How to turn my brain off?
April 26, 2010 8:12 AM   Subscribe

Activities that demand one's full attention so the mind doesn't wander to subjects it's unhelpful to think about? Preferably ones that can be done indoors and alone.

I'm bad at compartmentalizing and the result is that I keep thinking about matters that it's unhelpful for me to think about -- a lost love now involved with someone else in this case but the problem is more general than that. Some people seem able to say, "I'm just not going to think about x" and then they don't. I can't do that. Whether I'm reading, working out, cooking, in a yoga class, grading, it doesn't matter: I'm thinking about her and it and it makes me miserable.

The only time when I can really put my focus elsewhere is when I'm actually in the classroom teaching. I need more spaces/activities that force me to concentrate elsewhere, that demand my full attention and focus, that take my mind away from her. Some friends have suggested rock climbing and that appeals to me but I need more than that and preferably more that can be done indoors.

I'm not trying to avoid my emotions; I'm trying to contain them so that they're not leaking over into every moment of my life. My therapist agrees that such containment is necessary. So I'm seeking suggestions from the hivemind about how to do that.
posted by Wisco72 to Health & Fitness (43 answers total) 45 users marked this as a favorite
Playing a musical instrument?
posted by ghharr at 8:15 AM on April 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The obvious answer to me is meditation. You don't necessarily push these thoughts away as you learn to let them go and not cling to them. I would recommend either of Pema Chordron's books, Start Where You Are or When Things Fall Apart.

It's easy to get started. Costs nothing. And starts from a place of acceptance and kindness to you and others.
posted by cross_impact at 8:18 AM on April 26, 2010 [4 favorites]

Indoors? Alone? Avoiding feelings? Sounds like a job for video games.
posted by anti social order at 8:19 AM on April 26, 2010 [13 favorites]

If you're at all interested in being crafty, I've found knitting to be extremely relaxing and helpful with getting my mind off of things. I've struggled with anxiety for years, and it's been a useful tool for me personally. It only takes an afternoon to learn, and when you're first starting out it's repetitive enough not to become too frustrating, but tricky enough to keep your brain occupied. And once you get a handle on the basics, if you find your mind drifting again you can slowly ramp up the level of complication of your projects, so that you stay just a little ahead of your comfort zone.

You also end up with lots of presents to give to your friends (or yourself!)
posted by Narrative Priorities at 8:19 AM on April 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

Jigsaw puzzles are good for me. Also crosswords and computer games.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 8:21 AM on April 26, 2010

posted by fire&wings at 8:21 AM on April 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

Find a couple of good books.
posted by Iggley at 8:25 AM on April 26, 2010

oh, sorry, you already said reading doesn't help
posted by Iggley at 8:26 AM on April 26, 2010

Once you start getting good your mind might be able to wander more, but I've found that solving a rubik's cube with the Petrus Method requires my full attention. That particular solving method requires a lot more thinking than some of the other methods that rely mostly on memorized algorithms.
posted by burnmp3s at 8:26 AM on April 26, 2010

Find a really engaging TV show and watch it on DVD. Lost works for me.
posted by spinto at 8:28 AM on April 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

Serious cleaning tends to help me when I'm upset about something. I start off by directing my energy toward one task (like washing all the dishes in the sink), and then when I'm done I notice that the counters could stand a serious scrubdown, and there are some dust bunnies under the couch, and so on, and then I end up turning into an emotionless cleaning robot until everything's perfect.

I find that it's also easier for me to have a clear mind if I'm in a very clean space, so it has benefits that last at least until my roommates get home.
posted by oinopaponton at 8:33 AM on April 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

I've been in your boat, more than once. I know you want activities that could be preferably done alone, but I have found that just hangin' out with good friends is the best way around it. Sure, you might feel self-consciously miserable at first, like you're bringing everyone down because you're down, but that (hopefully) goes away after a while.

