By Joanne Lee
How To Calm Your Mind
In this episode Joanne discusses the topic of how to calm your mind and shares some powerful and important tools available to you to take back control of your mind.
How To Calm Your Mind Episode 3 Transcript
Welcome to episode 3 of our Full Spectrum Wellness podcast, I’m so happy to be back with you for our third episode which covers one of my favourite topics.
Do you ever feel like you’re constantly putting out fires, that life is just one massive struggle to stay afloat? Do you come home from work feeling tired and stressed and without the energy to do anything other than collapse in front of the TV? Do you feel like you’re just not quite as happy as you think you could or should be?
That’s life or at least it’s life as many of us have come to know it. But there’s no reason that this should necessarily be the case. The problem is that we’re always chasing after that pot of gold at the end of the rainbow and in doing so, we never stop to smell the roses. We’re never happy because we’re always striving for what’s next. We’re always stressed about what’s coming up and we never appreciate what we have until we lose it. We think that the only way to change this is to work harder and longer.
But it’s not. The way we change this is from the inside out. We need to change the way we think about our situation, we need to change the way we approach life’s problems and the way we enjoy the moment.
And that means taking control of our minds. Once you can do that, you can take back control and you can feel confident, relaxed, and happy in the exact same circumstances. Once you can do that, you can start creating the space to actually plot a course and to start changing life for the better. You can stop treading water and start swimming.
This episode might just change the way you think about your life, your brain and the interplay between the two.
The key to a calm mind and healthy body it that it’s Your Perception That Matters, and what I mean by that is that it’s not the situation that matters, it’s your perception of the situation that matters, in the most literal and realistic of senses.
Think about it this way: you can be surrounded by fire and be completely calm and happy, or you can be relaxing at home and be completely stressed.
In the first case scenario, you’re surrounded by fire, but you believe that you’re invincible. As far as you’re concerned, nothing can hurt you and you have nothing to fear. As a result, you remain calm and your heart rate doesn’t even rise (well, other than from the effects of the heat!).
In the second scenario, you’re sitting at home, comfortable and with a cup of tea. You’re surrounded by family who love you and you have the TV on showing your favourite TV program. But all you can think about is the work you have to do tomorrow, your money problems and the fact that you’re not as well off or as successful as you’d like to be.
As a result, your body and brain interpret the signals as you being in danger. Your brain produces more stress hormones. As a result, the person who is surrounded by flames but deluded is actually happier and calmer than the person who is sat at home but stressing out.
Now of course I’m not saying that you should be like the deluded person surrounded by fire… That’s just dangerous and very stupid!
But you also really shouldn’t be like the stressed person who should be relaxed. And here’s the thing: lots of us are!
THIS is why it’s so important to start taking control of your mind. Because it’s what will impact on your happiness, your calm, your focus and on all the other things that contribute to you being happy and successful.
Changing your environment and circumstances is often incredibly difficult – nigh impossible even – but you can change your mind right now. And that can bring incredible benefits.
When we think of taking control of our minds and finding calm in a busy and hectic world, many of us will instantly think of meditation. Meditation is an ancient practice that is used by billions of people around the world and that has been practiced for centuries and now scientists and researchers are starting to decode it’s many benefits.
While many people think of meditation as a way to 'achieve enlightenment' the reality is that meditation is simply a form of practicing control over your thoughts. At its most basic, meditation means try to focus your thoughts or clear your mind, which is essentially the equivalent of training your attention.
So often our thoughts are reactive. We are constantly being distracted and taken from one experience to the next – whether due to television, to music or to something else entirely. But when you meditate, you will be actively controlling your thoughts. You will become introspective, and you will start to reflect on the very nature of thought itself. And as you do, you’ll learn to remain in control of your thought processes so as to prevent yourself from becoming easily distracted, stressed, angry or otherwise experiencing inappropriate or unhelpful emotions.
This is a highly valuable form of training and one that's particularly relevant in today's fast-paced and constantly connected world. Meditation can help us to conquer stress and improve concentration in a range of tasks.
