Help me. I can't seem to 'switch off'.
June 23, 2005 4:56 PM   Subscribe

PsychFilter: Help me. I can't seem to 'switch off'.

I can't relax. I don't feel 'stressed', but I have never seemed to be able to 'switch my brain off' and just relax. It feels like it's constantly working away - almost fighting against me! This is leading to constant forgetfulness, and sometimes severe lack of sleep (I often need tablets to aid getting to sleep).

I've tried many, many methods of relaxation - tapes, books, cd's, music, binaural-beat systems, self-hypnosis attempts. Each time, I just feel like I can't clear out my head and switch off for a while.

I'm also a recent convert to David Allen's GTD system (see, and the 'open loops' he described were a big problem. Now even after being more organized and productive than ever, it just seems as though my brain is now making things up to think about.
(Yes, this is quite difficult to describe!)

Best way to describe it: I don't always feel in control of my thoughts.

Is there something wrong with me? Should I go and see a shrink? Is there anything that can help? (a system, a drug, a lobotomy)
[Note: I do find alcohol to help somewhat, but I don't really like drinking to that level...not too keen on illegal substances, either!]
posted by nafrance to Health & Fitness (27 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
My first thought, as you don't mention it, is simple exercise. Is regular exercise a part of your routine?
posted by mzurer at 4:58 PM on June 23, 2005

Have you had a thyroid workup? This describes a lot of how I felt for many years when my thyroid levels were jacked up way too high.
posted by scody at 5:15 PM on June 23, 2005

Have you always felt this way, or is it a recent development? It sounds like you could have ADD. You should do a search on google and look into the typical symptoms. The good news is that if it is ADD, it can be controlled with medications.
posted by geeky at 5:23 PM on June 23, 2005

The fact that you are here asking this question suggests that yes, it might be a good idea to talk to a shrink. It's not possible for us to tell on AskMe whether your experience is a problem for you or just thte way you are.

On one hand, I had a friend in college who used to smoke a lot of dope because it was the only way he could "turn his brain off". He went batshit nuts about a year later. On the other hand, maybe you're just unusually full of energy. I'm certainly not qualified to make that determination. But if it concerns you, talk to a doctor. That's what they're there for.
posted by Nelson at 5:37 PM on June 23, 2005

exercise and meditation. Both worked miracles for me...
posted by carmina at 5:41 PM on June 23, 2005

Do check to see if you have a real medical condition first. I know there are some countries where a trip to the doctor is prohibitally expensive, but see if you can work something out.

Diet can be a big problem. If you eat fast food and drink soft drinks, lose them. You need real food, fresh stuff, and water.

Next, if there are any real problems in your life, see if you can get help fixing them. I know many people are the "offer emotional support" type, and that's fine up to a point, but I do on occasion have actual problems in my professional and social life that can't be solved with soothing words. Have you got a parent or grandparent you can talk to about things that might actually need fixing? Someone that can help you deal with crap at work, for example?

Finally, if the above ideas don't highlight anything that actually needs fixing, you could try learning to be selfish and not give a crap about anyone or anything else but yourself. At least in moderation. There are few things as relaxing as saying "screw it".
posted by krisjohn at 5:45 PM on June 23, 2005

It takes me awhile to wind down but what seems to help is making a calm time for myself before bed. I might be watching TV or browsing while listenting to TV. But I try to stop these things and just read 30-60 minutes before bed. It's probably best to not actually read in bed. I have a comfy chair in my room for reading.

Also, a routine really helps. IE go to bed at the same time EVERY night and get up the same time every morning. Max of maybe an hour sleeping in on the weekends. I hate doing this but it helps. If I sleep in til say 11 on sunday then I don't fall asleep til after 2 or 3 which makes monday rough.