The only other thing I've found to work is heavily involved films (which, unlike books, engage more senses of their own volition.) Abstract, "intellectual", complex, etc., just any kind of movie which forces me to really wrap my mind around it to get any enjoyment out of it and at the same time seeming interesting and rewarding enough to prevent me from just going "eh" and leaving it alone. Give Primer a shot. If you have Netflix, it may still be streaming.
posted by griphus at 8:38 AM on April 26, 2010

Seconding the meditation approach, though I wish it worked better for me. Volunteering/getting involved with a local activity might also help--and help others, but I must warn that then, if you are prone to focusing on problems (not necessarily a bad thing) you might find yourself focusing on other people's problems. That can sometimes help me lose track of my problems, and sometimes make it worse as I fret about others.
posted by beelzbubba at 8:39 AM on April 26, 2010

Best answer: Sympathies. My brain does the same thing. What's worked for me in that kind of situation:

- Really immersive, addictive computer games. EVE Online, Angband and The Sims 3 are all great for this.

- Martial arts. My mind wanders a lot less during karate sessions than it does normally; there's something about the physical and mental concentration combined that really creates focus. While it's not quite as solitary an activity as you might be looking for, you can at least do some things (like practice kata) at home.

Also, try to avoid beating yourself up about this. Your brain is the kind of brain that likes to gnaw on things. That's neither good nor bad, just the way things are. Treat it like a mischievous puppy - give it a more appealing chew-toy, and it'll lose its taste for the stuff you'd rather it left alone.
posted by Catseye at 8:40 AM on April 26, 2010

quick fix = 2nding Video Games (that's what I do)
Better fix = hobby with hands
Best fix = Meditation?
posted by DetonatedManiac at 8:41 AM on April 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

Really good podcasts. Start with This American Life and Radiolab.
posted by availablelight at 8:44 AM on April 26, 2010 [3 favorites]

Listen to music and teach yourself a programming language! Pretty soon, you'll be trying to block out your coding thoughts when you go to sleep at night.

Meditation and yoga are great long term goals, but I imagine they might represent the biggest challenge if you're having trouble because you get distracted.
posted by activitystory at 8:55 AM on April 26, 2010

I agree with the meditation suggestions, mostly because I find that when I accept where I am without trying to fight it then I stop wanting to fight it so much.

What about the classroom teaching takes your mind away? Is it sharing your knowledge, or being in front of a group of people, or helping others, or you just love the subject matter and get lost in it, etc - to the extent you can figure that out, then you could narrow your focus to activities that incorporate more of whatever it is that you figured out is helpful.

I would try maybe volunteering in an area where you have some expertise, so perhaps you would be fully engaged in trying to help others. I am not big into the "get out in the world!" philosophy of break up healing, but maybe focusing on an activity with a group, and all of the group dynamic that goes along with it, would help.

Do you have an iPhone? The Words With Friends app (think Scrabble with a different name) can be a quick way to redirect your focus if you find your attention wandering. It might be a good idea to have some kind of activity like that in mind, something you can go to quickly that takes some focus but can be picked right up as a diversion.
posted by mrs. taters at 9:06 AM on April 26, 2010

Exercise. Something you can do while listening to music or listening to a book on tape. At the gym, you're essentially alone, with headphones in.
Pilates classes are also good, because it's a very cerebral way to work out, focusing on body position.

Or, if you really don't want to deal with other people- try a workout video or WiiFit.
Aim for 30 minutes or more, every day if you can. Don't like it? Acknowledge that it is your medicine, and you don't have to like it, you're in it for the brain benefits.

Best part: This will not only occupy your brain so you don't brood for the time you're doing it, but it also shifts your body chemistry so you brood and ruminate less! Plus you sleep better.
posted by SaharaRose at 9:08 AM on April 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

Meets your criteria: Rock Band drums.

Not quite, but more constructive: Running barefoot.
posted by cmoj at 9:18 AM on April 26, 2010

I have been there and I am also one of those people that just cannot stop churning things in my mind. During the day I was mostly okay (well, sometimes alcohol was required and Antiques Roadshow marathons), but it was awful at night. I found that sleeping pills can save your sanity and get you well-rested enough to function. Long term they are not good, but very useful when life sends you something awful you can't stop thinking about.
posted by meepmeow at 9:27 AM on April 26, 2010

I suspect working out would be counterproductive: very high-intensity workouts can clear your head out, but lower-intensity activities are perfect grounds for mind wandering.

Would you be interested in singing/taking voice lessons? When you're singing, it's pretty hard to think about anything outside of the song.
posted by Metroid Baby at 9:48 AM on April 26, 2010

Best answer: I second fire&wings suggestion of drawing. Playing music might also do the trick. Both of these creative activities, if you can really get into them and enter a state of "flow", can be very calming and productive. One of my favorite things about creative work is its meditative quality.

