If I let my brain do what it likes, it would stress out about everything. The thing that’s happening three months from now. The thing that’s happening a year from now. The papers that need organizing and filing. Calls that need to be made. Decisions that need to be made. Articles that must be written. The weird thing I said a week ago. Everything else.
Margarita Tartakovsky is an associate editor at PsychCentral.com, an award-winning mental health website, and the voice behind Weightless, a blog that helps women deal with body image issues and disordered eating. She also writes a monthly feature for Beliefnet.com, covering topics such as patience and procrastination.
Editor: Saad Shaheed
This week I was writing an article for Psych Central about quieting racing thoughts that stall sleep. Something one of the psychologists, Rosy Saenz-Sierzega, Ph.D, said really resonated with me:
“We need a gauge that allows us to assess just how much distress a moment deserves (or doesn’t deserve). If we took effort to really think of a circumstance’s worth, we may realize that most things are more so a ‘bummer’ rather than ‘the end of the world!’”
Her words inspired me to create a list of things I’ll allow to stress me out and the things I’ll remind myself just aren’t worth my time. This is key for me because I have a lifelong habit of exaggerating the importance of things. In my mind something minute and “no big deal” grows in magnitude and becomes “holy crap unbearable.”
I do what Saenz-Sierzega mentioned: “Not getting a ‘like’ on Facebook, a dented bumper, having the flu, a bad hair day, and getting audited are all treated with the same amount of distress.”
Here’s the reality: Our energy is finite. Instead of spending my limited energy hyper-focusing on things that aren’t that important, I can spend it on what is — on the things that are truly valuable and the things I truly enjoy.
This doesn’t mean that I plan on dismissing my feelings or thinking I’m an idiot if I get upset over something “small.” Instead, my intention is to ruminate a whole lot less (especially at night!) and take on a healthier perspective.
I think of this kind of list as a way of protecting ourselves and taking compassionate care of ourselves. I think it speaks to a bigger, broader theme: living an intentional, thoughtful and deliberate life. We get to decide the things that hold our attention. The things we focus on and think about.
Sometimes, it doesn’t feel this way — it’s like a thief has run off with our brains and keeps feeding us tapes and tapes of worries. That’s when we can pause and take several deep breaths, interrupting the cycle for just long enough to: a) realize what’s happening and then, b) shift our attention to something else.
So as an example, here’s a brief list of the things I’ll let stress me out (i.e., hold my attention) and the ones I won’t. And here I mean sustain my attention. Because that’s really what happens when we’re stressed out or overwhelmed or worried: Whatever that thing is, it hijacks our attention, taking up residence.
Sure, I might get bummed out if I’m running late or someone doesn’t like me. But I’m working on not making these things my mind’s top priority.
Not Attention, Overwhelm, Hyperfocus-Worthy
The things I won’t let consume me and hijack my attention:
- Social media, which includes the number of people that follow me; Facebook or Instagram likes (I don’t even have a Facebook account.)
- Mean comments from strangers, online or in person
- Running late
- Wanting everyone to like me
- Looking a certain way
- My weight
- A sudden change of plans
- Long lines
The things I will give attention to:
- Anything that concerns my loved ones, including their safety, health or well-being
- The opinions of several trusted love ones
- My work — including improving my writing and trying my best
- Being a good wife, daughter and loved one
If you like, create your own list. Think about the things that are currently stressing you out or things that normally overwhelm you. Consider the things you ruminate about, the things that keep you up at night, the things you think about most mornings or every morning.
Are these worries worth your time? Are you exaggerating inconsequential things? What is really worth your attention, and what isn’t? What do you want to occupy your mind?
Keep your list somewhere visible (or nearby). This way when you find yourself getting overwhelmed or triggered by something, recall or return to your list, and see if it’s truly worth your time. If it isn’t but you’re still upset, acknowledge that. (It’s totally OK and understandable.)
Then do something that makes you feel better — something that calms and grounds you. This might be listening to a guided meditation; stretching your body; going for a run; talking about the situation with a friend; processing what happened with your therapist in an upcoming session; or taking several (or many) slow, deep breaths.
Again, the next time you notice you’re getting upset about something or ruminating about an issue, ask yourself: Is it truly, truly worth my time, attention and energy?
Maybe it is. But maybe it isn’t.