Relax....Don't Do It
February 3, 2006 7:54 AM   Subscribe

How do I clear my head?

My therapist has suggested looking into relaxation techniques, relaxing being my biggest problem. Every one I come across, though, invloves clearing your mind and/or visualization, which is exactly my problem. I can't relax because I can't clear my head, whether I'm fixating on something that's stressing me out, or I'm just trying to go to sleep and I can't stop thinking about....stuff. I've tried some of these techniques in the past, and just haven't gotten them to work. So how do I use the technique if I can't even accomplish its basic building block? Or is there some technique that does not involve this?
posted by emptybowl to Health & Fitness (19 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
For meditation, I like counting my breaths; you count up to 10, and then you start over. You can also try a mantra of whatever sort you like, or staring at an elaborate pattern or a candle flame. The idea is that of course your mind is going to obsess, that's what it does, so you have to give it something calming to obsess over.

Your mind will still wander. When you notice that it's doing so, don't get upset or judgmental, just gently bring your focus back to whatever you were focusing on.

What I like about focusing on my breathing is that it brings me into my body -- I start by counting breaths and then the awareness moves into how the breath is moving into my lungs, what that feels like, etc.

You might also look into yoga. Same idea -- focusing on the breath -- but you get your body very actively involved in *doing* stuff while that's happening. Still easy for your mind to wander, but it might give you a new level of awareness.

With all of this, the more you do it, the easier it gets. I know it seems insurmountable now, but just work up to five minutes a day, then seven, then ten, etc.
posted by occhiblu at 8:03 AM on February 3, 2006

And I've also heard people having success by starting a dialog with their mind. When you find yourself obsessing when you're supposed to be relaxing, you can say something like, "I appreciate your concerns, and I will deal with them in ten minutes."

Part of the goal with Buddhist meditation, at least, is to learn to separate your idea of your Self from whatever random stuff is going on in your head. It can be instructive to listen to all the junk going on there and to realize how unnecessary most of it is. I'll find myself obsessively going over To Do lists, and kind of meta-realizing, "You know, I'm a competent person. I don't need to spend my ENTIRE DAY worried about remembering to make that phone call. Chill, brain."

It sounds a bit silly, but it does help.
posted by occhiblu at 8:07 AM on February 3, 2006

When this happens to me, I write everything down that's bothering me (especially before going to sleep). Sometimes I even title the list, "Things To Worry About Later". It calms my brain to put a name on the worries, and there's something relaxing to me about not having to worry about forgetting what I'm worrying about, if that makes sense. It's a way to get stuff out of my brain.
posted by unknowncommand at 8:07 AM on February 3, 2006

I've had this happen many, many times. Don't know if this will help you, but it's worked for me.

Instead of trying to clear your mind of everything, try to focus on one thing, and one thing only. Make it something enjoyable, that will take up a lot of time, but not be taxing. Like picturing your favourite movie, scene by scene. I find by doing this that I shift the fixation from a source of stress to something benign, making it easier to relax or fall asleep.
posted by GhostintheMachine at 8:08 AM on February 3, 2006

Get a hobby.

I'm one of those people that needs something to occupy me nonstop. If I need to 'clear my head', I can't just sit still and meditate or something, I need to be do something. Generally that involves something that takes some level of mental activity, but also something that is somewhat repetative and that I can do without thinking about it.

My personal mind-clearer is mixing records for hours and hours, but there are plenty of other things, like martial arts and even playing video games :)

The other bit of advice I can give you is to look into a book called Getting Things Done.

This might seem to be a non-sequiter, but it might not be that you have an inability to relax, but that you have too much on your plate and too much to think about.

GTD is a system for taking everything floating around in your head (especially things that are stressing you out) and getting it down on paper, and carrying around your list of things to do all the time. It's basically just a way to get all the mental baggage that takes you out of the moment and put it into a system where you feel comfortable that everything that needs to be done WILL get done.

If you don't want to get a book, just try this. Buy a small notebook: Make a page with these headings: home, work, computer, errands, agendas (with lists of people/meetings you have regularly)

Then EVERYTIME you are trying to relax and something stresses you out, figure out what the next step is in getting that resolved and put it down in the appropriate list.

And then get in the habit of checking that list compulsively while you are in the relative contexts (going to the grocery store? Check your errands list). That way you'll be sure that everything you are worrying about will get taken care of in due course, and when you set aside time to relax, you do that knowing that you aren't forgetting anything important.
posted by empath at 8:12 AM on February 3, 2006

I can't relax because I can't clear my head, whether I'm fixating on something that's stressing me out, or I'm just trying to go to sleep and I can't stop thinking about....stuff.