Studies show that meditation can help us to improve our mood, our concentration, our focus, our creativity and more. It has both immediate benefits by providing us with a break from the stress of our internal monolog and helping us to experience ‘theta brainwaves’ but it also has long term benefits as we start to learn to better control and understand our own thoughts and emotions.
Meditation has even been shown to boost our IQ! That’s right, it can actually make you smarter. And this also correlates with more connective tissue in the brain and a greater ability to utilize different areas of the brain at once for single tasks.
So how do you start adopting it into your routine and making it a part of your life?
Because this is the part a lot of people will struggle with. In fact, there’s a better than average chance that you’ve already tried to get into the habit of meditating, only to find yourself giving up quickly because ‘nothing is happening’.
If that’s the case, I recommend approaching using a process known as ‘kaizen’.
Kaizen essentially means ‘lots of small changes, that add up to offer big benefits. The idea is that you don’t try and make massive, large-scale changes in your life, but instead make tiny changes and then gradually start building on those.
For instance, trying to go to the gym five times a week, for an hour at a time, is often an up-hill struggle and is something a lot of people will struggle to stick at.
Going for an extra 5-minute walk or doing some sit-ups every other day though? These are things you can much more likely stick with. And once you start doing that, it will be much easier to throw in some press ups, or to extend that walk to 10 minutes.
So, this is the best way to start gradually introducing meditation into your regime: with very small and easy chunks of time.
Start with a sitting meditation. Take 5 minutes every morning to just sit and relax with your eyes closed. No goal, no stress, and no trouble. You might find you can even do this while your partner is in the shower, or by waking up five minutes earlier. Almost all of us can find some time in the day for five minutes of quiet.
Aim to do this for 2 weeks with no other goal than to sit quietly every morning for that amount of time. Don’t expect anything to happen and don’t expect to ‘feel’ anything.
From there, you may want to progress to actually having a goal. You can aim to make this goal a better awareness of yourself (by using mindfulness which involves sitting silently and paying attention to your thoughts, the sensations of breathing or parts of your body) or you can aim to quiet your mind and learn to block out stressful thoughts (by using transcendental meditation, where you silently repeat a mantra in your head.
Try aiming for both. Perhaps try increasing your time to 10 minutes and spending 5 minutes on mindfulness and 5 minutes on transcendental.
Just know that even when you’re aiming to quiet your mind, you should never be ‘punitive’ and you should never punish yourself for not managing to achieve your goals. If you find that your thoughts are wondering or you’re being distracted, just notice that it has happened and let yourself be calm again.
The reason it is so important not to have a strict aim or to reprimand yourself for getting it wrong, is that this introduces stress to what should be an innately calming activity.
At this point though, you’re now starting to enjoy meditation as part of your everyday life and that means you should have formed the positive habit (remember, it takes on average 66 days to form or break a habit, for a new behaviour to become automatic.
If you still struggle to get into the swing of things, another option is to try guided meditation. Guided meditation means that you’ll be following a set of instructions that will be spoken verbally. You can get these as a sound file or as a video and the idea is that you listen to them and follow the instructions in order to clear your mind/observe your thoughts.
Because this gives you something external to guide you, it makes it much easier not to let your mind wander. A great place to look for guided meditation is on YouTube – but you can also try the excellent ‘Insight Timer’ app where some of my guided meditations are hosted. On a Sunday evening I host a live guided meditation in our Facebook Group.
Another option is to attend a yoga or Tai Chi class, where you will likely have some guided meditation at the end of the sessions.
Clearing your mind or detaching from your thoughts at will enable you to prevent yourself from being distracted by unwanted thoughts whenever you want to be.
I like to call this ‘bubble time’. Bubble Time is the name for the small ‘segments’ of time I give myself throughout the day when I can be completely relaxed.
Imagine that you have a very stressful day and you’ve been working hard through a massive to-do list. You need to make lots of calls, manage your work team and just generally deal with a lot of fires. Plus you have pressing, on-going money concerns. Sound familiar?
Anyway, you’re busy going from one meeting to the next and in that time, there is no benefit to being stressed. In other words, you can carry on worrying about all those things you have to do if you want to… but it’s not going to do you any good. What would be far preferable, would be if you just stop for a few minutes and use this short amount of time as a break in order to recuperate.
