It’s 2:00am again… you roll over and see the clock and inwardly groan. Your mind starts racing as you start to replay the events of the day, thinking about what you did or said or what you didn’t say, or shouldn’t have said. Then you start reviewing your to-do list, adding things to it and worrying about all those things that you didn’t get to again. Now, you are truly awake, fretting about the upcoming day. You desperately need good sleep so that you don’t go to work exhausted again – but how? How do you have a full night of restorative sleep when you are distracted by having so many balls in the air?
This experience is all too common in our ultra-busy, over-committed lives. When you are at work, you have home life issues on your mind; when you are at home, you are checking email and texts from work. You end up feeling like you are failing in both places. And, that leads to feelings of powerlessness, overwhelm, and resentment. You are now ripe for those 2:00am moments.
What to do?! Here are four simple steps to quiet the “monkey mind,” release your self-judgment and worry, and take back control of what feels like an out-of-control life.
1. Notice! A key strategy for quieting down the monkey mind (a.k.a your stress response) is to notice it. You can do this in different ways. You can simply say to yourself, “I notice that I am getting revved up by thinking about my conversation with Sally today. I choose to let this go as it is in the past and I cannot change what happened.” Or, “I notice that I am worrying about having to talk to Joe about his attendance issues tomorrow. I choose to let that go as I know I am prepared for it.”
Try a technique that I call, “catch and release” to help you notice and release those un-supportive habits of thinking.
Catch and Release guided meditation:
Imagine you are sitting by a babbling brook, the ambient air is pleasant, a soft breeze is rustling the leaves in the trees, you are perfectly comfortable and relaxed. As a worrying or negative thought enters your mind, notice it or “catch it.” Say to yourself, “I notice I’m thinking about….” Then, imagine you crumple that thought up like a piece of paper and then release it into the brook. Then, watch it flow downstream. Go back to being in the present moment by being aware of the noise of the brook, the wind in the trees, the warmth of the air and how comfortable and relaxed you are. Everytime you notice a negative thought coming into your awareness, “catch and release” it. Stay with the guided meditation for three to five minutes.
2. Keep a journal. Write it down every time you start to fret about what happened in the past (or what might happen in the future). You don’t have to write a novel. Just notate every time you start to fret about something in the past or the future. This is another way of noticing your stress response. Every time you notice your worry is an opportunity to counter that thought with a different, more productive thought. Such as, “what’s another way of thinking about…?” Or, “how would someone with a completely different perspective from me think about…..?”
3. Carve out “me” time. Dedicate 30 minutes at the end of each day to capture all that you accomplished that day. Don’t skimp! These can be as simple as “I left the unit to have lunch” or “I left the building to take a 15 minute walk.” During that 30 minute time, write down your priorities for the next day. I suggest limiting those priorities to no more than three (click here to download "Top Three Things" tool) When you walk in the next morning – you know what you want to be working on. Again, at the end of the day, capture your accomplishments. Did you get one of your priorities done? Congratulations! You knocked one off the list! And, if you notice your stress response creeping in, (“I didn’t get all my priorities done!”) say, “I notice that I am judging myself for not getting all my priorities done – what is another way of thinking about this that is more supportive?”
4. Counter the physiological response to stress*. Did you know that whenever your stress response is triggered you release the stress hormone, cortisol? Small upsets as well as big upsets release cortisol. For instance, someone cuts you off in traffic and you cuss them out – you release cortisol. As you are walking into the building you get a terse text from your boss – you feel that tightening in your gut – you are releasing cortisol. You might be worrying about having to talk to a staff member about his performance, you are releasing cortisol.
Cortisol plays a key part in our survival in that it keeps you in an awake and alert state when you feel threatened. Have you ever noticed that after a particularly stressful day you have a hard time falling asleep? That’s because your system is flooded with cortisol! This keeps you in a hyper-vigilant state so that you can fend off all those threats you perceive in your environment and this makes a night of restorative sleep difficult to achieve. This constant assault on your system breaks down your resilience capacity. You end up chronically exhausted, edgy, impatient, and crabby. Your ability to self-regulate decreases.
The reality is that the typical threats you encounter in your day are not life-threatening. The job that cortisol is designed to do, in this case, isn’t necessarily supportive of what you want in life. You want to feel composed, calm, productive, engaged, and satisfied with your activities in life. Just as there is a bio-chemical response to stress there is also a bio-chemical response to renewing experiences. And, you can summon this more productive, healthy, bio-chemical response on-demand!
When you experience excitement, calm, satisfaction, appreciation, gratitude, these emotions release the vitality hormone DHEA. DHEA counteracts the effects of cortisol. This is where noticing your thoughts comes into play. You can re-experience those renewing emotions and experiences in your thoughts and release DHEA. This simple shift in your attention pays big dividends in quieting the monkey mind and paving the way to a good night’s sleep. With this shift in attention you build your resilience capacity. Now you can roll with the punches, keep your perspective on things and your sense of humor.
Try this simple technique called Quick Coherence* for counteracting your stress response:
1. Put your attention on your heart area and breathe in and out through your heart area, a little slower and deeper than normal
2. Activate a positive emotion. Re-experience a renewing emotion such as gratitude, appreciation, excitement, or satisfaction in a job well done.
Do this five time a day for 60 seconds. As a reminder, set five alarms on your phone to alert you to practice this technique each day. The key here is to genuinely re-live the renewing emotion. Just as you can get stressed out by re-living an event in your head (or making one up), re-live a renewing, positive experience in your head instead. Doing this proactively five times a day will make an amazing difference!
7 Day Challenge!
For the next seven days, I challenge you to put into practice some new habits of thinking and behaving:
- Notice your negative, self-judging thoughts – be vigilant, don’t let them slip by un-noticed. Then, challenge them! Ask yourself, “what’s another way of thinking about this that is more supportive?” Bonus points for keeping a journal.
- Carve out 30 minutes of “me” time at the end of the day to celebrate your accomplishment and write down your top three things to focus on the next day.
- Practice Quick Coherence five times a day to counteract the release of cortisol.
At the end of seven days, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org and tell me what you notice.
*Institute of HeartMath, Building Personal Resilience