Why Can’t I Shut Off My Mind?

Beth came to therapy because she could not stop her mind from worrying. She’d think about the same things over and over, getting stuck in a loop that didn’t lead to resolution or peace of mind. She’d wake up obsessing about her future and blaming herself for past mistakes. Intellectually she knew she just had to do her best and take everything a day at a time. But she could not quiet her mind.

Ruminating, as defined by Webster’s Medical Dictionary, is “obsessive thinking about an idea, situation, or choice especially when it interferes with normal mental functioning; specifically: a focusing of one's attention on negative or distressing thoughts or feelings that when excessive or prolonged may lead to or exacerbate an episode of depression.”

Ruminating feels awful and is exhausting. Many people resort to prescription medications like Klonopin and Xanax to help calm the anxiety that drives ruminations. But there are other ways, more lasting ways, to calm anxiety and experience some relief.

It helps to first learn a little about the relationship between ruminating, anxiety and core emotions. I diagrammed it for Beth on the Change Triangle:

Core emotions (fear, anger, sadness, disgust, joy, excitement and sexual excitement) are natural, universal, unavoidable, and automatic. And core emotions produce energy for survival actions, like preparing us to run fast to avert danger. Sometimes emotional energy has nowhere to go. The result is anxiety: trapped energy swirling around our body. It feels terrible!

Both core emotions and anxiety are visceral; they are called “feelings" because when we become aware of them we can literally, physically FEEL them. Our natural tendency is to avoid uncomfortable sensations, so the brain - often unconsciously - leads us to disconnect from our body and escape into our thoughts.

Just as anxiety is trapped energy churning in our body as a result of avoiding the feelings of core emotions, ruminations are thoughts churning in our minds to avoid feeling the sensations of anxiety. The way out? Work your way back around and down the Change Triangle: tune into your body, discover which core emotions are at work, and safely process them. When the body calms down the mind will soon follow.

I asked Beth, “Can you scan your body from head to toe and share what you notice?”

Beth immediately said that she was anxious.

“How do you know you are anxious? What physical sensations tell you that?” I asked.

“My arms and legs are jittery, my heart is beating fast, and I feel agitated.” Beth did a great job noticing her sensations. This