How to Beat Your Brain

No, I don’t mean you should attempt to pulverize the gray thinking sponge that lives in your skull.

I’m talking about figuring out how to override your brain’s unsavory impulses and how to keep yourself safe, sane, and, in my case, sober. Here’s the thing about your brain: it can and will lie to you sometimes. Especially if you have anxiety, depression, or any mental illness, really. When you feel like you’re going to burst out of your skin — whether you’re having a manic episode, an anxiety attack, a PTSD trigger, or any other number of things, it’s helpful to have some exercises you can do to keep yourself from spiraling.

It gets very loud inside my head sometimes. If a normal person’s volume goes up to 10, mine goes up to 15. And once I pass that 10 level, it gets extremely hard to hear anything except the overbearing emotion that has currently taken up residence in my brain. That’s why it’s important for me to actively listen to my body so I can try to stop myself before I get to that point. The Toolkit of Mindfulness comes in handy in this way. But you must be willing to examine your feelings and thoughts, not push them away or drown them out. It’s going to feel weird, awkward, and probably uncomfortable at first. But trust me when I say that it’s better than the alternative, and the more you practice, the better you’ll get at identifying what I call your Spiral Moments.

I think of the following as a Toolkit of Mindfulness. A box that I can keep tactics and therapeutic tools inside of that will help me when my brain is running amok and telling me to hurt myself, or drink, or jump off the balcony. Since they are helpful for someone with mental disorders out the wazoo like me, I think they could be useful to you too. Even if you’re just looking for ways to manage your stress, my toolkit can help. At the very least it’s not gonna hurt you. I promise.

So without further ado, here’s what I keep in my Toolkit of Mindfulness: (Now just a disclaimer: Not every single one of these will work for you. And some of them will work some times, while other times they are rendered useless. It’s about finding what works best for you and tweaking them. So don’t take this as a gospel — think of it as a loose guidebook you can use as a jumping off point to assemble your own Toolkit of Mindfulness.)

ABCs

  • This a helpful practice that is simple and can be done anywhere. When you feel yourself start to rev up, pick a topic (it can be anything from cars, to animals, to books, to sketchy stores only found in middle American malls) and list something for each letter. For example: “A is for apple, B is for banana, C is for cantaloupe, etc.”. This is good because it will distract you, and you’ll find yourself getting stuck on certain letters and having to focus and think harder in order to find a match, which will distract you from the cacophony in your brain.
    • Another way to use the ABC trick in a different way: Recite the ABCs backward, slowly. This way of thinking diverts your attention and makes it tougher to focus on the thing that is causing you anxiety.

Five Senses

  • This activity can also be done anywhere. When you feel yourself beginning to freak out, mentally categorize what you are physically experiencing. Make a list (you can do this on paper, on your phone, or just in your head) of the following: what you’re smelling, what you’re hearing, what you’re seeing, what you can feel under your fingers, and what you can taste. This will help you make neutral observations about what you are experiencing and keep you calm.
    • The important part of this exercise is to not pass judgement on what you are listing. Don’t think about how you see a pile of paperwork and it all has to be done by the end of the day. Just notice the details of the pile of paper, admire the edges, take stock of what color it is, but don’t allow yourself to make any commentary on it. You are an observer in this scenario. It helps to pretend you are an alien that has just inhabited a human’s body and is trying to understand its surroundings.

Do something tactile with your hands

  • This could be anything, but I’ve found that the things that help the most are petting an animal (if you have one readily available, if not, getting a sweater or a blanket that is thick and fuzzy can work sometimes too), or drawing/doodling. Giving your hands and your brain something else to focus on is key in calming yourself down. The last time I had an anxiety attack I wrote the words “Ride it out” on a piece of paper and colored over them again and again as a way to remind myself that the feeling would pass. They say it helps you memorize things if you write them down. The same can be true for getting your brain to stop freaking out.
    • Another useful thing to invest in is one of those adult coloring books and some markers. I’ve found them to be extremely beneficial in getting my thoughts in order and helping me mediate my breathing without doing actual yoga or anything.

