The Busy Brain

By Harold W. Anderson, Ph.D., LMFT

When I was a practicing mental health professional, many of my clients would complain about anxiety.  “I just can’t turn off my brain,” they would complain, “My busy brain keeps me awake, floods my waking moments with ominous possibilities and makes my everyday life so problematic it’s affecting my relationship with my spouse, my children and my daily work.  What do I do?” they asked.  “How do I quiet my busy brain?”  While this seems to be a simple question, the solution it seeks is often complex because no matter what we do whether it be wakeful or sleeping moments, our brain is busy at work.  It conjures up dreams to haunt our sleeping moments, and dread to bother us when we are awake.  What do we do with our busy brains?  Is there a way to control these random and speeding thoughts, or as some existentialist philosophers have it, are we doomed to a life of anxiety and dread?

If I had something I had to do tomorrow and left this something to the busy brain while trying to sleep, I would launch into a whole host of “what-ifs;” What if I can’t get to the place where my something is going to take place?  What if the something involves important people who don’t like the something?  What if my future is dependent upon the something so that if the something does not come about my future will be somehow destroyed?  What if… and the list could go on and on.  The result of what-ifs is an internal mood of uneasiness that we call anxiety.  The amazing thing about all of this is how quickly it takes place.  Within seconds, a simple thought about something happening tomorrow becomes an object of dread garbed in a host of what-ifs that launch us down a path of negativity convincing us that we have little control over our destiny.  Within moments we are an anxious mess, a condition we do not like, and so we try to stop it.  How?  We begin to fight with the what-ifs believing that if we can convince ourselves of their irrationality that we might return to a calmer state.  But fighting with what-ifs is a losing battle for no matter what logic we use, the what-ifs will seize upon it convincing us that the source of the problem is not the events that might take place, but rather the negative predictions of the what-ifs will take place because we are not worthy.  With this loss of confidence, the battle is lost and anxiety prevails.  Fighting with the what-ifs simply does not work; it makes matters worse.  Because I lost the battle, I lose my sleep as well and being tired only increases the what-ifs. 

Anyone can achieve their fullest potential, who we are might be predetermined, but the path we follow is always of our own choosing. We should never allow our fears or the expectations of others to set the frontiers of our destiny. Your destiny can’t be changed but, it can be challenged. Every man is born as many men and dies as a single one.

Martin Heidegger

Martin Heidegger coined a term to describe our everydayness, a term designed to suggest that no matter what we do and no matter where we go, we always are in the context of our world, much of which we did not create but in which we mut live and with which we must learn to cope.  He called this term “Dasein,” which literally means “being-there” (Heidegger, 1962).  Living, Heidegger thought, means to live within the world we were given.  We can do this authentically or we can do this inauthentically, which is the world of what-ifs and anxiety.  Let’s examine what this might mean.

If we did not care about the something that was about to happen, we would feel little about the something.  But because we do care—it is important to us—we naturally experience some anxiety when we think about it.  It is something we care about and for that reason we don’t want to mess it up, so we feel a little anxious.  If we are to live authentically in this moment, we accept the anxiety that accompanies it and treat it as our friend.  Anxiety, at this point, is our friend because it coaxes us to prepare so that we can put our best foot forward.  Have we prepared?  Is there anything more we need to do?  Do we have a good plan of getting to the place where the something is to take place?  What more needs to be done?  All of these questions are a response to friendly anxiety, which is an internal warning mechanism to assure preparedness.  If we listen to it, if we heed its warning and make the adequate preparations, it may still be there, but it will not grow and turn against us.  To accept anxiety as our friend and to live with the something through preparation so we can put our best foot forward is to live authentically in our world.

But what does it mean to live in our world inauthentically?  This is the world of the run-away what-ifs.  It is a world of procrastination and for whatever reason, it is a world where we lack proper preparation so that as the something nears, the friendly anxiety turns against us and begins to eat away at our confidence as it did in the example given above.  To live inauthentically, is to deny the care that lies at the heart of our being-in-the-world and hence, is a denial of our being there.  Interestingly, it is also a denial of our temporality, that is to say, it is a denial of the power of the moment for anxiety that is our enemy grows out of a future predicated only on the negative moments of the past.  “The last time I did something,” I might tell myself, “I screwed it up.”  Or I might tell myself, “The last time I did something, person X interfered, and I was powerless.”  Or I might convince myself that the something is just too daunting.  “I will never be able to do it,” i convince myself.  The pattern that distinguishes this type of thinking is a negative past determining the future, which is a scenario that is the breeding ground of out-of-control anxiety and a path to inauthentic living where one’s confidence is gutted preempting the power to live authentically.  When this happens, the present is emptied of hope and becomes a vague area where doubt and unfriendly anxiety reside.

