Learning to Switch Off Your Brain
By Dr. Randy Borum
(Article first published in Black Belt Magazine, December, 2008)
Have you ever wished you could just switch off your brain? Most people, from time to time, struggle with negative thoughts or nagging self-doubts. It can be even worse when you’re under stress or pressure. It’s bad enough that these thoughts cause discomfort or anxiety, but they also hurt performance.
Our first response is often to resist the thoughts and try to force them to stop. Paradoxically, that sometimes makes them worse. This ironic mental process has been the focus of Harvard Professor, Daniel Wegner’s research for more than two decades. Wegner often describes this as the “White Bear” problem. In the book “Winter Notes on Summer Impressions,” Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky made the following observation: “Try to pose for yourself this task: not to think of a polar bear (white bear), and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute.”
Wegner and his fellow researchers decided to put that to the test. They asked people to think aloud for five minutes, but specifically to avoid thinking of white bears. Guess what? People would mention white bears about once every minute. So trying not to think about something doesn’t necessarily make the thought go away.
But here’s the real kicker: there was a rebound effect. After five-minutes of thinking aloud while trying to suppress the white bear, the researchers then gave participants permission to think about the white bears during the next five minutes of talking. The participants mentioned white bears more frequently than they did the first time. In fact, they even mentioned them more frequently than another group given the same permission, but who didn’t first have to suppress them.
Not only might our attempts to stuff down negative thoughts be ineffective, they might make matters worse. Some psychology researchers seem to think that this suppression-rebound process might explain how clinical obsessions get started.
So, if we’re bothered by negative thoughts, and trying not to think about them won’t work, then what should we do? There may be an answer in a technique or practice called “mindfulness.” Mindfulness blends principles of Eastern philosophy with Western psychology, but is different from Transcendental Mediation. It is not a religious practice and does not require any particular brand of spirituality or faith, but it allows you to deal with your thoughts without fighting them. Like the gentle martial arts, it allows you defend against a (mental) attack by flow, rather than by force.
The essence of mindfulness is very simple. It is about being quietly focused in the present moment- the “here and now” - while non-judgmentally observing your thoughts. The description may seem a little new-agey at first, but it is founded on a couple of very practical assumptions. First, by staying in the present you avoid the cause of most nagging thoughts and distractions. When negative content creeps in, it’s usually about something that has happened in the past or about something that might happen in the future. Being mindful is being fully in the present. Second, by learning to observe your thoughts without reacting or getting caught up in them, you take away their power to control you. Thoughts are just mental events. They are not necessarily true. They do not necessarily reflect reality. And they need not define who you are.
Research shows that mindfulness interventions are effective for managing stress and even for controlling pain and reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression. Mindfulness-based stress reduction programs are currently being taught in hundreds of hospitals throughout the United States. But you can get started on your own. Here’s a quick-start guide, but keep in mind – it takes practice. Learning not to get frustrated is part of the journey.
Start by finding a quiet place and time where you can sit comfortably you are unlikely to be disturbed. Close your eyes. Don’t worry about your thoughts at this stage, just focus on your breath and body. Begin to breathe deeply from your belly/diaphragm (your stomach should extend before your upper chest does). Most of us tend to breathe from our upper chest, so focus on pulling your breath from deeper in your abdomen. Inhale through your nose and exhale slowly through your mouth. Breathing in for about a count of four and out for a count of about eight. Start with three of these deep breaths. Then resume breathing regularly at a relaxing, steady pace
To keep your mind fully in the “in the moment”, focus only on each breath. As thoughts or worries enter your mind, you simply acknowledge them, without evaluating or labeling them and return your focus to your breath and to the present. Thoughts are not good or bad. Remember they are just mental events that you are observing. For example, if you find yourself thinking “This is silly” – you would say to your self in your head “I just had a thought that this is silly…back to my breath…..”
After you have spent a few minutes just listening internally and focusing on your breath, allow yourself to begin listening to the sounds around you – even the sound of quiet – give yourself permission not to evaluate, label, criticize or comment on them. Just listen, without judging. Next, when you are ready, you can slowly open your eyes and observe the room as if you are seeing it for the very first time. Allow you eyes to rest on some spot or object in the room and remain there for about 30 seconds or so. Observe and examine it without thinking about or evaluating it. Then move on to another object with the same pattern and for about the same amount of time…then to another….all the while allowing yourself to be aware of your breath and of your body. When you are sensing (but not analyzing) – simultaneously - your environment, you body and your breath, then you are fully in the present or “in the moment.”
The steps are simple, but staying on the moment takes practice. Try setting aside a time twice a day for the next week or so to exercise mindfulness. See if it can help you win against negative thoughts without fighting them.