One of the things we are trying to do in meditation and in yoga is to shift our minds from the ‘thinking state’ into the ‘aware state’. In the thinking state we are lost in our heads, in the future or past—planning, strategizing, ruminating, imagining, creating, and dreaming . While in the aware state, our minds are anchored to the present moment, such as when we connect to our senses, paying attention to what we notice or feel around us or within us, e.g. feeling our breath. A huge step in curbing the over-thinking mind is to practice dropping into the aware state more often.
Much of the day our minds are preoccupied by the thinking state, which is both marvelous and troublesome at the same time. The human mind’s default to the thinking state brings us in touch with imagination, memory, and creativity, and is the source of all the great discoveries, stories, and innovations…. and we really wouldn’t want to lose this. However, too much of one thing can leave us unbalanced, and our minds have a tendency to lapse into over-thinking mode, sometimes putting us in a constant state of worry about future, past, and imagined scenarios (none of which are actually happening now!). When we always live in our heads this way, it can become habitual and damaging to our health since our bodies don’t realize these thoughts aren’t actually real or happening now, and consequently, our physical selves react to the stress of the thoughts like they are actually happening. This can be the source of much of our stress, anxiety, and physical ails (increased body tension, pain, high heart rate/BP, digestive issues).
To manage the over-thinking mind we want to train the brain to recognize and then snap out of the thinking state, and how we do this is to practice the shifting our attention to the aware state. We do this over and over again in yoga—the instructor cues you to sense your breathing, to feel a certain body part, to connect to the ground. We do this repeatedly in meditation—relax a certain area of your body, focus on something, and come back to your breath. The benefit here lies in the repetition. Overtime when you practice yoga and meditation regularly, your brain is literally being trained to do this shift on its own, and we learn to self-regulate. It becomes more automatic to check in, sense, and feel, and you get better at recognizing when you’ve slipped into over-thinking mode, and consequently stop the runaway train.
The hard part for many people is that they get stuck in their heads and lack the ability to recognize when their minds have run away on them and so they need to develop the skill of shifting their attention. Below are some ways to start developing this attention-shift skill.
4 ways to train the mind to recognize and shift out of over-thinking mode:
- Regularly attend yoga classes – ones where the teacher regularly provides cues to notice your breathing and body sensations
- Practice this simple embodied exercise called What’s Happening Now:
Five times a day take a 20 second pause from whatever you are doing and ask yourself theses 3 questions:
1) Is there any tension in my body?
2) How does my breathing feel?
3) What am I thinking about?
Repeat this for a whole week and see if you start automatically doing it thereafter.
- Take breaks in your day to immerse yourself in your senses—take in the smells, sounds, touch, and sights around you, e.g. really smell the soap as you wash the dishes or feel the warmth of the sun as it touches your skin.
- Start a basic breathing meditation practice. Aim for a commitment of 5-10 minutes per day. Here is a video to try a basic Breathing Meditation.