Now if you’ve never practiced meditation, you’re going to struggle to do that.
But if you have, then you can put yourself in a meditative state and become indifferent to that stress. You can sit back and just clear your mind. Now, when you arrive at your meeting, you’re going to be much more recharged and energized because your brain has had the opportunity to get some rest. The result is that you’ll feel much better, and you’ll work much more efficiently as well.
If you get really good at this, then you can eventually start to employ ‘moving meditation’ as in Tai Chi. Except now, you’re going to be in a meditative and relaxed, focussed state at the same time as walking, talking and doing other things. You’ll be impervious to stress because you’ve learned to control your mind and control your emotions.
Because you aren’t giving your concerns the emotional weight that you may have done in the past, your brain isn’t activating the ‘salience network’ that it uses to respond to threats and you’re able to just carry on going about your business in a completely calm and efficient manner!
Meditation is just one way to stop worrying about all those little nagging concerns and doubts. Another way though is just to become more present and more in the moment.
How can you do this? One method is to start focussing on your body and on your senses a little more.
The fact of the matter is that most of us are so in our own heads that we barely notice half of what’s going on around us. We walk in a dream state worrying about work, or about our relationships and we hardly take the time to stop and smell the roses – literally or metaphorically.
Try this right now. Just start to notice the sounds around you. Really listen! What can you hear? Perhaps the hum of traffic outside? Maybe the murmur of conversation in the room? Maybe you can hear next door?
Or perhaps you’re outside? Maybe you can hear the sound of birds? I’ll give you a little time…..
Likewise, you can probably smell a whole load of things you hadn’t noticed. And if you take the moment to feel your own body, then you can probably notice the sensation of the seat pushing into your legs and into your buttocks. Maybe you can feel the blood filling your face and making you feel hot. Or perhaps there’s a cool wind blow against you. What direction is it heading?
Likewise, listen to the sounds of your own breathing and feel your stomach expand and shrink as you do.
Once you do this, you’ll find that you stop worrying what’s going on around you and that you start to appreciate your environment a little more. There’s so much that you normally miss!
You can try doing this on walks too. Go for a walk with no music, no phone and nothing else and try just being present and noticing the world around you. It’s a calming and invigorating experience at the same time! And next time you have a bath, take a moment to really appreciate the warmth and the softness of the water against your skin. Indulge yourself in the smell! And the next time you eat breakfast in the morning, remind yourself how much you enjoy what you are eating, savour every mouthful.
Aim to be more present in conversation too. Practicing this is important because as with practicing meditation, it will eventually become something that you can just engage at will. Now you can choose when you want to start listening better to what people are saying to you and when you want to really focus on the day out, you’re having with your children.
Again, you can leave your work concerns at home.
This is what so many of us don’t do. So many of us are constantly in a dream state and worrying about other things that we actually miss what’s going on around us.
Being stressed and having no control over your mind is doubly problematic – because not only does it make us unhappy directly, but it also distracts us from the things going on around us all the time that could be making us happier.
Oh, and what this does for our relationships is also fantastic. Right now, being distracted by work could well be destroying your relationship with your family and friends.
Now you have the ability to focus at will, to stop feeling stressed and to actually control how you feel and what you want to think about. This is an incredibly power because it means that you can choose to actually live in the moment, and you can choose what’s important to you and how you want to feel.
But what if I told you that this isn’t just about ‘happiness’? What if I told you that this is also about getting the very most out of yourself. What if I told you that the things you’ve just learned could help you to tap into your full potential and to become almost superhuman?
Do I have your attention?
Well, remember what I just said about the importance of focussing on what’s going on around you? And on being awake, alive and in the moment?
This is how we’re supposed to function all the time. This is how animals and babies are all the time. Somewhere along the lines, we lose that connection with our environment.
The question you might now be wanting to ask is: Joaane, why is it so hard then, to do the thing that we were designed to do? Why is it so hard to obtain the same focus and connection with the world that comes naturally to infants?