If you've tried these things before, my apologies.
posted by 6550 at 6:01 PM on June 23, 2005

Try exercise first, but it sounds like it could be anxiety.
posted by keswick at 6:01 PM on June 23, 2005

Yes, see a professional, and preferably a psychiatrist. Not because you "need one" but to assess you discomfort and symptoms--a psychiatrist ( they are MDs) will rule out physical causes--a good history and perhaps a few test should rule in/out most common physical conditions that might be causing this. It may be a transient condition or could indicative of more problematic conditions (all of which are very treatable)--bottom line--don't screw around with endless self assessments and play amateur psychiatrist/physician and do not drink--there is not a psychiatric condition in the world that is help by drinking--particularly if it appears to help--there is a big big difference between occasional social/recreational drinking and managing anxiety/depression/stress through alcohol. Good luck--persistent racing thoughts , insomnia, forgetfulness and alcohol use should not be ignored
posted by rmhsinc at 6:01 PM on June 23, 2005

Does the phrase "racing thoughts" seem to hit the nail on the head?

That could be a great big red flag for bipolar disorder (which has more than one form and does not necessarily mean you lose touch with reality.)

Anyhow, I would have this checked if I were you.
posted by konolia at 6:14 PM on June 23, 2005

It can be a variety of things. I feel like I'll be jeered if I start on a tirade of the medicinal effects of marijuana, but I do believe it is a considerable factor. As it stands chemically speaking, it should be as normal to perscribe as listening to music. But this might be a hassle for you, even if it is a very, very potent relaxation tool...(heh, I knew my answer till I saw this: [Note: I do find alcohol to help somewhat, but I don't really like drinking to that level...not too keen on illegal substances, either!] :P)

See a professional if it persists. You said you've tried it all, but a truly...quasi-zen state requires long, long amounts of time. I'm not spiritual or religious (despite the fact that they're the same thing) but physical meditation is very soothing. In this respect, you might want to look up yoga. If you want to pursue that, googlefu and help from fellow mefites is easily accesible--no doubt there is more than one yoga question in the archives.

Anyway, type of music can be a factor. Do you know anything about Post-Rock/Experimental? The sort of long, carefully constructed, soothing math rock tunes can really mellow you out (I'd suggest Do Make Say Think's Goodbye Enemy Airship and The Landlord is Dead for starters).

It kind of seems campy suggesting these things, but I have similar problems--not to the same degree but I always find an extreme desire and effort can get me through it. A lot of the "extreme desire" for some people is actually tension that their extreme desire won't work--it's kind of a viscious cycle, a catch 22.

Or, if this is all too quick, you could wean yourself off this "productive thinking." Rather than go from mile-a-minute thought to zen bliss, you could go slowly between the two. Have 15 minute sessions where you try to breathe, or something like that.

As we've seen from the "brain on idle" thread, lots of us are always have an internal, interminable monologue with ourselves. even during relaxation periods it's hard to shut it off...but i do think it's possible. when you're in an altered state of mind, you also fail to realise that you aren't thinking, and thus your inhibitions are lost.

i donno. i ramble. good luck.
posted by Lockeownzj00 at 6:22 PM on June 23, 2005

I also immediately thought "thyroid" -- it's well worth checking.
posted by redfoxtail at 6:29 PM on June 23, 2005

i'd like to offer an alternative to the suggestions offered here ... find an outlet for it ... write ... create ... DO something

i have a problem with this, too, and it's the one thing that actually seems to help ... the pressure builds ... and i give it an escape valve

i'm not saying the other people are wrong, or this would work for you ... but it does work for me ... it won't cost you anything to try ... and might have unexpected benefits
posted by pyramid termite at 6:43 PM on June 23, 2005

for me, less caffeine and more alcohol does the job.
posted by andrew cooke at 7:39 PM on June 23, 2005

I can't speak to the other medical reasons, but it sounds like my anxiety. An SSRI (like Paxil) can help people the same way marijuana can help some people -- but with different side effects. Short of meds, you could try focusing on one thought. Trying to rid your mind of all thoughts probably just makes them multiply.
posted by Airhen at 7:56 PM on June 23, 2005

one other thing - perhaps specific to unsociable people like me, and limited to certain occasions - is to be with other people. i find meeting a bunch of friends for an evening exhausts me (agreeably) (of course, this typically involves alcohol too, but it's more than that).
posted by andrew cooke at 8:28 PM on June 23, 2005

nafrance -

Depending on where you are, I might have some ideas.