I'll second the suggestions above in that you need to write down these things into a system you can trust. The reason you have them on your mind is because you worry about the consequences if you forget them.
posted by wackybrit at 8:16 AM on February 3, 2006

sometimes I try crossword puzzles before I go to bed.
you just need something else to do with your brain.
I can knit and watch tv leaving little brain space for thinking about all the crap that is going on or that I need to do.
The more complex the hobby, the more it will give you a break from thinking about whatever. Hopefully it is also an enjoyable hobby not at all related to whatever is bothering you.

if it is all the stuff you have to do, then I suggest writing a list. once it is on the list you don't have to think about it anymore especially if you cross things off the list.

There is always rx stuff, if that is a consideration. Not getting a break from your thoughts that occur over and over leaving you exhausted is anxiety. I do the same thing.

good luck finding something that works for you!
posted by TheLibrarian at 8:30 AM on February 3, 2006

The technique that occhiblu describes above is usually referred to as "mindfulness meditation." As it is often used to manage chronic pain, there may be a group at your local hospital. Even if you find a local group, check out the books and recordings of Jon Kabat-Zinn. He is the big name in mindfulness meditation, and I've found his tapes very helpful.
posted by sarahnade at 8:56 AM on February 3, 2006

I use a visualization that involves putting my distractions, worries, crises, etc, in symbolic form, into a trunk which is then locked for the duration of your next series of meditations, to keep them out of your way.

I don't have a problem with having fun with this visualization. I can usually find some irritation which is best represented as a flaming bag of dog poo, and my trunk takes the form of The Luggage from Discworld, teeth and all.

I very often fall asleep at the end of this exercise instead of moving on to some other meditation.

For pent up energy, yoga's the thing. I also find it really rewarding because, for most positions, I get measurably better in the course of one practice. The movement is akin to making your muscles massage themselves, which is why many people end up drowsy or bissed-out afterwards. And it's great for building muscle tone, so that's a bonus. There are classes and studios everywhere, it's easy to do at home with a video (or book, as you become familiar with the basic poses), and there are even simple poses you can do at work.
posted by Lyn Never at 9:11 AM on February 3, 2006

I have a few ideas which sometimes help me:

1) Focus on your visual system. Really look at something. It doesn't matter what. Once it starts becoming really interesting, you're doing it.

2) Listen to techno really loud while lying down in the dark.

3) Just sit in a room somewhere and let your brain do what it does. After a while (sometimes an hour or two) it'll calm down.
posted by callmejay at 10:34 AM on February 3, 2006

One of the best ways to empty your mind is to use your body. Do some long term strenuous cardiovascular exercise: swimming, biking, running - something that will take at least a half hour or more. You can find your own balance between how hard you go and how long you go to really wear yourself out. (Not before bedtime though)
Once you are very tired from exercise, clean up do whatever - then begin meditation practice. Focus on your breathing.
Exercise is a good way to get your mind’s attention on your body in the first place. A good deal of your mind is already devoted to regulation of the body.
It’s often good to use stress before relaxation to heighten awareness of that relaxation.
Tense your muscles then relax them to get a real sense of them.
Once you are focused on recovery from a hard workout, just breathing easy should be pleasure to do and getting back to a ‘resting’ state should be the only thing your mind is interested in.
It makes a nice shoehorn for later for any meditation technique.
posted by Smedleyman at 10:40 AM on February 3, 2006

My biggest problem when I first tried relaxation techniques was that I just could not clear my mind. To me, it was like an insomniac trying to just get some sleep. If I could clear my mind, I wouldn't have the problem I was trying to solve.

You can't clear your mind. Some people can, but you can't.

But while you're doing whatever relaxation exercise -- breathing, using your body, observing things around you -- as thoughts come into your head, you can say, "There's a thought... toes, ankles, calves, bad air out, gray sky brown dog....another thought... now back to what I was doing..."

You want to learn how not to pursue the thoughts. That's enough of a challenge.

One other thing: some of those relaxation methods aren't going to do a thing for you. Some will. There's a lot of trial and error.
posted by wryly at 10:59 AM on February 3, 2006

I'm not too much into meditative techniques, etc but I have had problems clearing my head. This is what works for me:

I go to spin class -with a particular instructor who knows the importance of a mind-body connection (Johnny G Spin is the method.) The instructor plays a lot of techno, and when I ride I simply concentrate on my form, taking each pedal stroke individually. Eventually I have gotten to the point where my brain "turns off"'s like I am asleep from the neck up while my body is working hard. YOu could probably do something similar on a treadmill or elliptical using headphones. You need to find the right kind of instructor-the "yelly" ones don't work.

As I am a Christian, I actually sometimes commune with God on these type of spin rides. Really. It's a great way not to have your brain cluttered with things like what you need to pick up at the store or something.
posted by konolia at 11:07 AM on February 3, 2006

Clearing your mind is an extremely hard thing to do, but it is possible.

