Managing anxious mind chatter
Let’s take a closer look and see how we can apply these some of the insights of mindfulness.
We’re having conversations in our heads all the time. A client once compared his mind to a gerbil running on a wheel in its cage – feet working furiously, but not getting anywhere. It’s an apt comparison. Like the gerbil, our minds love to be busy. In the absence of other information, our minds sometimes fill themselves with worries, doubts or fears. Our mind is constantly looking for the worst-case scenario.
I think this pattern originates in childhood. As kids we were constantly facing new situations, and we risked embarrassment or injury if we didn’t respond skillfully. So we become vigilant – maybe too much so. (You can imagine that this might be even more the case for young gay kids who are worried that being found out in a hostile situation could be quite dangerous.) So our minds get busy with a sort of self-conscious “brainstorming.”
Like many other things, this may serve a purpose at one time early in our lifetimes, but we overdo it or outgrow it. The voice that started off warning us about potential danger becomes hyper-vigilant and is always looking for danger – sometimes seeing it when it’s not actually there.
Other voices join the conversation. One might be an internalization of the critical voices of parents, teachers, coaches and others. The voice morphs into an all-purpose critic that is never satisfied and never gives us a break. Another voice might be a response to this: a sort of defiant “inner child” that rebels against the parent. It’s like having a committee meeting in your head.
These voices have a lot in common. They tend to shout at us rather than whisper. They often give bad advice. And sometimes they all want to talk at the same time! We become paralyzed by our self- consciousness like a deer in the headlights of an oncoming car. Maybe it happens when we think about asking that cute guy at the gym and inviting him out for coffee. Or it happens at work when we’re called on to make an important presentation. We’re too distracted by our internal conversation to figure out how to respond. What to do?
First, take a breath. Calm yourself. Let your mind become clearer. Remember that thoughts are just thoughts and worries are just worries; they aren’t reality. This practice mirrors what Buddhists call non-attachment. When your mind is clear you are no longer distracted, a prisoner of fears you can do nothing about. You have more freedom and can make better choices, rather than simply trying to buy off your internal critic.
Imagine creating an internal supporter or advocate to sit at the committee table. Unlike your critic (who spends all his time looking for ways that you’re screwing up), this voice is one of encouragement. He might say: Hey, you’ve been here before. You know what to do. Don’t listen to those other guys!
Please note that this practice is different from what is commonly called “will power.” Will power is too often not about freedom to make choices, but is just a way of turning your inner critic into a tyrant. That isn’t a reliable way to create positive change in your life.
Therapy using the tools of mindfulness has been shown to be very effective in controlling anxiety. If you would like to find out more, feel free to contact me.
I have been licensed by the State of Georgia as a professional counselor for more than 25 years. My areas of specialty are relationships, intimacy, sexuality, anxiety and depression. My passion is helping people build happier lives and stronger relationships.
I know it isn’t always easy to talk about problems. My approach to counseling is nonjudgmental and compassionate. If you have questions, I welcome the opportunity to talk with you about working together.
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