If you want to get into drawing, find a used copy of "Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain" on Amazon or Ebay. It can teach you to draw, you'll feel great while you're doing, and then you'll have a beautiful upside down replica of a Picasso portrait to show off after (don't ask).
posted by boghead at 9:54 AM on April 26, 2010

I'll clarify about barefoot running as opposed to regular street jogging. Trail running or something like that might do the same. You've got to be very aware of your form and where you place your feet. It's nothing like the passive experience of running in tennis shoes where it doesn't matter how your foot hits the ground or whether you step on an uneven sidewalk crack with your heel.

Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain is amazing. I always tell people that if you do what she says, you WILL be able to draw anything. I went from not really being able to draw to drawing a bunch of carnations and pinecones and shit... accurately.
posted by cmoj at 9:59 AM on April 26, 2010

Seconding grabbing a copy of Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain and working through the book. Focused drawing is one of the fastest ways for me to change the direction of my thoughts. You could end up coming out of this difficult period with a new and useful skill.
posted by thegreatfleecircus at 10:08 AM on April 26, 2010

Response by poster: Great suggestions, folks. Keep 'em coming. I'm a little hesitant on the meditation approach because it seems like it assumes the ability to do what I am trying to acquire the ability to do. But it's something to aim for.

Musical instrument and/or singing (though I feel bad for anyone who is forced to hear me do either) are worth trying. Drawing too. I'm not the most creative person so this might also be a good way to expand my horizons that way.

Meepmeow used the word "churning" above and that's really a really apt description of what it feels like.
posted by Wisco72 at 11:38 AM on April 26, 2010

I'd add audiobooks to the "hand hobby" suggestion - draw or knit or do a puzzle and listen to a book at the same time. very relaxing
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 11:57 AM on April 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

This is kind of weird, but I have a little trick I use (mostly when I'm trying to fall asleep at night) to get my brain to shut up when it's mulling / churning / racing / beanplating. Basically, I start 'speaking' in a nonsense language in my head. I let the emotions continue to do what they were doing, but I don't allow any more English words to happen. So if what I was thinking about was making me angry, I might keep yelling in my head, but now the content becomes something more like OOGGEDY BOOGGEDY WOOPUH!!!!!!Without real words, the free association stops and there is no more fuel to think on.
posted by kitcat at 12:08 PM on April 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

1)Buy an iPhone or iPod Touch
2)Download Doodle Jump from the App Store
3)Forget the rest of the planet exists for a while.

Hey, it works great for me! DizzyPad is another one, along with Fare City. I can easily blow a couple of hours playing just those games.
posted by drstein at 12:20 PM on April 26, 2010

Best answer: When I'm trying to stop thinking about something, sprinting helps. I don't enjoy it, and its exhausting. But when I'm trying to forget about something running as fast as I can in short bursts let's out my aggression. Because it physically hurts, it gives your brain a disincentive to wander. If my mind wanders, I sprint again and get in better shape. Plus it gets those endorphins up.
posted by BusyBusyBusy at 1:14 PM on April 26, 2010

I started watching Mad Men when in a similar situation, especially at night when I was too tired to really exert myself but not tired enough to fall asleep without dwelling.

I'd recommend any TV show that has more than 2 seasons and gets you really mentally involved.

I like Mad Men because there is some very good commentary online. I can watch an ep and then read people's analysis of every minute detail.
posted by inmediasres at 2:03 PM on April 26, 2010

Do other people that also "churn" find that once you have finished churning something then it doesn't hurt anymore when it comes up again? Maybe that is the one advantage - it has been revisited so much mentally that the pain is just gone thereafter for the most part. Might be better than burying it and then bursting out in tears when anything reminds you of it.
posted by meepmeow at 2:08 PM on April 26, 2010

Have you considered learning a new language?

I've been learning Japanese in a class setting once a week for the past 16 months, and I carve out some time most days to study (if I don't, class is pretty difficult the next week). Grammar, vocabulary, cultural nuances, kanji, hiragana and katakana are all a workout for my brain-- forcing me to focus my thoughts. (I'm learning this with my husband, but we study separately for the most part.)