For me the basic building block is focus on the breath. This has a couple of advantages: One, I always have it with me, and two, it doesn't involve putting my foot behind my head, which can be awkward in public.

The most important thing to doing this is what occhiblu said:

Your mind will still wander. When you notice that it's doing so, don't get upset or judgmental, just gently bring your focus back to whatever you were focusing on.

In the beginning your mind will wander every breath or so. When you've done it a while, maybe every three breaths. The human mind likes to wander, and the gentle refocusing is integral to what you're doing.

I focus on breathing in three different ways, depending on my mood. All of the quotes below are said in my head.

1) Counting --- slowly and repetively,

{in}"1.... 1 .... 1.... 1.... 1...." {out} "1.... 1... 1... 1... 1..."
{in}"2.... 2 .... 2.... 2.... 2...." {out} "2.... 2... 2... 2... 2..."

When I lose focus and come back, I start from 1 again.
I made it all the way to 10 once :-)

2) Knowing that I'm breathing

"Breathing in, I know I am breathing in."
"Breathing out, I know I am breathing out."

3) Square breathing

"up up up up" "holding holding holding holding"
"down down down down" "holding holding holding ..."

Doing any of these for twenty minutes will change your whole outlook on life, but frankly it was over a year before I managed to sit still that long. Fortunately any little bit helps, so start with a minute and expand as you feel like it.
posted by tkolar at 11:12 AM on February 3, 2006

Lay down. Relax every single part of your body. Concentrate really intently on this. Imagine each muscle you know exists relaxing in succession. Toes up. I like to imagine the tension as a sort of fluid flowing out of wherever. If you happen to think about something else, just, you know, have thought about it, don't worry about it (as occhiblu and others have said), and get back to your big toe. At first I found this pretty goddamn difficult, but, like most things, it gets much easier with practice.
posted by fidelity at 12:27 PM on February 3, 2006

I use the one thing at a time method.

It works like this: First, just sit. Random thoughts will enter your head. You just pick one to start with, say "worried about school work." Then you focus on this one and, on an exhale, you breathe it out. It exits your mind. Next you take another from the stack and do the same thing -- focus on it, for a breath or two and then remove it. At the beginning (first 10 or 20 or ??? items), it will seem like the list is getting longer and that it's hopeless. Because your mind will think of new things to worry about, new categories, new ideas, more detailed elements of a single category / type. This is supposed to happen. Just continue, one at a time. The list may be big, and it may get bigger, but you just focus on one and exhale it away and then, eventually, you'll start to see the "ground" through the thoughts. Think of it as cleaning a desk, or clouds breaking up in the sky. With each breath, focus and remove one item. Eventually, you'll get to a point where the is more nothingness than somethingness. Continue until it's all gone. Thoughts may come back, or they might not fully dissapate with one exhale (the hard stuff, the really worrisome or interesting things). Take a second breath and focus on them and get rid of them. If they come back, you can take care of them later.

When it's all gone, you'll be in a pretty empty state. This is the ground. You're now ready to focus on the nothingness of mind without any thoughts for as long as you're able.

When you begin, you might take 20 minutes to get down near the bottom (or "top" if you like that metaphor better). You might not get there at all the first time. Or the second. But eventually, you'll learn to control your mind and push the thoughts out. When there's nothing left to think about, nothing left to worry aobut, what is there?
posted by zpousman at 12:29 PM on February 3, 2006 [1 favorite]

I am a bad speller. And my english composition skills could use work too.
posted by zpousman at 12:31 PM on February 3, 2006

When you wake up, write for 30 minutes to an hour, stream of consciousness, totally whatever is on your mind, put it down in whatever form it comes to you. Not a list, not an order, just from your mind to the paper, or to the MS Word. The first, the next, the last things on your mind. Stop after a certain number of pages (2-3) or time (an hour max), save, get on with your day. Do it again the next day and the next, and every day, and these things that bother you will start living more in your journal/this file/wherever you put this, instead of in your head. And they will makes sense. You'll be amazed at what you'll say to yourself. You'll find yourself more in control, and more wise, than you knew.

Or something like that.
posted by scrawlyman at 2:23 PM on February 3, 2006

I second the Jon Kabat-Zinn book, Wherever You Go, There You Are book and CDs. It's a super helpful guide without being too hokey. Be patient, be consistent, find a local group if you can (even if just for a few meetings), and practice like it's any other skill. His CDs are great for following when you're particularly antsy, tired, or just starting out - he guides you through various meditations, with little reminders to keep coming back to the though/meditation/mantra at hand.
posted by fionab at 2:49 PM on February 3, 2006

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