There are lots of answers to that question but one of the most pertinent is that we are too set into our routines and we aren’t stimulated enough.
Try that exercise again where you listen to your surroundings. What can you hear? Can you hear a ticking clock somewhere?
There’s a good chance that the answer is yes if you’re indoors, but you might not have noticed it until I asked you to listen to it. And why not? Because you’ve become desensitized to it. I experienced it when I lived in Dukinfield underneath the flight path to Manchester airport. When I first moved in it felt like the planes were about to land on the house, you could hear the engines very clearly, even done to being able to identify different airlines and planes. But after a few months when visitors came round and commented on the noise my response was “oh really, I don’t even notice it now”.
What’s happened is that your brain has heard that ticking before and I had heard the plane engines before. It’s the exact same every second and it’s something you’re completely used to. As such, your brain says, ‘this isn’t important’ and it pushes it into the background.
Meanwhile, the worries that are flooding through your mind constantly seem very important.
The same thing happens if you cut ping pong balls in half and place them on your eyes. When you do this, you’ll at first see the insides of those ping pong balls, as you would expect. But after a few minutes, things will go fuzzy.
Why? Because nothing is changing. The nerve endings in your eyes have become tired of the exact same stimulation and so they’re turning off. Nothing is moving, nothing is changing – it’s inefficient for them to keep firing. This is called the ‘Ganzfield’ experiment.
Now think about what you do in your daily life:
- You walk the same route to work
- You take the same ride on the same bus or train
- You have the same breakfast
- You have the same conversation with the same people
- You perform the same tasks throughout work
- You get home and sit in the same place
This isn’t good for us. Our brain has a complete lack of stimulation and excitement from this kind of activity. We evolved to be constantly moving, constantly in danger, tracking our prey through the wild… and when that happened everything around us seemed important, dangerous, and salient.
But now, we’re sleepwalking through life. Everything is safe and everything is the same…
If you want to be more present and more in-the-moment, then you need to submit yourself to environments and situations that are exciting, novel, different and interesting.
If you do this, then you’ll automatically forget all those things that are making you stressed. You’ll automatically become more engaged with the world and less worried about your own petty concerns.
So, take different routes home from work, learn new skills and hobbies, have conversations with strangers, try new foods. When you do, your brain will light up and come alive and you’ll get a reprieve from your money and relationship problems. Better yet, you’ll form new neural connections which will once again help you to become sharper, smarter, faster, more creative and more alive.
If the idea of subjecting yourself to novel states – or ‘rich environments’ – sounds familiar, then you may have read Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance by Steven Kotler.
In that book, Steven describes what is known as a ‘flow state’ in detail. This is the condition in which we are most alive, most happy and the best at performing.
It’s the exact opposite of wandering around and being stressed about work.
In a flow state, you are so engaged with the surroundings and what’s happening that you forget ‘yourself’ entirely. Sound familiar? It’s almost like a form of meditation; except this time you are completely switched onto the world around you.
This is something that most of us have experienced at some time in our lives and you may be familiar with it even if you think back.
Have you ever dropped something out of a cupboard and moved so fast to catch it that you didn’t even think?
Have you ever been playing sports, when suddenly the world seemed to slow down to a crawl, and you were able to move with superhuman reflexes and break your personal record with some kind of superhuman feet?
Have you ever been writing and been so engaged with what you’re saying that you’re able to completely lose track of time?
Have you ever been in a conversation that lasted all night?
All these are examples of flow states. And in fact, even watching a film can sometimes mimic flow. In this scenario, you might become so engrossed in what’s happening on the screen, that you are shocked when you step outside and it’s dark. It’s almost like waking from a dream.
This is like ‘action meditation’ and it’s thought to be at the heart of most of our scientific breakthroughs, most record-breaking athletic accomplishments and all kinds of other examples of people acting their very best.
So, what’s going on inside that head of yours when you enter a flow state?
