The Dark Side of Mind Wandering and How To Stop It
Turns out that a wandering mind is an unhappy mind
Excessive mind-wandering has consistently been shown to correlate with mental conditions such as anxiety, OCD, depression, ADHD, and general unhappiness. To put it simply, the more time we are spending in our heads, the greater the likelihood that we will suffer. From personal experience, I can vouch for this.
Our minds are naturally inclined to think more negatively than positively. Evolutionarily speaking, this served a purpose. To keep our minds switched on to the swathes of potential threats our ancestors were susceptible to. Much has changed since our ancestors’ days of fending off wild animals but our brains have remained relatively the same. Despite most of us not having to worry about life-threatening predators eating us, there is arguably more stress than ever on the human mind in the form of emotional stress.
Indeed, we as humans in the 21st century are bombarded by negativity from large-scale macro problems like pandemics, climate change, political issues, and social injustices to the micro problems of our day-to-day lives including our career goals, social dilemmas, and health problems. One only has to turn on the news or spend 10 minutes thinking about their life to find a potential problem to worry about.
Now more than ever it’s important to recognise our brains attraction to negativity. Throughout the day our brains will hand us a shovel in hopes we begin to dig a hole but despite its best efforts for control and equilibrium, we simply cannot solve all of our problems. Digging that hole too often will only lead us to hopelessness and despair.
This isn’t to say we shouldn’t be thinking about things. Of course, there is a time and a place. However, too many of us are compulsive thinkers. Do you find yourself unable to concentrate on tasks without drifting into mindless thought or worry? Is your sleep affected by wide-eyed nights as your mind races? Are you unable to dissociate from your thoughts when issues arise despite the fact you can’t immediately solve that problem? This is the issue.
Far too many of us have allowed our brains to place mind-wandering as our auto-pilot mode of living. The quicker we realise our tendency to overthink is at the core of many of our issues, the happier our lives will become. As Eckhart Tolle says,
The primary cause of unhappiness is never the situation but your thoughts about it — The Power Of Now
As mentioned above, our brains have a tendency to think more negatively than positively. If let to its own devices, mind-wandering will turn the most positive of scenarios into a negative, if given a chance.
So, with all this in mind -literally -, how can we begin to stop what is now for most of us, a bad habit? Well, let’s look at where this mind-wandering comes from.
The Default Mode Network
Learning about neurology and psychology was one of the most instrumental things in me overcoming my struggles with anxiety and gaining a greater awareness of how my brain works. After all, our mind is as entangled with our brain as a spider is to its web. So many of us are going through life operating a brain with no awareness as to how it works and this is detrimental to our health.
A plethora of scientific studies show that mind-wandering originates in the default-mode network (DMN). This is not one area but a series of brain structures that connect together to light up in times of mind-wondering. Interestingly enough, this activity occurs when our brain is at “rest” and not focusing on any particular task. Take your attention away from my words for a moment and watch as your mind begins to wonder. That is your DMN flaring into action.
Taking this further, significant studies point to the activity of the DMN being down to self-referential thinking. Think of these thoughts as “me, me, me” thoughts. They are the thoughts that consider where you need to be after work, what you want to eat for lunch, or what email you need to get back to next. More importantly, however, they are the thoughts are can terrorise those suffering from mental health problems like those associated with anxiety, depression, OCD, or ADHD.
These thoughts can look like rumination over past mistakes, worry over future problems, critical self-talk, or just mindless compulsive thinking. Engagement with such thoughts correlates with worsening of mental states. The longer you play in radioactive water, the greater the chance of your cells mutating, if you will.
Again, this is not to say we should not think about our problems but there is a fine line between thinking about something with a goal to solve it and obsessively worrying or ruminating about something. Rumination leads nowhere and yet so many of us allow it to negatively impact our days.
There came a point in time with my struggles that I had to commit to stop thinking about them as much. When it came down to it, thinking prevented action. How could I overcome low-self worth or irrational fears if I was spending 70% of my day with a magnifying glass wondering why they were there? After all, as Carl Jung says “What we resist, persists”.
Being able to dissociate from your thoughts when needed is a skill. Mental health problems aside, we should all be able to separate ourselves from our thoughts when we want to.
We don’t have much power over what we choose to think. After all, we can’t control when this DMN lights up. However, what is important, is having the ability to not engage with these thoughts when they show up in the mind. When to say, “actually I don’t want to listen to this story right now, I have other things that require my attention” and turn our attention away.
This stuff is so important I can’t express it enough in this article. 3 years of personal development and this is arguably my biggest revelation and skill I commit to practicing each day. I hope you recognise its importance and are ready for me to tell you how to begin practicing it.
How To Decrease Mind-Wondering
As I mentioned above, we cannot and should not want to stop our minds from wandering completely. It serves a purpose. For example, it’s 8am here, and as I was writing this my mind wondered briefly onto the fact I hadn’t drunk any water today. This is good. I am reminded I need water and I‘m now not on the verge of dehydration. Do I want to be writing this only for my mind to wander onto a common worry like, “You should have pursued a serious profession in university and have a set career path instead of sitting here writing with no clear direction?” and then for me to engage with that thought? Absolutely not. I will become anxious and it will affect my mood.
Unfortunately, we can’t stop that thought or any other thought from arising in our minds. We just don’t have that much control over what we want to think. This is an automatic process and this DMN is going to light up whether we want it to or not. For example, I may see a friend’s social media post about them becoming a doctor and get an automatic thought that compares me to them. I can’t help that. However, what I can do, and what you can do too, is not engage with that thought. To notice when your default mode network is doing its self-referential thing and cut it off.
