A few years ago I sat in bed at 3 a.m. looking out at a lonely full moon, frustrated and trying unsuccessfully to quiet the swarm of swirling, non-stop thoughts in my head. Recoiling from a fresh breakup, my heart was still healing and all I wanted was some peace and quiet. But my mind had other plans. It took it upon itself to figure out every possible outcome for everything from what to do with our joint business to selling our home to rebuilding my dwindling self-esteem.
If I stop thinking, my mind told me, how am I going to get out of this mess? I've got to work it out, come up with some solutions. I leaned over to turn on the lamp and accidentally knocked my Buddha statue off the nightstand with my elbow. When I picked it up, it was headless. The head had broken clean off, detached, like someone took a sword to it and sliced it off in one quick slash.
Off With Your Head
Leaving nothing to coincidence, I realized the symbolism in this. I needed to be off with my head. The solution wasn't to think more or even to stop thinking, it was to sever my attachment to my thoughts, to not get so identified with them and bogged down in their perceived importance. The Buddha's head came off easily and in one fell swoop, helping me realize we don't have to take our thoughts so seriously and how effortless it can be to detach from them.
While many people struggle with an overactive mind, especially in times of adversity, the Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) is hard-wired with it. As many times as I've been told I feel too much, I've also been told I think too much.
According to Dr. Elaine N. Aron, the Highly Sensitive Person's brain processes information and reflects on it deeply so we notice more, which naturally leads us to become easily overstimulated and overwhelmed.
So if it's an inherent trait, how do we detach from our racing thoughts when they're on overload?
I asked Madisyn Taylor, co-founder and editor-in-chief of the popular inspirational website, DailyOM.com, to share her story with being an HSP and how she quiets her mental chatter.
Before learning how to use her highly sensitive traits in a positive way, she says, "I suffered daily. What most people take for granted like waking up in the morning was a nightmare for me. Everything about being out in the world was painful from sounds to lighting to crowds. The way people interacted with people was painful to watch."
Madisyn has since found peace with her high sensitivity, being featured in the film, "Sensitive -- The Untold Story" and has used her natural sense of empathy to build a successful business with DailyOM. When she finds her thoughts starting to race, she practices a quick method to quiet her mental chatter.
Come Back To Center
"I just stop, take a breath and center," she says. "This happens very quickly for me now as I have been meditating for many years. Anybody can learn to do this and if you're a parent, you probably already do it when you count to 3 in order to calm down."
If you're not an experienced meditator, or even if your incessant mental chatter has overridden your years of practice, counting is actually a quick and easy method of quieting the mind, and you don't need decades of sitting in lotus position on a mountaintop monastery to do it.
Counting is a form of distraction, says Don Joseph Goewey in his book, The End of Stress: Four Steps to Rewire Your Brain. He writes, "Under extreme stress, we lose cognitive and emotional capacity. As a result, all we perceive are problems we can't solve." This is why our minds seem to race around in constant circles, going over the problem again and again in an endless loop. Because it's so active, we think we're solving problems, but from a neurological standpoint, we're actually creating more. When you distract your brain long enough from your overwhelming thoughts -- and it could be a mere matter of seconds -- you prevent a "massive dump of stress hormones," as Don puts it, in your system, which allows you to reconnect to your higher brain functioning, becoming more clear, calm and quiet.
Madisyn says, "Even in the midst of seeming chaos, a deep breath can help us turn within to find the space to work from, the calm at the center of the storm." The next time you find your mind racing, stop, take a deep abdominal breath and count slowly as you breathe in and out, focusing your attention on your breath.
Get Out In Nature
If you have more time, Madisyn recommends going out into nature. "Mother Earth is so incredibly grounding and helps melt all of the static away. I feel so much more of myself when I'm with nature. Even if it's only in your own backyard, it's helpful, but trying to get to the ocean or the woods away from people and just being with nature is immensely helpful."
A recent Stanford University study found that participants who walked through nature showed lower levels of blood flow to the parts of the brain associated with rumination. Rumination is what we do when we can't stop thinking negative thoughts about ourselves and we get stuck in a mental pattern such as how sad we are and what's causing it. It's what I was doing when sitting on my bed reeling in negative, anxious thoughts about my breakup. But for those who are Highly Sensitive, it could be brought on by something as simple as an insensitive comment or criticism by a stranger. We might ruminate on it all day, replaying it over and over in our minds and devising clever comebacks then kicking ourselves for not thinking of them on the spot.
For Hyperactive Minds
If you live in an urban area where nature is impossible to come by and you have the kind of actively stubborn mind that's allergic to silence, another tool that can help slow your racing thoughts is guided meditations.
That's right, let someone else think for you.
Guided meditations work because you don't have to actively try to quiet your mind, in fact no mental effort is required at all. You simply put on some noise-canceling headsets, relax and allow your thoughts to be guided by someone else.
My new favorite is a 34-minute guided audio by Madisyn created specifically for HSPs called "Meditation for the Highly Sensitive Person." It combines relaxing music, positive guided imagery, affirmations and Madisyn's signature calming voice.
Ever see a rabid, fang baring dog having a psychotic episode in the middle of a busy street on TV and then some guy from animal control shoots it with a tranquilizer and it falls limp to the ground? This guided meditation is like a tranquilizer for my highly sensitive rabid mind. One moment it's going crazy with a million non-stop thoughts, then I put on my earphones, press play and it's instant calm, a natural sedative for my mind.
If your thoughts have taken over and running rampant, you can take back control by listening to Madisyn's meditation here.