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WELLNESS

Rest for the Restless Mind (Part One of Two)

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No matter what you experience, be it loss, trauma or everyday shocks that are making you restless, here is some guidance on how to find rest for the restless mind, says clinical psychologist Stefan Blom.

It started with me documenting my own restless mind, in a kind of diary, noting the process from disconnection to connection, from restlessness to peace of mind. Over time, I started observing the journeys of others in therapy: From “I am feeling so lost” and “I don’t know what I need”, to “I feel grounded, aligned, centered… the best I have felt in years”. 

“How do you find rest for the restless mind?” is the question I hear most often from my clients; it’s a question I have been wrestling with for many years myself. You might believe that finding rest for your restless mind lies in something extraordinary, something you have never heard of before, but it comes in life’s freest, simplest and gentlest ways.

Here, I share some of my own tried and tested ways while weaving in the wisdom of others whose guidance I’ve found worthwhile. 

Understand loss and trauma

Loss and trauma often arise from life’s unexpected and inevitable shocks or surprises. They range from everyday shocks, like a car suddenly swerving in front of you on the road or a stranger shouting at you, to more traumatic losses, like the passing of a loved one or the loss of one’s job or one’s health. We underestimate the distressing effects of a child not being well, or a loved one screaming at you or ignoring you. These experiences often shake us to our core as we feel them in our minds, bodies and souls; and yet, despite their real impacts it seems we often spend most of our time suppressing, avoiding and hiding from our truths. 

We experience multiple losses during traumatic events, shocks and new beginnings. The birth of a child or getting married can come with many traumatic experiences and losses (along with the beautiful gains). The effects of a break in trust, the loss of job security or mental ill health can be experienced as loss on many levels, limiting our ability to be at peace.

In therapy, shock, loss or trauma are often experienced like a metaphorical blow to your core self. Like a bus hitting you from the side, your inner world starts to shake as your mind accelerates, going into survival, coping or protective mode. This speaks to many of our biggest fears, like the feeling that we are not in control over what is happening to us, or that we will not be able to cope with what life throws at us.

To find rest for our restless mind, we need to understand what is happening to us. This requires a deeper understanding of what we are experiencing and why.

Based on my observations, the symptoms of shock, trauma and loss are often the same:

  • Feelings of displacement and disconnection from your self, almost like standing next to your self;
  • Fragmentation of the mind, often manifesting as distraction and scattered thoughts that float like busy butterflies in a room;
  • Restlessness, hyperactivity and sleeplessness, often manifesting as accelerated thoughts;
  • Random bursts of distractibility, poor concentration and short attention span;
  • Heightened sensory sensations, often feeling sensitive to noise, light or smell;
  • Feeling alert, defensive, vulnerable and in need of protection; desperately looking for safety and calm;
  • A constant state of deep exhaustion paired with an inability to rest or be still;
  • Short-term memory gaps, often forgetting what you are busy with, wandering around lost and without direction; brain fog;
  • A pressing need to escape or get away, leading to avoidance behaviour and procrastination;
  • Circular, repetitive and anxious thinking, picking up one idea after another, without feeling productive or “together”;
  • Remarkably low levels of physical and emotional energy, low mood;
  • Irritability and short temperedness, easily frustrated, low tolerance;
  • Questioning life, but not finding answers, creating a general feeling of being lost and without direction;
  • Feeling tense, highly strung and impatient, with an exaggerated fright or fear response;
  • A tendency towards anxiety, lots of worrying about the future, catastrophic and worst-case-scenario thinking;
  • A tendency towards depression, a low, dark mood with negative thoughts, seeing the world with negativity, lots of complaining;
  • A compassion fatigue, low tolerance for the suffering of others, emotional saturation;
  • Shortness of breath, shallow breathing, pressure on your chest;
  • Tension in the core of your body, often manifesting as a heavy pit in your stomach or tensions in the neck or shoulder areas; and
  • Mood swings, feeling like you are on an emotional rollercoaster, often experiencing different and mixed emotions over short periods.

You might experience a few or many of these signs as a result of experiencing everyday shocks, trauma or loss. They meet the criteria for a few psychiatric conditions, especially anxiety conditions. No matter what the labels are, it is important that we move beyond our symptoms, as knowing them too well does not bring calm.

