by Vicy L. Wilkinson, MA Philosophy, BCC, Certified Transformational Coach
It’s nighttime, you’re trying to relax and go to sleep, and your brain suddenly bombards you with thoughts about what you woulda’ coulda’ shoulda’ said during that argument yesterday or great ideas that will turn your whole life around AND save the world or the twenty- seven tasks you didn’t complete because you were trying to help the kids with a school project… or a million other things that our minds can come up with when we’re lying in bed and trying to relax and fall asleep.
In the world of transformational coaching, we call all this thinking, which has a tendency to turn dark, negative, and brooding, rumination or having ruminating thoughts. Another term for this thinking-excessively with little control is “monkey mind” or “monkey chatter.” In the Shambhala Tibetan Buddhist tradition, this sort of mental chatter is compared to having an untamed horse for a mind. No matter how you look at it, rumination can get out of control and cause a lot of difficulty in life such as insomnia, anxiety, short temper, forgetfulness. If left to fester and expand, rumination can lead down a slippery slope of temporary negativity into low mood, poor resilience, chronic stress, and even depression.
Of course, rumination doesn’t just happen when you’re trying to relax and go to sleep; many of us are plagued with ruminating thoughts during our wide awake time as well. For example, how long have you obsessed in your mind over a stressful conversation that happened hours ago? Or what kinds of thoughts take up space in your mind when you’re getting dressed in the morning and a certain pair of pants don’t fit right?
No matter when rumination gets in your way, though, there are proven techniques to help you regain control over your mind and discover your calm, peaceful center so that you can quiet that monkey chatter and choose a better direction for your powerful thoughts!
One easy way to put the brakes on rumination is very simple: stop “just thinking” by taking specific action. That action can be as simple as sitting down for 5 minutes and writing down what your mind is saying. Just dump it all right out on paper. It’s amazing how this simple act diminishes the hold negative thoughts have over us. If it’s at night and you’ve already gone to bed, do yourself a favor by sitting back up, turning that lamp on again, and taking up pen and paper. When we write down all the stuff our brain is screaming to us, it helps externalize our experience and in this simple act, many people find immediate peace.
Sometimes our brain is just trying to help us remember important things; when we write those things down, we can refer to them later when we CHOOSE to do so, and our brain can stop reminding us and let us focus on relaxing. This is especially helpful when your brain gets stuck in a loop about the minutiae of daily life: schedules, tasks, 17 things you must remember before walking out the door Monday morning…whatever it is, write it down – just “brain dump” it out there onto the paper.
Another great thing about writing it down is that for many of us, our mind likes to pour out creative ideas or solutions to problems we had a month ago at random times. If we take a few minutes to capture some notes about those ideas and solutions on paper, our brain can relax and move on. Writing things down gives us a logical sense of closure. It’s essentially clearing the cache in your mind like you do in your web browser.
If you find that writing is extremely difficult for you for whatever reason, I recommend keeping a voice recorder or using an app on your phone to just talk it out: literally speak your list or rambling thoughts into the recorder. (Sometimes this works especially well for extroverts who don’t enjoy writing, but do enjoy talking!) The outcome is similar as with writing it down because you have externalized the thoughts.
After you’ve taken the time to empty out some of the chatter, your mind can begin to relax and you can further help slow down any future rumination by taking advantage of that moment of spaciousness in your mind. After writing or voice recording, take 2-5 minutes to focus on your breathing and calm both your mind and your body all at once. If you take a really deep breath in and count to four – 1, 2, 3, 4 – slowly in your mind, then hold your breath for an equal 4-count, and then slowly exhale to a count of eight – 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 – you will notice instant feedback from your body. Repeat this breath at least 5 times and you will help relax your entire nervous system, which naturally shuts down all that spinning monkey chatter.
If you find you still have some chatter after doing this breath work, you may want to take a step further in your writing or voice recording process by making notes about some potential solutions or ideas if your mind is still focused on some sort of dilemma. Some of us need to not just write the thoughts down, but also to do some creative problem solving in order to gain that sense of closure that helps us rest. You can alternate between breathing carefully as described above and writing to maximize your level of control. With practice, it all gets a lot easier and you can begin to slow the rumination periods over time. Bonus tip for problem solving in your sleep: Ask yourself a specific question about the problem and then go to sleep. Write for five to ten minutes first thing in the morning, before you even get out of bed, and see what kinds of answers your awesome self has come up with overnight, like magic.
Experiment with these tools and make them your own. Once you find out what works best for you on those nights your brain tries to hijack your calm and your sleep, keep whatever you need beside the bed and keep those ruminating thoughts from robbing you of well-deserved, and much needed rest, relaxation, and precious sleep.
Take care of you. If you need more help, give us a call. We’re glad you’re here. Namaste.