Essentially, a flow state is very similar to the ‘fight or flight’ response but with less ‘negativity’ you could say. It means that you think what is happening around you is very important and deserves all of your attention. As a result, your body starts to produce chemicals which cause your brain to become intensely focussed, which creates the illusion that time has slowed down. You gain a kind of tunnel vision and now the only thing you’re focussed on is that one moment and the things you have to do to emerge from it victorious.
You begin to react almost automatically and instinctively with barely any input from your conscious mind.
And what this actually looks like in a brain scanner is called ‘temporo-hypofrontality’. To translate that into English, this means that for a brief period of time, the front portion of your brain (prefrontal cortex) has shut down. This sounds like a bad thing until you realize that this is actually the part of your brain that’s responsible for doubt and that slows you down.
When you’re catching a ball, your body can do it perfectly every time. The problem is that you ‘get in your own way’.
By letting the front part of your mind shut down in that moment, you can tap into the incredible reflexes and focus of your body and act on pure instinct. You become an incredible machine, capable of inhuman performance.
You break records in sports, you produce incredible work and you come out of it feeling alive and invigorated.
In fact, it is said that many people actually ‘chase’ after these kinds of flow states – and that this explains a lot of thrill-seeking behaviour.
Oh and guess what temporo-hypofrontality also looks a lot like in a brain scan? You guessed it: meditation!
I highly recommend that you take up some kind of exciting hobby and that you start exploring more. Excite yourself and get yourself to focus and to pay attention!
Now yes, sometimes we should be alert and connected. Sometimes we should be able to shut out the outside noise and to focus on calmness, stillness, and oneness.
But actually, that chatter and stress is not something we want to entirely eradicate.
Sounds like I’m contradicting myself now doesn’t it but stay with me!
Yes, when we were animalistic in our behaviour, we were much happier, much less stressed, and much more engaged with the world around us. But you know what? We were also animals.
We managed to achieve all those things that we achieved today by getting out of that reactive and engaged state and yes… stressing.
And not all stress is bad. ‘Eustress’ describes the kind of stress that motivates us to do things – things like perform our best at work, revise for exams, save money. Studies show that people who never feel stressed actually tend to perform worse in education and in their careers.
There’s more too. Did you know that being completely focussed is actually counterproductive to true creativity? True creativity comes from letting the brain explore different neural connections – it is the act of recombining different ideas and memories into new formats, and we tend to do this when daydreaming and when having an internal monologue.
When you do this, you enter what is called the ‘default mode network’. This is exactly the state of mind that you’re in when you are daydreaming and letting your thoughts run away with you. It tends to occur when you’re engaged in mindless tasks – like commuting – and it too is responsible for some incredible breakthroughs. It’s part of legend now that Einstein came up with the special theory of Relativity, while working in a patent office – and it was the dull and mundane nature of working in that environment that allowed him to do so.
It might be nice to think that flow states and meditation are the answer to everything – but they’re not. They’re actually just a very important part of our mental experience that many of us have forgotten. Instead of trying to completely eliminate one type of brain state, true control of the mind means being able to switch from one brain state to another with ease.
In other words, it means being able to mull over tasks and agenda items when you’re a bit stressed or when you’re working. It means entering a productive flow state when you’re entering data, or when you’re doing martial arts or sports after work. And it means being able to switch off and let your brain have some much-needed peace and quiet when you get home from work.
So, the best type of mental state is the one that lets you switch to other mental states at will. Our aim is to be in control of our brains and our thoughts and to be able to switch from one state of mind to another with ease.
In other words? All types of thought and all types of mental state are important, valid and helpful.
What is that one? It’s the one where you’re just incredibly distracted by all the constant demands being placed on you.
And this is where the ‘modern ache’ where we are wired and tired starts to come in.
Earlier, we learned how we were desensitized to much of the natural stimuli coming into our minds through our senses. We take the same route to work and do the same things every day and as a result, we are very much desensitized to everything around us.
The problem is: our modern culture is all too aware of this, and it tries to exploit it.
While you’re happily mulling over the day’s events you see, you’re also being distracted by:
- Advertising hoardings
- Your phone’s constant buzzing
- The TV
- The radio
- Social media platforms
- Your boss emailing you
- Cars honking their horns
- Computer games
All these things are designed to grab our attention and to over stimulate us so that they can get us to spend money/work/pay attention.