E-mail me, tell me your location (state is fine). I've modified my profile to show one of my e-mail addresses, but I'll be changing that back within 48 hours.

To all the lurkers: I'm not an MD yet, so i don't provide a dime-store diagnosis for everyone. Get an account and post.
posted by bh at 8:41 PM on June 23, 2005

Obvious question: What's your caffeine intake? Since you checked several other things and didn't mention it, the assumption is that you don't drink much caffeine. But if you do, this could be the problem. I've had too much caffeine habitually at times, and had terrible problems trying to get to sleep.
posted by Doohickie at 9:30 PM on June 23, 2005

Meditation teachers call it monkeymind. I encourage you to try yoga, it combines meditation and exersize, couldn't hurt and might help. You do have to find a teacher you connect with so maybe go to a place where you can take a class with several different teachers. Once you've done that stick with it for awhile, I found that it takes awhile to get past the "this is such crap" stage but once you do it's pretty great.
posted by BoscosMom at 9:45 PM on June 23, 2005

Second the recommendation for a psychiatrist (not psychologist) but do try the simple solution first -- the first one in this thread: exercise. You may want to work up to yoga, relaxation/meditation therapy, etc, but for now, just work that body till it can't work anymore. This will, if you work hard enough, have two effects:
i) force your body to relax, because you will be drained of energy and your muscles will relax, and
ii) give you a nice boost of endorphins, which doesn't hurt when trying to relax the mind.

Give it a shot, and don't hold back. Then if that doesn't work, go the medical diagnosis route. For goodness sake, don't self-medicate.
posted by dreamsign at 10:07 PM on June 23, 2005

give you a nice boost of endorphins
don't self-medicate.

posted by andrew cooke at 10:19 PM on June 23, 2005

Your body is full of chemicals. All the time. It's not about adding more, it's about regulating what's already there. Like estrogen and testosterone. Men and women have both, just in different amounts.

Tweak your natural chemistry before you go messing around with artificial ones.
posted by dreamsign at 10:32 PM on June 23, 2005

I used to be like this, I know exactly what you're talking about. It's not anxiety, it's just constant mental activity. Here's what worked for me, though it took a lot of practice. Start with working on falling asleep when you want to, once you've mastered that you'll find you can switch off whenever you want.

First of all, never read or watch tv or a movie or have a thoughtful discussion right before bed, that's too much brain fodder. Lie down on the bed, and focus on each individual muscle in your whole body one at a time. Will them to relax. The eyelids take a long time to get right, when you get to them focus all your attention on getting them perfectly still. When your entire body is relaxed, focus on your breathing. Try to breathe steadily, and make your breaths gradually more shallow and further apart. Basically, you are mimicing the physical appearance of deep sleep. Once your have control of your body, move on to your mind. Control what you are thinking about by focusing very intently on a boring visual, like watching clouds roll by or grass rustling in the wind. The trick is to observe the scene in your mind without allowing yourself to analyse it or narrate it to yourself. You will think of other things, or your brain will invent a related tangent about weather systems or something. Do not allow that to happen. Let the thoughts go, just dismiss them from your consciousness without considering them. This is the hard part, you have to have the discipline to not follow the thread of that thought. Keep doing that until you fall alseep. When you can choose whether or not to let your brain go off exploring a topic, you will have won. It just takes lots of practice.
posted by cali at 11:22 PM on June 23, 2005

I'm like this too. I've been like this since I was a kid. For me, it's the sensation that I'm being constantly bombarded with ideas. Or, sometimes, it feels like my mind has decided to go on an amazing adventure around the world and, I, uh, am just being dragged on for the ride. Sometimes this produces giddiness, other times anxiety, and other times it's like riding a train, watching the world go by, except I'm actually watching my mind go by and churn through thoughts. I can actually spend a whole day just lying there, while my brain goes about thinking, but I'm not really bored or relaxed or tensed.

