation and all it requires is refocusing your mental attention from all those random thoughts to the singular act of breathing. Take a deep, cleansing breath from deep within your belly. Hold it for a moment and imagine your racing mind going completely blank. Then, exhale and imagine pushing any distractions out through your mouth and nasal passages. Do this 20 times in a row, trying to slow your breathing well within your comfort level.
2. Practice the “leaves in a stream” technique
This simple cognitive defusion exercise requires a little imagination, but it’s well worth the effort. Picture yourself sitting beside a beautiful moving stream dotted with leaves on its surface. As you notice the leaves floating downstream, pluck any singular thought swirling around your head and gently place it on a leaf. Do this for any thought whatsoever that is occupying your racing mind. Don’t rush and don’t watch each leaf journey down the river. Go at your own pace and stop to rest whenever you like.
3. Write it all down
One reason your racing mind is in overdrive could be that you’re trying to remember or catalog ideas. Allow yourself 10 minutes to write down everything thought that pops into your head. Write nonstop until you have everything down on paper then look at what you’ve written, and put it away for another time.
4. Make a little mantra
Accept all thoughts that enter your head and then place them aside while repeating a self-made mantra. This can be anything from “Thank you, goodbye” to “I am in this moment.” Be fairly passive about the experience though. Don’t aggressively push thoughts away and replace them with your mantra. Practice gentleness.
5. Listen to natural sounds
Download a few tracks of sounds from nature. It can be rushing water, chirping birds, or tumbling winds, just be sure it’s something soothing and natural. Close your eyes and listen to the sounds for at least 10 minutes. Try to focus on surrounding yourself with the ambient noises, imagining yourself in the environment in which those sounds would occur. Picture the minute details of the scene, both building and observing the visual experience at the same time.
6. Try progressive muscle relaxation
This technique is especially useful if you’re trying to fall asleep as it relaxes your entire body. First, make yourself comfortable. Then tense and then relax each group of muscles in this order: forehead, eyes and nose, lips, cheeks and jaw, hands, forearms, upper arms, shoulders, back, stomach, hips and buttocks, thighs, feet, toes. (Once you’ve done this a few times, you’ll be able to easily remember the correct order.) Assess your body to determine whether any muscles are still tense. For any tight areas, repeat the tense-then-relax exercise.
7. Do something challenging
The opposite approach of calming yourself by trying to relax is to tackle something fairly challenging. Choose something that really captures your attention, be it a crossword puzzle, set of math problems, or jigsaw puzzle. Put on a timer for 20 minutes and allow yourself to become completely immersed in solving the task at hand.
8. Go for a long, slow walk
If nothing seems to be working, get outside and go for a walk. Set a slow pace and keep continual movement, almost as if you’re gliding through the street. Don’t walk so strenuously that you lose your breath. And focus on one point on the horizon, instead of looking all over at everything that passes you by. Act as if you have blinders on and aren’t interested in what’s taking place at your sides. Keep your eyes straight ahead.