And this is what’s killing our ability to focus, relax and concentrate as much as anything else.
Do you know why alarms are designed the way they are? They make a beeping noise because it’s something we would never hear in the wild. As such, it’s strange and unusual to our brain and it makes us sit up and take notice – in comes that salience network and in comes general stress.
And this is what wakes most of us up in the morning! We’re startled awake from complete, deep sleep by a loud ‘alien’ sound.
Then what do we do? Normally, we will check our phones.
Bright light = even more the stress hormone being produced in our brains.
Then looking at adverts starts to grab our attention because that’s what they’re designed for.
Then we read our email. What’s this? A message from your boss asking if you can do something for them as soon as you get in?
Now you’re stressed and focussed on that. And then, as you brush your teeth it’s all you can think of.
Over breakfast with the family, your mind is half-watching the television and this is preventing you from properly paying attention to what they’re saying. The TV is much louder, much more colourful and is designed to grab attention.
What do we do on the way into work on the bus or train? Probably play a computer game. And those are all about making us pay attention. They stimulate stress by creating difficulty and when we do well, they reward us with the right sounds and colours. This creates a chemical hit in our brain which is very rewarding and which makes the activity very addicting.
All this time we’re missing the view out the window.
Then at work, we feel stressed again because we remember that email while we make coffee.
Coffee which – by the way – also triggers the release of more stress hormones.
Then we sit down and instead of doing the things we need to do first, we start our day by doing that thing that we were asked to do. Now we’re in a ‘reactive’ state of mind and we’re not able to do what’s most productive or most important for us.
And so, it continues for the rest of the day. We’re constantly being tugged in every direction by computers, work, money problems, adverts, games, emails, texts… and that’s using up all our ability to pay attention, to focus and to think.
So, is it any wonder that you’re struggling to start meditating? Or that you’re so ‘wired and tired’ all the time? Or that you’re struggling to stay on top of things?
Using meditation will really help with this because it will give you the ability to control your focus and your ability to concentrate. Now you can say ‘no’ to worrying about that email. And you can say ‘no’ to focussing on the TV ads. And you can engage with your body and mind whenever you want in order to recharge and in order to start enjoying the world around you.
What’s also really good though, is if you can try and reduce all that noise, distraction, stimulation and chatter. This will just make everything easier for you and will help you to better focus on the things that matter to you.
One example of how you can do this is with your ‘morning ritual’.
A morning ritual is basically a series of steps that you will endeavour to go through every single morning before you leave the house/start with work. This lets you stop being reactive and start being proactive. It means that you’re now setting the pace and deciding how you want to begin your day – and it can help to make you more productive and efficient for the entire day that follows.
So, what might a morning ritual look like?
Some great things to add:
- Read the morning paper – catch up on the news in a way that doesn’t require the TV!
- 15 minutes of mediation
- No phone/email/computer until you get to work
- Do some exercise – 10-20 minutes is better than nothing and a great way to give yourself a surge of energy
- Healthy breakfast
- Write a to do list – now you’re taking control of how you’re going to spend your morning/day instead
- Take a cold shower – it doesn’t have to be cold but if you have the willpower to try it, you’ll find it invigorates you, wakes you up and really helps you to focus and feel your own body
Similarly, you can also try introducing an evening routine. There are a few things this can help with:
- Write a journal – writing a journal is a great way to reflect on the day and how it could have been better/what you enjoyed about it
- Write a gratitude list, at least 3 things you are grateful for
- No TV or phone for 30 minutes before bed – this will help to get your brain ready for sleep and will increase your production of the sleep hormone
- 15 minutes of mediation
- Have a warm bath – this can help relax the muscles for better sleep
- Lay out your clothes for tomorrow
This is one of the reasons why I created my new Morning & Evening Sound Meditations Album, designed to get your day off to a great start and help you wind down before bed. Find out more at https://thefullspectrumcentrelimited.com/morning-evening-sound-meditations
So, there you have it, now you know the most powerful and important tools available to you to take back control of and calm your mind.
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