Have something you can break

  • Oftentimes when I’m overcome by emotion that makes me want to lash out, or drink, or run headfirst into a wall, it’s centered on rage and anger. Having something you can safely break or throw around is important. It has been helpful to me as a way I can get my physicality out. Think of it as punching a pillow, but more satisfying. If you’re worried about a mess, may I suggest a Dammit Doll, which is basically a sturdy little doll that you can bash into a dresser 20 times in a row who won’t explode on impact. Plus, you get to name them and that helps channel your anger in a healthy way instead of unleashing it on yourself or someone else.

Shower

  • Again, this is only if you can do this in the moment. But if you can, changing your body temperature can work wonders. Hot or cold showers both get the job done. If you’re somewhere that might frown upon you getting naked and standing under a faucet, splashing some water on your face in a bathroom can help too.
    • The rapid change of temperature, coupled with the tactile sensation of wet on your skin can break the repetitive and negative loops going on in your brain. It’s a shock to your system that’s safe and can jolt you back to yourself.

Move around, and if you can, EXERCISE

  • This is CRUCIAL. I there have been several times in my 5 months of sobriety where I have almost drank, but was able to pull myself out of it at the last moment by exercising. I can’t stress this enough. Getting your body moving, increasing your heart rate, giving yourself something goal-oriented to do instead of sitting trapped in your own head is so, so important. Once when I was badly triggered I went for a 5 mile run at 10 pm and it leeched all the itchiness and negativity out of my body. Another time I was at a bar and was miserable because I wanted nothing more than to drink with the people I was with. So instead, I excused myself and went rock climbing for 2 hours. Not only did this clear my head, it allowed me to lower the volume of my emotions, keep myself sober, AND it actually allowed me to go back and meet up with everyone later and not feel tempted.
    • Find something you can do when your mind starts to spiral. Even if it’s jumping jacks. Even if you have to buy a tiny trampoline and keep it in your bedroom. You’re not going to want to move at first, but once you do the transformation will be almost immediate. DO THIS. Out of all my suggestions, this is the one with the highest success rate.

Make a physical Toolkit of Mindfulness

  • Last year, before I even quit drinking, my therapist suggested I put together a distress tolerance basket that could help me de-stress. The idea was that I would put the basket in an easily accessible area of my home and whenever I was feeling overwhelmed by my brain, I could go into the basket and pull something out that would be able to help me re-center myself. Now, this is only helpful if you have a Spiral Moment at home, but it’s still a good idea to have one. You could even create a mini one at work, especially if you find yourself feeling upset there often. My basket at home contains:
    • my Dammit Doll
    • a few mindfulness workbooks 
    • a literal voodoo doll (cus I’m dark like that)
    • a number of adult coloring books and markers
    • a notepad
    • a candle with a pleasing scent I can burn
    • a stuffed animal to squeeze

I strongly suggest you try some of these tactics the next time you are feeling like your brain is the enemy. Whether you’re sober and trying not to drink, or having an anxiety attack, or feeling blue, the exercises in my Toolkit of Mindfulness can help to bring you back to yourself. Add your own tools too. Find what works for you. Self-care is so fucking important, and as long as you’re being kind and safe to yourself and others, there are hundreds of things you can do.

Did I miss anything? Add the things you like to do when your brain’s volume gets turned up too loud in the comments!

2 thoughts on “How to Beat Your Brain

  1. These are awesome suggestions. I also use the Internet at times to distract myself and make me laugh (it’s important not to read Twitter, though, or the news). Parrots who like to dance, kittens who play with dogs, frolicking baby goats—these can all break the loop of misery and make me feel better. Thanks for the good ideas.

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    1. You are welcome. It’s also important to curate a social media experience that doesn’t stress you out. If your Twitter or Instagram feed causes you grief instead of happiness, it’s time to start purging people and making adjustments. I’ve been very careful about the people I choose to follow because I want my twitter, @SaratogaAugusta, and my Instagram, @the_sober_climb, to be safe spaces.

      Like

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