I don't think it's a problem. In my humble opinion, there's nothing wrong with you. In fact, I think it's a blessing. A lot (all?) of my best ideas come out of this 'uncontrolled mental activity'.

But it can cause problems. I've gotten many complaints from colleagues, friends and lovers about this 'condition'. It's not that I'm a bad listener--I'm an excellent listener--it's just the vague feeling that I'm not all 'there'. And of course, they're right, I'm rarely all 'there'.

Unfortunately, I don't think there's any real 'cure'. But there are a few mental tricks I've developed to 'reign in' my thoughts:

The first, and most effective, is to hyperfocus on something. Trying not to think of anything, I find, to be a waste of time. Instead I focus, completely, with all my being, on one specific thing. It could be a poem, or an object, or a person. People can work well for this. You end up going inside the other person, seeing their thoughts, feeling their sensations... etc. If you do this well enough you can sort of lose a sense of yourself which is the next best thing to being relaxed.

The second trick is to go some place in your head. I have a few places I habitually visit. The trick is to force yourself to conjure up these places in exquisite detail. The more you can focus on the details, the more you can regain control. Wander around this place and examine it closely. This is actually very much like the first trick except you're examining imaginary objects. But, for various reasons, it can do a better job of relaxing you, particularly if you focus on a comfortable place.

The third trick is to hum. I can't explain why this works, but humming a very repetitive tune makes me forget about everything else for a while and my brain goes completely on autopilot.

Finally, just interrogate yourself. If you find your brain wandering, then ask yourself why. For me, this often occurs as a kind of sophisticated procastination. I'll end up thinking about everything but the one thing I should be focusing on. Or there's something in the back of your mind that's causing a bit of worry. Usually if you can identify the cause and address it, then you can relax. It may help to review your plans and gain a bit of confidence knowing you've taken care of everything.
posted by nixerman at 12:29 AM on June 24, 2005

Wow, thanks for a great response guys!
It's encouraging to hear that at least a couple of people understand or have had similar problems.

Caffeine: Yes, being a employed geek, my caffeine intake was *high*. I've curbed it over the past year, and I'm down to 1 cup a day in the morning, so I'm doubtful it's a problem there.

Exercise: Ok - I think this and some alternative relaxation techniques are my next thing to try. I do enough walking each day to keep in shape, but never really work up a sweat. Think I will try to work excercise into my routine, as so many people mentioned it.

As for the medical diagnoses - konolia has me slightly worried about being bi-polar!
posted by nafrance at 3:13 AM on June 24, 2005

Well, caffeine is physically addictive, and I went through caffeine withdrawal recently. I was using no-doz tablets because i didnt even care about the aromatic coffee-drinking experience, i just needed the caffeine.

people think caffeine is innocuous and it's not. it's worse for your body than cannabis, i'll tell you that. yet somehow it remains the world's second-largest commodity...ah, humanity!

the other problem with caffeine is things like Caffeinism . i still don't really care that much and drink coffee all the time, but just li ke my smoking habit, i know what i'm doing, i don't deny it.

anyway, minus the caffeine, plus the yoga/exercise sounds good. any activity where you just drain yourself will leave you needing a long, thoughtless rest.
posted by Lockeownzj00 at 9:44 AM on June 24, 2005

nafrance, don't let it worry you, even if you did have it it isn't the worst thing that could happen. I just think it is important to rule it out.

I do second the advice re cutting caffeine, and I also recommend exercise. Whether or not my conjecture is right, those two things will help.
posted by konolia at 1:28 PM on June 24, 2005

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