My own history with anxiety has been one of my biggest experiences of loss. Anxiety is a loss of perspective. My mind gets plagued by circular, fleeting and repetitive thoughts, restless hyperactivity fuelled by waves of anxiety, worrying about the future and catastrophic or worst-case-scenario thinking. What I often lose, along with my peace of mind, is my sense of safety and security and the courage, self-belief and energy to act. Loss deepens our lostness as we lose perspective on the bigger picture and repetitively zoom in with tunnel vision.

Knowing your symptoms and diagnosis is not enough. Go deeper and find your own words and descriptions for what is making you constantly restless. Finding words for what you are experiencing can be the first step on your road of recovery.

Gently meet and greet your pain and worries

Choose to go on a journey of self-awareness or consciousness, and go deeper through introspection and self-exploration. Make it your priority to figure out what is going on inside you and not so much around you.

Do not lose time trying to figure out who or what you are or what it all means; rather focus your energy on finding out where you are at. Knowing where you are at is about connecting with what is bothering you, disturbing or confusing you. Ask yourself: What exactly is bothering or creating tension for me?

Take your time in slowly noting what is creating the discomfort inside you through listening to your thoughts, feelings, institutions and the cues of your body. Because the mind can play powerful tricks on us, the physical messages sent by your body are a good place to look for your truths.

Listen to what your body is telling you (and not always your mind). If you need space or rest, silence or company, tell yourself to go there without judgement or evaluation. Don’t overthink it.

You might be exhausted, for example, but the idea of sitting still and “just being” can feel impossible. Your body is desperate to rest, but your restless and neglected thoughts are shouting for your attention and are overriding your real need for rest. Connect with what is true on the inside of you without the need to judge, fix or problem-solve. Simply try to take note of what is distressing and ungrounding you. Be as lost, broken or fearful as you truly are; simply greet and meet your pain and worries. Be reminded that on the other side of this meeting place are the beginnings of your peace of mind.

Make it visible and leave it in one place

Whatever is disturbing your mind, keep it in one place and make it visible – for example, by writing it down in one place or finding authentic words and descriptions for what you are experiencing. Look at what is going on and avoid the “whys”. What this process provides is similar to one of the many benefits of therapy: One place where you can share safely and “see” your life without fear or judgement.

The process of documentation as meditation is important, as it centres your thoughts in a place with boundaries, instead of storing them in your circular, repetitive mind. Personally, I prefer to write my restless thoughts in a paper diary, but you need to find your own way. Writing down what is bothering you is not a process you need to judge or even necessarily revisit; the process of acknowledging and storing your thoughts in one place often provides your first experience of relief.

Be kind with what you see

From your first spark of awareness of your body, mind and soul, demonstrate gentle love, kindness and compassion. Be very patient, especially if you are dealing with a lot. 

Take your time and move between “seeing” and healthy distraction as often as you need. Whether the list of worries, losses, fears, uncertainties and painful events circling your mind is short or long, pace yourself in meeting with whatever is activating your restless mind.

Get to know your concerns one by one by spending time with what you feel, think and know. Try to make friends with what you meet and find out how it really feels. 

Expect it to be hard at times, to feel vulnerable, sad, lost or broken. There is no need to add further injury through worrying about worrying or getting more lost. Know that whatever is disconnecting you is in desperate need of your attention. Remember that what is true for you, but unexamined, will stand in the way of resting your mind. Here, I visualise our rescue animals, demanding our attention; restless until we really “see” them and give them all our loving attention.

Sit back, breathe deeply and say: “Hello, I see you. Good to meet you at last.”

Slow down on measuring yourself and your experiences

Most often, what I observe in therapy (and in myself) is that the sharing of what we fear, restlessly feel and think is followed by words that speak of evaluation. We like to label and dismiss what is constantly speaking to us as “nothing” or as “oversensitive”, as “wrong or right, too much or not enough”. We struggle to just feel what we feel; we have to give ourselves points for it. “What is wrong with me?” I hear in therapy, followed by a lot of “should and should nots or what ifs”.

Whatever you connect with, try your best to not judge or evaluate it. Become aware of your scales of evaluation, where you hear yourself speaking to yourself with should and should not, do and do not, or labels like good or bad, or right and wrong. Try your best to ban all evaluative and judgemental thoughts and simply “see” what is making you restless. No need to judge.

One way to do this is to speak to yourself like a close friend who knows you and will not judge you; or imagine the non-judgemental voice of your therapist speaking to you, gently telling you to see it without the need to judge. What you connect with does not need to be judged, but welcomed.

