When we really take a moment and sharpen our awareness of our inner experience, we realize just how much noise is going on within our head.
Our racing thoughts are relentless, and when left unattended become a freight train of anxiety that’s out of control. As I watch my mind in uncontrolled action, I am shocked and embarrassed at the thoughts that come up about the people, places and situations in my life.
Mindset suggests that there is only a psychological approach to gaining peace with our inner stories. I agree that our mind and views are a crucial part to how we experience our world. And yet our human condition is so much more expansive than what we perceive with our mind.
Without developing awareness, it’s almost guaranteed that we will take our racing thoughts and emotions as our genuine state in the moment without question. We are at the mercy of them because we rely on them to drive our actions. But it doesn’t have to be like this.
I want to share with you a practice that I use regularly in my life to calm my racing thoughts. It acts as a filter to help me understand what’s going on and what I can do about it. It’s a simple four-step process to taking back control.
Four Steps to Calm Racing Thoughts
Step 1: Notice
This step requires you to be aware of the thoughts you are struggling with, which takes courage. An example could be worrying about what someone might think of you or about something that might or might not happen, which you feel is out of your control. This, of course, increases your anxiety.
To notice therefore is to be aware, in the present moment, that you have anxiety over what someone may think, or something that might happen. Just simply watch the response within you.
At the start of this process, I found this the most challenging step because I was so used to distracting and numbing my very familiar uncomfortable feelings.
When esoteric concepts are held at the same time, you get to understand that you are not your thoughts. An analogy I like to use is a stage performance. The stage, actors, orchestra, and set are made up of your racing thoughts. When you aren’t aware, you are on the stage living out the drama in your life. You are the lead actor in a tragedy full of twists and turns that would rival any episode of your favorite Netflix show.
When you notice and become aware, you step off the stage and take a seat in the audience to watch the show. The show still continues, you are now just observing the characters, stories, stage, set, and plot. Noticing is just the act of stepping off the stage and taking a seat as high up as possible.
The higher you go in the theatre, the wider your perspective.
Step 2: Interrupt
This is the practice of retraining where you habitually put your focus, moving away from your mind (thoughts) and into your body (feelings). This step then is getting perspective on what you actually know to be true and what your mind is predicting based on assumptions.
Thoughts are the language of your mind, and your feelings are the language of your body. The mind affects the body and the body affects the mind.
Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett’s work shows that our brains are interpreting our senses first, and turning those into the emotions and states that we experience. What you consciously or unconsciously feel in your body influences what you see, hear, smell, taste, and touch. These bodily feelings are known as your interoception or, in other words, your interior perception.
An emotion, therefore, is simply an event where your whole brain is making meaning of internal sensations, in your body, in relation to what’s going on around you, in the world. A powerful way to come out of your thoughts and into your body is to use a pattern interrupt. This involves breaking a routine, habitual thought, or behavioral pattern with a prompt. Using the example in step 1, a great prompt to ask yourself would be:
“Does this inform me, or does it affect me?”
What factual data do you have from a situation that you can use to inform your action. Assumptions and guesses are not factual, yet your brain will enter into this flurry of predictions automatically.
Notice if this is a new or an old feeling for you and be curious about what comes up. For me, when I notice it being familiar it’s a pretty strong indication of how my old stories are influencing my current reality. Therefore it becomes obvious to me that it’s an area I need to work with and let go of.
What is happening within your body in relation to the situation. In a heightened emotional state your breath rate quickens, your heart beats faster and your nervous system gets you ready for action.
An elevated heart rate does not mean anxiety, it’s simply a state of physiological arousal. Yet your brain potentially turns it into that anxious emotion you experience. That means you can’t respond, learn or access well thought out decisions.
Step 3: Respond
In the third step, you take steps to change, which may at first be a challenge. Linking to the example above, worrying about what someone may think or something you have no control over leaves you in an anxious space of racing thoughts within your own mind.
Dr. Andrew Hubberman describes fear as the sum of anxiety + uncertainty. Uncertainty is in all of life. As humans, we find uncertainty more stressful than even the certainty of imminent failure. A 2016 experiment highlighted this phenomenon when subjects who were told they have a 50% chance of receiving an electric shock were more stressed than those who were told they will definitely receive a shock.
Anxiety is your physiological response to the unknown, and this is what you can influence greatly by changing how you breathe. It seems counterintuitive to discuss and focus on your breathing. You do it every moment of every day of your life.
Yet what I’ve come to realize, from both a physiological perspective and an actual practice, is that taking control of my breath is one of the most profound practices I have access to. I want to use two very different examples from my career so far to help show you just how profound it can be.
In my previous career, I was an Olympic performance coach to action sports athletes – such as snowboarders. These athletes risk their lives on a weekly basis to push the boundaries of human potential. They use breath control and mindfulness in the minutes before they drop into a huge jump or half pipe. Not to be calm, but to be focused and clear.
Part of my work now is supporting patients with cancer. This is what can be achieved in the words of someone I work with going through treatment to save her life:
“As one of the side-effects of my chemo is breathlessness, I’ve found doing the breathing exercises particularly helpful – it’s really good to be able to quickly link into the relaxing breathing when I need to, which has really helped my confidence. Also using the exercises before sleep and when I wake in the night, has been a great help with getting good sleep and rest.”
We default to emotions, stored memories, breathing patterns, and reactions that are survival-based. This is how we handle things when we perceive a situation and stress overwhelm hits us. So if you’re feeling one way or another at your core metabolic being, it will influence your choices.
Monitoring your body helps you know when your physiology is changing and empowers you to self-regulate to bring yourself into the now, away from the what-ifs and doubt. You will then be in a better physiological state to assess the information you are receiving, to respond effectively rather than react emotionally by assuming your thoughts are real.
How To Respond When Your Thoughts Are Racing:
A. Breath through your nose most of the time. Nasal breathing helps your body calm down. When life is stressful and you note that you are mouth breathing, try switching to nasal breathing and inhaling slowly and deeply.
B. In the moment, double your exhale to inhale — 3 second inhale, 3 second hold, 6 second exhale x 5–10 rounds.
C. Soften your vision (partially or fully close your eyes, or get into nature for the panoramic views).
Step 4: Impact
The final step is to create a new outcome.
Once you’ve re-centered yourself with your breath and calmed your racing thoughts, begin to take action to understand your situation. This can be as simple as reflecting on those racing thoughts by asking yourself questions such as these:
1. Is it true? (Yes or no)
2. Do you absolutely know it’s true? (Yes or no)
3. Who would you be without that thought?
Take a moment to reflect, observe and experience the situation again, this time without the thought. Who or what you would be without the thought? How would you see or feel about the other person? Drop all of your judgments. Notice what is revealed.
These questions sound simple, and the first two questions are. The third, not so much. Truly allow yourself to go into the space of being free of that thought. The key is to feel what it would be like in your body.
Notice. Interrupt. Respond. Impact. Just four steps that can bring you from being stuck in your racing thoughts to taking control of what you can control for yourself.
Here is a video that will teach you a few very simple breath practices you can do at any time of day:
I like to create bookends for my day by practicing when I wake and before I sleep. This allows me to improve my skill so I can use it during my days to calm any periods of time I notice racing thoughts wanting to take over.