Why won’t my mind shut up!!!
The most common statement I hear from new meditation students, or people under stress, is “My mind just won’t shut up!” In this article I’m going to explore why this is and what do you to do about it. As you will see, the brain is doing exactly what it is meant to be doing. There is a reason for that overactivity. The key is to change that reason and in that, change the activity level, or the mind-chatter, so we aren’t plagued by excessive thoughts, rumination and catastrophizing in our heads. To do this we first need to look at the way in which our nervous system operates and tells the mind what to do. So let’s begin..
The human nervous system is made up of two parts;
The central nervous system which includes the brain and spinal cord, and
The peripheral nervous system which makes up everything else.
The peripheral nervous system is what connects the central nervous system to the rest of the body. It is further divided up into the somatic, autonomic and enteric nervous systems. The somatic nervous system controls voluntary movement, and the enteric nervous system our gut function. To calm the mind-chatter we need to get very intimate with the autonomic nervous system. The autonomic nervous system is the automatic nervous system; it controls the things we have no control over, such as breathing, heartbeat, the way our blood vessels expand and contract, and everything else we take for granted in our bodies.
The autonomic nervous system is further divided into the sympathetic nervous system - that turns the volume up in the body and gets us ready for action - and the para-sympathetic nervous system, which does the opposite. The para-sympathetic nervous system turns the volume down in the body, it is the part of the nervous system that is responsible for making us feel relaxed.
Throughout evolution there has always been predator/prey and famine/feast circumstances. We humans are not at the top of the food chain, and there has not always been food for us to eat. Our bodies’ methods of self-protection are the result of evolution, and a developed “fight or flight” response is part of this defence mechanism. This is an automatic response from the body designed for self-preservation, and you guessed it… it’s controlled by the automatic, autonomic nervous system.
Now fast forward to modern times and the crazy, hectic lives we lead… the world is a very stressful place. The main stressors back in the day were basic; shelter, food, water and predators. These days we have don’t have those stressors so much, our stressors are the finances, the husband, the wife, the unfulfilling job, the kids, lack of purpose, Telstra, not enough time… the list goes on. We are actually under a tremendous amount more stress than our caveman counterparts. In response to these stressors, our body has had to adapt. In general, within the nervous system, the sympathetic nervous system has had to predominate. This is called sympathetic nervous system dominance. Remember the sympathetic nervous system gears the body up for action, for stress – it is the stress nervous system.
The human stress response is supposed to be a two way street. Once the stressor has gone (the sabre tooth tiger runs away), the body responds in the opposite way; the turning down action of the para-sympathetic nervous system results in a relaxation of the body, calming back down to a state of balance. The problem in modern life is the sabre tooth tiger doesn’t go away, it just changes form into another sabre tooth tiger, then another, and another. We are bombarded constantly, jumping from tiger to tiger, and the sympathetic nervous system doesn’t get the opportunity to turn down. A state of stress becomes our default modus operandi. The stress response is a full body major physiological event that affects every system within the body, and herein lies the problem; the body never gets the chance for respite. The image below summarises the sympathetic and para-sympathetic nervous systems:
Turn up the mind-chatter please!!
In a stressful situation the brain tries to figure the situation out by going back through its database of memories and experiences so it can relate the issue in present moment to something, then, it projects out into the future the possibilities based on that. This high level of activity increases the electrical frequency of the brain to the very busy Beta waves, and we experience this as a very noisy mind that won’t turn off. It may be a bit of a problem for you, keeping you up at night or plaguing you during the day, but in actuality, it’s the brain doing exactly what it’s evolved to do – keep you safe. To calm the mind we need to alter the dominant brain frequency away from beta to the calmer, relaxed and less noisy alpha and theta waves. To do this we need to learn how to balance the nervous system by turning down the sympathetic nervous system and turning up the para-sympathetic nervous system. The alteration of the brain waves will follow. The best and most effective way to do this… Meditation.
Balancing our nervous system
When we sit in meditation, we choose to run the parasympathetic nervous system. This is a very healthy thing. The over-activation of the stress response and the sympathetic nervous system is responsible for much of the so called disease and suffering we experience in life. Regular practice helps to “tone” the parasympathetic nervous system. Because the sympathetic nervous system is so overused, its biceps are like Arnie Schwarzenegger, and our poor little parasympathetic nervous systems’ biceps are piddly small. We must train our parasympathetic nervous systems to become strong and develop a balanced tone to both sides of the nervous system. Meditation can be thought of as the skill of actively inducing the para-sympathetic nervous system.