I've found that studying the language is a great focus when I'm ruminating or feeling scattered. If I'm bored with the material, I'll watch a Japanese movie and try to pick out some phrases that I know. (Added benefit: fun travel! I've been to Japan a couple of times now and was pretty happy to find that I can engage in basic conversations.)
posted by gummie at 2:52 PM on April 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

Sewing, the kind where you lay out a pattern on the fabric and do the steps in a certain order. You might take an introductory sewing class at a fabric store to see if you have any appetite for this.

Easier (imo) crafts like cross-stitch and knitting are pleasant and keep your hands occupied, but I don't think they would solve your perseveration problem.
posted by lakeroon at 3:08 PM on April 26, 2010

Best answer: I noticed you thought about drawing, but you were afraid about your skill level. I was in the same boat. Check out the lesson plans @ There are over 50 lessons that start at super beginner and end at a great pencil artists. It will take you weeks to get through this. I used to like just turned on music and completing a lesson on that site. It would sometimes take 2-3 hours of concentration to finish each lesson to my liking.
posted by ShootTheMoon at 3:36 PM on April 26, 2010 [3 favorites]

Nah, meditation doesn't assume you're super concentrated. One of the primary purposes of meditation is to learn to control distractions.

I'm also nthing video games. Maybe you don't want to do something unproductive, but nothing is quite as utterly immersive as a good video game if you give it a chance.
posted by aesacus at 7:36 PM on April 26, 2010

You say that reading doesn't work, but have you tried reading something really difficult and involved? I'm currently getting over a breakup, and I find that my mind tends to wander when I'm reading something relatively light, but when I'm reading something that really makes me think, it distracts me quite effectively. Right now, I'm reading Society of the Spectacle for a class I'm taking, and that requires me not only to keep track of and evaluate his argument, but also to think about the ways he's reading Marx, and how his arguments do or don't match up with those of Althusser, McLuhan, and others, and to track how he's engaging with the issues we're discussing in class. There's no room in my mind to think about my ex with all that going on.

The other thing I've been doing is to training myself to take a walk every time I want to see him. I live in an urban area with a fantastic waterfront park nearby, so every time I want go see my ex, I walk to the water instead; this gives me a goal and an activity, and distracts me. Sometimes I think about him while I walk, but more often than not, I don't, and either way, going to the water cheers me up and the walk is good for me.
posted by dizziest at 9:39 PM on April 26, 2010

Best answer: I keep thinking about matters that it's unhelpful for me to think about

This may be answering a different question, but for me, it really really helped to give myself explicit permission to occasionally have those unwanted, unhelpful thoughts. You know, there was a lot of history there -- it's natural for those memories to intrude, for the processing of the end that my mind demanded to suddenly crop up on this or that prompt. Then I'd react with more of a neutral "huh" than a teeth-grinding "not THOSE THOUGHTS again!" which simply increased my overall anxiety and gave my depression another reason to be disappointed with myself.

It got better after that, certainly.
posted by dhartung at 11:26 PM on April 26, 2010

I play Go with a number of coworkers each week. It demands my full attention and is like the opposite of taking a long drive. During a long drive, part of your brain goes into automatic and another part gets to daydream. With Go, your logical part is very focused on the game and the automatic part gets a rest.

I highly recommend it, its a wonderful game.
posted by miasma at 4:49 AM on April 27, 2010

To compartmentalize, you need to build compartments. Take up carpentry. Buy the tools, the DIY books, the hobbyist plans, the work bench, and get cracking. You need more shelves, don't you? First do shelves, the kind you put on the wall with brackets. Maybe shelves in closets, in cupboards. Then build some steps to reach the higher shelves. Then some bookends to keep the books from flopping over. Then bird houses, bat houses, bee houses, cat houses, dog houses, doll houses, and outhouses. After you're up to speed with a hammer and saw, join Habitat for Humanity and channel your energies into building people houses.
posted by pracowity at 5:53 AM on April 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

Why is solitude preferred?
posted by halfguard at 4:56 PM on April 27, 2010

I found with great pleasure and surprise that the practice of Tai Chi Chuan, an internal chinese martial art, allowed me to turn off my brain.

Simply because for me the movements and forms are so demanding in terms of memory and attention to detail, that everytime my brain would start wandering I would loose sync with the teacher or forget what to do next.

After a couple of classes I was experiencing complete brain shutdown for the duration of the class.

I know you can't do it alone, but you might want to give it a try.
posted by guictx at 2:00 AM on April 28, 2010

posted by kristi at 1:09 PM on May 1, 2010

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