Pick a Mantra
Focusing can feel next to impossible when there are dozens of thoughts racing through your mind. A quick way of taking a step back from whatever thoughts are swarming your mind is to give your entire focus to something simple and repetitive. Pick a word, or mantra, that brings you comfort, relief, or positive energy. For example, you might choose the word “peace” or the brief phrase “It’s ok.” Bring all your focus to taking a deep breath in and, when you exhale, repeat the mantra. Repeat this several times until you feel more centered.
Schedule Your Worries
Sometimes it can be difficult to clear your mind because it is occupied with worries. Ironically, we often worry so much about the things we need to do, that it becomes hard to find the mental space required to actually get them done. One thing you can do is to take out your planner and schedule a time to worry. Make it a time when you can be in a place where you will be able to spend time with your thoughts and write that time in. Then tell yourself that you don’t need to waste the energy worrying now, because you’ll do it later.
When your “worry time” has arrived, give yourself a specific block of time to worry (say, 10 minutes) and allow yourself to think about the worry. Some people like to pick a special place (for example, “the worry chair”) that is designated for worrying. Make sure to set an alarm to remind you when worry time is over- and RESPECT THAT TIME BOUNDARY! Otherwise, your worries will seep out into the rest of your day. If you have trouble emerging from your worries, schedule something fun and distracting at the end of your 10-minute worry time so that the worry doesn’t go on and on.
A bonus of this exercise: you may find that by the time you get to your worry time, the problem has resolved itself or just doesn’t seem as bad as it first did.
Distraction can be helpful in clearing your mind of nervous thoughts, especially in a situation where you find yourself panicking. For example, imagine you’re in a classroom and a difficult exam is being passed out. You feel your heart start to race, your palms get sweaty, and your mind is cluttered by thoughts like “If I don’t pass this exam, I’m toast!” You feel so nervous you wish you could run out of the room. Time to use distraction.
Focus on something in the room. It can be something visual, like your shoelaces, something tactile, like the feeling of your body sitting in the chair, or auditory, like tuning in to the conversation of someone next to you. Now just try to absorb every single detail of the thing on which you’re focusing. If it’s your shoelaces, notice the color, the texture, the way they are tied, the way they shift when you move your feet. Keep focusing on the object until your mind is no longer running off with worries about the exam and your body feels more relaxed.
Word of wisdom: make sure to focus on something that doesn’t increase your anxiety. For instance, focusing on someone else’s conversation about how nervous they are about the exam will probably be more likely to exacerbate your fears than calm them!
Practice Mindfulness Meditation
Mindfulness meditation isn’t about totally your mind- that’s pretty much impossible. It’s a way of practicing not attaching to thoughts, but letting them come and go. For example, I might have a tendency to fixate on how my boyfriend cheated on me: I think about it constantly and feel worse and worse about it. I am pretty attached to the negative thoughts and feelings about this boyfriend, in that I just can’t seem to let go of them. By practicing mindfulness meditation, I am training my mind to allow thoughts and feelings to visit without doing anything to keep them around for a longer stay. Like anything else you learn to do, the more you practice mindfulness meditation, the more you’ll get the hang of it. Although, at first, it’s really hard to just sit and do what feels like nothing, mindfulness meditation will eventually become something you look forward to.
Here are the basics. Find a quiet place to sit (either sitting straight in a chair with feet on the floor or cross-legged on the floor) and concentrate on your natural breathing. Notice when thoughts or feelings come into your mind (they will!) but try to not get carried off with them. Instead, tell yourself “There’s a thought” and picture yourself letting go of it like a cloud passing through the sky. Then return to concentrating on just breathing in and out. It’s very important to not get frustrated with yourself if you lose focus and drift away into thinking. The whole point is to learn how to BE AWARE of when you’re lost in your thoughts and give yourself permission to let them go.
Start small when you’re learning to meditate. Try to get yourself to sit for just 10 minutes a day at first. It’s vital that you practice regularly to get the full benefit. Don’t just use it on days when you’re terribly overwhelmed- that’s like trying to learn how to run in the midst of your first marathon! Practice it daily in order to get your mind used to being mindful.
Mindfulness meditation is an important tool which has been found useful in treating all types of problems, including depression and anxiety. For more information on mindfulness meditation, check out related books on our reading list.