When we begin to balance our nervous system and the para-sympathetic nervous system starts to shine through in everyday life, we are more calm, more balanced, and peaceful. As Jill Bolte Taylor in her famous TED talk ‘My Stroke of Insight’ states – “These are the we inside of me…”. We literally have two modes – sympathetic and parasympathetic. We have the ability to choose where we operate from in any given moment, although it may not feel like it, it’s because the muscles are weak on one side. Balance the muscles and develop the skill and we begin to have choice.
So if the sympathetic nervous system is the stress nervous system that developed for self-preservation and ultimately to save our life, when would the body allow it to turn down? When it feels SAFE. This is a very important point. The para-sympathetic nervous system kicks in when we feel safe; it induces the relaxation response only when the threat is gone. It will only allow our brain frequency to drop to calmer states when it is safe to do so… because it is loving you the only way it knows how… by keeping you safe. So… Meditation is (in the earlier stages) sitting each day trying to convince your body that it is safe. The more we do it the safer the body feels and it gets to a point where it says “Ok I see what’s going on here, we are safe, it’s safe to drop my defences, allow the sympathetic nervous system to turn down, the brainwaves to drop and to relax..”.
Why it can be hard for some people to meditate.
Some people find meditating hard. It can be very tricky for some people to feel safe. There can be many reasons for this. Some of these reasons could be their current situation, maybe it was their childhood and the household they grew up in, and the belief systems formed during that time. If your perception is that the world is a volatile, stressful place because that’s what you grew up in, then to settle and feel safe may prove tricky. The sympathetic nervous system will be strong and the brain wave frequency high, preventing the body from calming down. There are many other factors that can make meditation hard such as stress in your job, relationship, financial situation, etc. If you find yourself in stressful situations then meditation - although hard - is exactly what you need. Meditation is the opportunity to sit with yourself daily and reassure yourself that everything in this moment is ok, that you are safe, allowing the body to relax..
So how do we stop it? The simplest most effective way. Meditate. Why does this work. As I have mentioned, meditation is the act of telling the body that it is safe, nourishing the para-sympathetic nervous system whilst calming down the sympathetic nervous system. This in turn allows the brains frequency to drop to lower more calm frequencies and with that, the brain chatter slows down. So each time you are aware that your mind has projected and the “Monkey Mind”, as we call it in meditation circles, starts reign your consciousness in to a focal point of attention – an anchor. This anchoring point is something in the present moment such as candle flame, a crystal and flower or maybe something on your body such as the feet or hands or my personal favourite, the breath. Begin to follow the breath as you breath and notice all the little nuances that occur. Be the observer of the breath. Each time the mind projects back out, which it will, reign it back in to your anchor. Do this over and over and over again. Soon the projection of mind will slow and you will start to exist more in the present. With daily practice the sympathetic nervous system will calm and the para-sympathetic shining through decreasing the mind chatter. If you still battle with a very overactive mind then give it something to do. Mantra meditation can be very useful for an active mind because you can use thoughts, the mantra, to transcend thoughts. A very simple one that the Buddha used 2,500 years ago is “Breathing in….. Breathing out….” Linked in with the breath. The idea is to slow the breath and the mantra. The mind will follow. When you are in the “zone” and calm and relaxed, you may like to drop the mantra and just sit with present moment awareness. For more information on Mantra Meditations you may like to read my post on it and/or watch the short video I made about this style of meditation. You can READ IT HERE or, WATCH IT HERE.
If you would like to learn meditation then I encourage you to book into my 6 hour “Introduction to Mindfulness and Meditation” workshop. This workshop will tach you all the essentials to develop a healthy meditation and mindfulness practice. We cover various meditation styles, stress and its impact on the body, health and what health actually is, human behaviour essentials, flow state and much more. There is a 30,000 word workshop manual you will receive as well as a downloadable MP3 guided meditation by yours truly. You will also be invited to be a part of an exclusive support group to help you along on your journey with its ups and downs. This workshop is presented in person every other month and you can also do the workshop online at your own pace. For more information on the workshop CLICK HERE. To register for either of these EMAIL ME HERE.
I hope this article has given you some value and you now understand the nervous system a bit more and why your brain won’t shut up. If you liked it, can I ask you a favour? Please share it. It helps me to others. Thanks in advance.