Have you ever been stuck in your head playing out the worst-case scenario? Even though I’ve taught yoga and meditation for 20 years, I still have to actively manage my mischievous mind.
Not long ago, I had a mammogram. The next day I received a message from my primary: “There is an issue with your scan.” I called back, but it was after hours on a Friday. Within minutes, I received a text confirming an appointment with the Oncology Unit. I thought, “Am I dying? They scheduled it and didn’t even wait to talk to me!”
The entire weekend, my mind was racing: “I need to film a bunch of yoga flows before I lose my hair.” “I wonder if I can cut my hair and make a wig out of it.” “Do I have enough life insurance?” “What is my bucket list?” I kept praying that I wouldn’t die. The runaway train of thoughts caused my stress level to soar, which made it so I couldn’t sleep. I woke up nauseous, which gave me “evidence” something was wrong. There was no way to be present with my family. It was a downward vicious spiral. Can you relate?
On Monday morning, I called the Oncology Unit. The woman said, “I see Kennedy scheduled but it’s not you.” It dawned on me that it could be an 87-year-old relative since I manage her appointments. It was! She had cancer a few years ago and it was her annual checkup. The timing was a total coincidence. Extremely grateful, I went in for the new scans, and all was fine.
Critical thinking is an important skill to help you plan systematically, solve problems and better express yourself. In our world of “fake news” and AI-generated everything, the ability to question if something is true, spot your own biases, gather evidence and make more informed decisions is, well, critical.
However, if you realize you’ve been thinking about the same issue over and over again without taking action, you may be overthinking — spinning into a worrying “what-if” cycle like in my case or falling down the rabbit hole of rumination. In a 2021 study published in World Psychiatry, rumination was defined as “a process of repetitive negative thinking,” and was found to increase the risk of depression and anxiety.
The quickest way to get out of your mind is to get into your body.
Placing attention on the body grounds you in the present. Here are a few strategies:
Breathe. One technique used by U.S. Navy SEALs is “box breathing”: Inhale through the nose for a count of four, hold the breath for four, exhale through the mouth for four and hold for four. That is one round. Repeat three or four times to kick in the relaxation response.
Meditate. Focus on one thing: the breath, an object or a phrase like “This Too Shall Pass.” A practical attention-training technique is body scan meditation where you mentally scan the body from head to toe, noticing any sensations.
Laugh. If you’re not inclined to stop and breathe or meditate in the moment, then laugh! Laughter prompts a diaphragmatic breath, which releases dopamine and serotonin, and reduces stress, anxiety and muscle tension. Create your own “laugh track” such as jokes or YouTube videos.
Stretch. Perhaps you’re glued to your desk. Do chair yoga – stretching the arms up and to the sides, squeezing the shoulders, adding in a twist. This will ease tension in the muscles and give the brain a reset.
Relax. To melt stress away, practice progressive muscle relaxation. It is a process of tensing and releasing the major muscle groups from your head to your toes. You can do it seated or lying down.
Exercise. Harvard Medical School has called moving the large muscle groups in a rhythmic, repetitive fashion, like with walking and jogging, “muscular meditation.” It can clear the mind, reduce stress and release endorphins, which elevate the mood. If you can, do it outside and get the added benefits from nature.
Dance. If exercise is not your thing, simply put on some music and dance. It will reduce stress and release the “happy” hormone serotonin.
Play. A sure way to get unstuck is play. Choose a partner and activity you enjoy such as frisbee, ping-pong or pickleball. Take a cue from former First Lady Michelle Obama and break out a Hula Hoop. According to the Mayo Clinic, Hula Hooping for 30 minutes can burn about 165 calories.
The two things that saved me during my weekend of “cancer planning” were my daily practices of yoga and walking. No matter what is happening, those are my nonnegotiables. Yoga focuses my mind, and walking resets my energy. Next time the thoughts roll in, intercept and redirect, allowing your body to take the lead.