How do we do this?
As studies have continuously shown, mind-wandering is consistent with loss of focus. The moment our attention is turned away from anything but the present moment, our DMN lights up and we are flooded with self-referential thoughts. If loss of focus means more thinking then logically the way to decrease mind-wandering is to reclaim our focus.
I want you to experience this for a moment to prove my point. Close your eyes and ask yourself what you are going to think about next. I then want you to intentionally drive your focus to your mind and wait for the answer. I can guarantee that at that moment, your mind will fall silent as your focus is drawn into one place. Now, this may only be brief but brief nonetheless, you have seen the power that comes from focusing in on the present moment. Over time you can expand on this. To increase your ability to stay in the present and quiet your mind.
Find an Anchor
Let’s call these points of focus, anchors. In the above example, we focus our energy onto an answer to a question. This can’t be our regular anchor as it's unreasonable to have to ask yourself this question each time you get distracted. Luckily, there are many things that can anchor you to the present moment.
Our breath is arguably the most important. 24 hours a day, out of our conscious awareness, we are consistently inhaling and exhaling. This makes it a valuable tool to be used at our disposal. Each time your mind wanders, bring yourself back to your breath.
Your breath is inherently present. It is neither occurring in the past or the future, only right at this moment. In bringing your attention to how you are breathing, for example, the sense of the air rushing through your nostrils or your chest rising and falling, you take away focus from your brain. More importantly, you take away the power from your DMN and with it, your ability to mind wander.
The use of the breath as an anchor is a common theme in meditation. Interestingly, meditation has consistently been shown to decrease mind-wandering as a result of the deactivation of the default mode network. As this one study presented,
“We found that the main nodes of the default-mode network (medial prefrontal and posterior cingulate cortices) were relatively deactivated in experienced meditators across all meditation types.”
This is not an anomaly. This is seen consistently in many studies. The power of not only of our breath but present moment awareness can not be disregarded. While I do recommend taking 15 minutes out of your day to meditate as this will allow you to become familiar with the experience of using the breath to dissociate from thought, you can still use the technique above throughout your day.
When you find your mind starting to wander, bring yourself back to the present through breath awareness. Do this consistently. Each time you catch yourself drifting off, bring yourself back to your breath. Not only will this expand your ability to use the breath as an anchor but will show you how often you are caught up in mindless thinking. I have done this so many times, I can’t disregard its power any longer. It's a habit for me now.
Other individuals use the 5 senses as sources of an anchor. When you get distracted, focus on what you can see in the room, taste on your tongue, smell, hear or feel in your hands. For me, using the breath as an anchor works best for me but see which one suits you best and commit to the practice. There is no harm in using a combination of them all.
I’d like to briefly mention flow states as these represent external things we can be doing to direct our focus away from our DMN. I have written a post on this but to sum up; flow states are states of complete immersion in tasks that seem to take away your attention from the external world. To write that in terms of today's topic, flow states are states of complete focus in tasks that deactivate your default-mode network and stop you from engaging in mind-wandering tendencies. These states can be found wherever you seem to lose yourself in the moment and can include, socialising, video games, reading, writing, or content creating, to name a few.
Studies show those who experience more states of flow have higher degrees of happiness and satisfaction. Interesting right? We can safely assume this is due to our inability to wonder over the negatives in our lives. These states are even greater when there is a sense of purpose or meaning attached to the task like self-care or helping others. Ultimately you should find what brings you into states of flow and engage in them when you feel yourself starting to get caught up in negative thinking.
Some people find these states of flow in substances like alcohol or drugs. Of course, for obvious reasons, these are not the sort of flow states I speak of here. Productive, self-development tasks like working on projects or something that genuinely excites you is always good as putting time into authentic pursuits will build your self-esteem and leave you feeling good about yourself and the time you have used.
During the lowest of lows with my mental health I was in my final year of University and working on my dissertation project on neurology that I was greatly interested in. My ability to lose myself in my work day after day was one of the key components in my recovery. It gave me distance from my irrational fears long enough to see them clearly. In hindsight, I know the constant practice of present moment awareness consistently took focus away from a part of the brain that has ties to anxiety disorders.
To Sum Everything Up
Our minds are wired to want to wonder. Constant referential thinking is correlated with negative mental states that perpetuate mental health disorders such as anxiety, depression, OCD, and ADHD. The default mode network seems to be the culprit of our mind-wandering tendencies as activity in this area increases when we lose our focus. However, we are able to decrease this through present moment awareness.
Meditation practices have been shown to decrease mind-wandering tendencies and these always include some sort of present moment awareness -breath focus or visualisation, to name a few -. Practicing meditation is recommended along with using your senses/breath as an anchor whenever you find your mind wondering. Flow states are also beneficial, bringing awareness to the present moment in the form of an external task. Though, flow states are better used when the task is beneficial, as this will increase feelings of fulfillment and satisfaction.
Overall, this work is vital and important to your wellbeing especially if you suffer from mental health disorders. I hope you look into this further and begin practicing present moment awareness in your own life in order to alleviate yourself from the problems our wondering minds can create when left to their own devices.
Have a lovely week and thank you so much for reading. Follow the page for weekly posts on all things mental health, personal development, and psychology. Follow my YouTube channel for more content, also.