Slow down on running away and avoidance

We have become experts in avoidance and procrastination, and spend a rapidly growing portion of our lives doing it. Increase your awareness of how you run away from your problems. And expect that connecting with your worries or pain can fuel your need to run away.  

Running away or avoiding yourself is like going to the same restaurant you always go to, but complain about. Why do you keep going back when you know it doesn’t make you feel good?

It seems that the false belief that if we ignore our problems they will get better or miraculously go away keeps us stuck in repetitive cycles with no relief. Hope of change and empty promises without responsibility and dedication feed your restless mind. I had to learn it many times myself: The only way around it is through it.

Healing starts in meeting with your realities. Feel what is true: Your losses, your fears, your regrets and your pain. See what is in need of your urgent attention.

This step might be enough of an inward journey for you: Simply unpacking the moments that affect you and that you still carry. Seeing it all unpacked might be the relief you needed and your process might end here.

Silence the noise of others

Give yourself full permission to focus on yourself for once; even just for a little while per day, because every moment going inwards is a step closer to peace for your mind.

Introspection requires the silencing of the voices or noise of others and constantly bringing yourself back to yourself. Write or responsibly share your truths for a change; press pause on thinking for or about others. If you struggle to do this, constantly remind yourself of the choice you’ve made and turn back to your path of self-discovery. Give yourself all the time you need; no rush.

At the core of the avoidance of your reality, could be a lack of trust in yourself or belief that you will be safe. These beliefs that prevent us from going inward, often come from our childhoods, a time when we were unsupported, unloved, neglected, betrayed or spoiled, creating false perceptions, expectations and beliefs about who, what and how we are. Those hurtful and lost places endure – places where we experienced pain and fear, but found coping mechanisms, avoidance tricks and power moves to survive – fuelling habits of hiding from our truths.

Here you might battle with your cultural and social programming trying to steer you off your path of introspection. For example, I grew up in a time in which knowing yourself was unpopular to the point of being labelled “selfish” or “self-absorbed”. Not being calm or happy would be called “crazy”.

Avoid pathologising yourself with general descriptions or labels. Rather, find rich descriptions of what you are experiencing on the inside. See yourself as dimensional; notice your contradictions and describe the contours of your inner world as you would beautiful landscapes.

Boosted by a popular culture of unhealthy distractions, like always looking at our phones, or using food, prescription medication and substances, we know very well how to avoid, fuelling our levels of anxiety and depression. The belief that you need something on the outside of you constantly chips away at your inner belief in your own ability to be safe. Stop hiding behind substances, making excuses or empty promises and carrying others.

Become aware of how much you are worrying about or thinking for others and look out for your habit of pointing a blaming finger outwards for everything you feel. We seem not to listen and trust our own voice, as we listen too much to undefined others. Rather, look at getting to know yourself through spending time with you. Try to put aside your constant effort to please others or worry on behalf of others, and give yourself permission to gently look inside yourself.

You can do anything if you give it time.

Filter your feelings and decide what needs attention

Filter through what is worrying you, causing you pain or discomfort. Make sure you are only focusing on what is yours to carry and that you are not worrying on behalf of others most of the time.

Find a balance between carrying a load for others and carrying what is yours. Stand back from what you cannot control and put it down. Remind yourself constantly that you can feel for the world, but you need to connect with what is yours for peace of mind.

Ask yourself: Is what I am spending time with worthy of my attention and energy? Is what I carry really true for me? You might realise that the lot you have been carrying is not yours to carry and that you can lighten the load. In my experience, not looking at what is making us restless can result in it growing much larger in our minds, rather than simply meeting our reality.

And know that you set the pace: You can set the pace of your journey with breathing, meditation, visualisations and healthy distractions. DM/ML

Stefan Blom is a clinical psychologist who specialises in relationships. He lives and works in Cape Town and is the author of The Truth About Relationships (translated into Afrikaans and Romanian), published by Human & Rousseau. For more information, go to his website. 

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  • Such sound and detailed advice, thank you. This is the kind of thing that is taught in many forms of meditation, especially Buddhist. There are such centres all around the country. It is very helpful to get some help with this with the guidance of a teacher, especially if one is new to this way of approaching the low-level but chronic anxiety and depression that so many of us are struggling with.