Podcast episode 12 How meditation can help you as an overthinker
Welcome to Pressing Pause, the podcast for overthinkers.
I’m Gabrielle Treanor and I’m a writer and teacher specialising in overthinking and overworrying. Here I share with you ideas, inspiration and actions to empower you to spend less time overthinking and worrying and more time enjoying your life.
Welcome to episode 12 and in today’s show we’re looking at stripping back all the confusion and misunderstandings about meditation to see what it’s really all about and how it can help reduce overthinking.
I’ve had a lot of conversations about meditation and there are a lot of myths that get in the way of people having a go or sticking with meditating. Misunderstandings such as you need to empty your head or you have to sit still in silence. There are stumbling blocks people come across that make them think they’re failing at meditating, such as their mind keeps wandering off to other thoughts or they fall asleep. Or there’s the belief that meditation takes up too much time and it can’t be fitted into a busy life.
So, I’m going to tackle all of these issues in this episode but first I want to talk about why we should be bothering with meditation in the first place, and how it can help us overthinkers.
When we’re lost in our heads, going over and over the same thoughts without getting anywhere, we feel stressed and overwhelmed. Learning to slow this brain whirlwind and untangle ourselves from our thoughts plays a big part in calming ourselves. With meditation we learn to be aware of our thoughts rather than engaging with them. It’s by learning to realise when our thoughts are spiralling, standing back and noticing this is what’s happening, and then letting them go, rather than staying stuck within them, that we can calm our overthinking brain. This is what we develop through meditating on a regular basis.
Practising meditation can literally change how the brain is wired, it’s known as neuroplasticity, and by doing so it can enable us to cope better with stress. When you feel stress the amygdala, which is the part of the brain responsible for triggering the fight or flight response, is activated and through a series of communications the sympathetic nervous system leaps into action. This is how in our caveman days we were able to run away from the hungry predator who fancied us for their dinner. Only nowadays the stress we feel isn’t caused by something we can physically run away from, it’s more often the thoughts in our minds, and so the adrenaline and cortisol coursing through us has nowhere to go and we continue to feel anxious.
When you meditate the parasympathetic nervous system is activated, calming and soothing you by slowing the heart rate and lowering blood pressure. People who experience high levels of anxiety have a more reactive amygdala and studies by Stanford and Harvard Universities found that meditation can reduce the reactiveness of the amygdala and so lower stress levels. Researchers at the University of Massachusetts Medical School looked at a group of people with clinical levels of anxiety who practised mindfulness meditation. They discovered that 90% of them experienced a significant reduction in anxiety.
Okay, so there are some pretty good reasons for why it’s worth giving meditation a go. And, personally, I know that taking a few minutes every day to meditate has helped me recognise when I’m disappearing into an overthinking spiral and take action to calm myself. It’s a tool I can employ any time I choose to bring a little moment of peace into my day.
But what about those myths and challenges I mentioned earlier?
Okay, so, how about the idea that you have to empty your head?
I am happy to tell you this is a total misconception. No-one expects you to make your mind go blank because it’s not possible! Meditation isn’t about emptying your head or pushing away thoughts, all you’re doing in meditation is directing your focus onto one thing, that’s it. Instead of trying to keep up with the tornado of thoughts whizzing around your brain you focus your attention on one thing. It could be your breath, your body or a word or phrase you repeat.
Ah, I hear you say, but that’s just it, I can’t keep my focus on one thing, thoughts keep popping into my head.
Yep, random thoughts ping into my head when I meditate too. And anyone else who meditates will tell you the same thing. This is part of meditation, it’s not a sign you can’t do it. Noticing your mind has wandered off to other thoughts is part of meditating and it actually shows that you’re increasing your awareness because you’ve noticed your mind wandering. Every time you realise you’re distracted you bring your attention back to whatever is the focus of the meditation. When you notice your attention has wandered again, bring it back to the focus. And again. And again. It doesn’t matter how many times your thoughts drift off, what matters is that you notice and come back to what your focus is. Meditation is called a practice for a reason, in time you train your mind to stay focused for longer. Your mind will still wander off, that’s just part of it.
I know that some people find the idea of sitting still in silence, let alone actually doing it, uncomfortable. So let me tell you, meditation doesn’t have to mean being still and silent. There’s meditative movement such a chi kung and tai chi or you can meditate while walking. It is actually possible to meditate while in a noisy, crowded place like a train or an office or a supermarket queue. I know, I’ve done it. Listening to a guided meditation where a voice is talking you through the meditation step by step can help because it makes you feel like you’re with a friend, as long as you like the person’s voice of course.
So what if every time you get yourself settled to meditate you find yourself nodding off? Well, it could be you need more sleep! There are other reasons too such as the time of day you’re meditating. If you feel more alert in the morning that could be a good time to try it, rather than when you’re having an energy slump in the afternoon. A very relaxed sitting posture can contribute to an urge to nod off. Ideally you want to be in an upright sitting position, with both feet flat on the ground and your back a little away from the back of the chair so it’s self-supporting but you’re not stiff.
And one of the most common challenges I hear is how to make time for meditation in a packed, busy life, juggling family and work commitments. Our lives are busy and if we wait for the conditions to be perfect before we begin meditating we may never get started. So, how can we fit it in?
Well, first of all, you don’t need a big chunk of time. You don’t need to change your clothes, or find a candle to light (although you’re welcome to if you want to) or do anything but ideally be somewhere you won’t be disturbed for a few minutes. Meditating in crowded places is easier to do once you’ve got the hang of it in a quiet space. So, if that means locking yourself in the bathroom or sitting in your car, so be it.
It’s far more beneficial to meditate for a few minutes, and I mean three or five minutes, a day than to meditate for half an hour once a week or ten days. Yes you’ll get more benefit from 15 or 20 minutes meditating a day but it’s not all or nothing. It’s much, much better that you meditate for three minutes a day than not at all.
And remember the benefits I mentioned at the start of this episode, how meditation helps you to unstick yourself from your overthinking and activates your parasympathetic nervous system that calms and soothes you. There are 1,440 minutes in each day, does using three to meditate seem like a good idea? There’s only one way to find out.
If you’d like to start meditating and create a regular practice that works in your life take a look at my new ecourse, Exhale, a beginners’ guide to meditation for overthinkers. We start off meditating for just three minutes, we experiment with sitting and moving guided meditations, and of varying lengths, so you can find ones that suit you, we hear from several women who share their experience of making meditation a part of their busy family and working lives, and we look at how you can create your own sustainable practice going forward. For more information go to gabrielletreanor.com/courses/exhale.
And you can find a link and the show notes and other Pressing Pause episodes at gabrielletreanor.com. Thanks again for listening, until next time, lovely people.