If, however, we live in our world authentically, we will care about the future, but our care is rooted in the present rather than anticipating the future based upon negatives from the past.  Put differently, we realize that there is nothing normative about the past because it is past.  It is over and regardless of what may have happened in the past, today is a new day.  It is different.  To live authentically in our present, then, means differentiating ourselves from the past to such an extent that our past becomes the source of learning, but it is never that which determines the future.  To live authentically is to deny this type of fatalism.

But how do we do this?  How do we live in the present, learn from the past while caring for the something of our future?

I have always told my clients that the brain is like any muscle in the body.  While it will do what it is supposed to do without much training, if you really want your muscles to work as they should, it takes training.  Lifting weights, yoga, running, an active lifestyle, etc. are the activities that make the body work better.  The brain is like this.  It will most often do the things it is supposed to do—we breathe, our heart beats, we can read and remember things (most of the time), but experts figure we only use about 10% of our brain’s capacity.  If we want it to use more, we need to train it.  There are many brain games that we can play that help, we can learn foreign languages, which is an excellent exercise for the brain, and we can learn to meditate.  With our busy schedules, exercise of the brain has to be something we schedule and should do on a daily basis.  While the games are fun and learning languages interesting but time consuming, one of the best ways to train the brain is through meditation.  One of the problems with the what-ifs is they happen so quickly and in doing so focus our thoughts on self-defeating thoughts.  To preempt this, we need to learn to focus, and meditation helps us do this.  This does not mean that we won’t be presented with the what-ifs but training the brain to focus is one of the best ways to accept these thoughts without fighting with them.  That way, they do not get bigger; that way they do not run away with themselves and launch us into the depths of self-doubt and anxiety.  Meditation is a way of training the brain, in other words, so that we can live authentically.

If our body’s muscles are to operate well, they require exercise and training. If the brain is to function efficiently, it too must be trained. Meditation and mindfulness are the weights that exercise the brain.

There are all types of self-help books to help us learn to meditate and deal with our anxiety.  One of the workbooks I found to be effective in my practice was one written by John Forsyth and Georg Eifert called The Mindfulness & Acceptance Workbook for Anxiety.  Mindfulness is a way of training the brain.  Freedom from anxiety, they hold, means “learning to put anxiety and other unpleasant feelings and thoughts in their proper place—where they are just a part of life, but not the whole of life” (2016).  That is, mindfulness is an excellent way of training the brain to focus not on the wildness of the what-ifs but focus on the present—what is happening now—and paying attention to the details of the somethings of life so that we can rest in the preparation we have done.  In this, we see clearly what more needs to be done and take solace in the fact that we have done or are doing all we can do to prepare for the something.  Focusing on this builds our self-image, keeps the what-ifs at bay and helps us live more authentically.

“What do I do” the anxious person asks, “to slow down, to quiet all these thoughts that make me crazy?  How do I live with my busy brain?”  In the midst of unfriendly anxiety, these questions seem unanswerable, and we can easily lose hope believing that our anxiety has won.  Such defeatism is the definition of inauthentic living.  However, the brain can be trained.  There is something we can do about the what-ifs and there is a path towards a more authentic lifestyle where anxiety will still be with us, but it is a friendly anxiety that helps us prepare and ready ourselves for the many somethings of life.  With a trained brain and an authentic lifestyle, we may still have a busy brain, but it is accomplishing something grounded in a better understanding of self that brings greater confidence.  Train the brain and live authentically!

Works Consulted:

Forsyth, John P.; Eifert, Georg H. (2016) The Mindfulness and Acceptance Workbook for Anxiety: A Guide to Breaking Free from Anxiety, Phobias, and Worry Using Acceptance and Commitment Therapy . New Harbinger Publications. Kindle Edition.

Heidegger, M., (1962). Being and time. Translated by M., Macquarrie, J., & Robinson, E. Harpers & Row Publishers, New York

Published by Harold W. Anderson, Ph.D.

I am a retired United Methodist Minister and recently closed my practice as a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, retiring with my wife to Rancho Murieta, CA. Now I have a blog and several hobbies that take up my time. We enjoy traveling and occasionally spending time at our cabin in the mountains of Colorado.

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