If you are highly sensitive, you need to learn to manage your mind. Your mental health and happiness depend upon it.
I have a chainsaw for a brain. It’s truly a mixed bag.
Chainsaws are indispensable when you need to cut through a lot of material and do it fast. We had a spectacular, terrible ice storm here in 1991, and in the days that followed, chainsaw blades growled and whined throughout the city as ground crews cut up hundreds of fallen trees that blocked the streets.
Without a doubt, I’m grateful my mind can serve me that way. It can fell a towering project by cutting it into digestible chunks. But if I leave it unsupervised, my mind can tear my peace of mind to pieces in no time flat.
It’s like the morbidly funny scene in Robert Altman’s movie, Short Cuts, in which a firefighter, crazed with rage at his soon-to-be-ex-wife, takes a chainsaw to their belongings. With each cut, he screams that if she wants half of all their stuff, he’ll make sure she gets exactly half.
My mind can go crazy like that. When my chainsaw brain is running amok—
- I wake up in the night ruminating and feeling tense or worried
- I act like a space cadet: I’ll ask my partner a question, then not hear then answer
- I’m all over the map, bouncing from one activity to another
- I suffer from decision paralysis
- I feel cut off from my body
It doesn’t have to be this way. But all the above happens when I leave my mind unsupervised.
Thinking without a license
We go to school to learn practical skills and information. But—did your schools teach you how to understand and skillfully handle your mind? I didn’t think so. Neither did mine.
I find this incomprehensible. After all, you need a license to drive. James Bond needed a license to kill. And as a highly sensitive person, I’m thinking (there I go again) that I should need a license to think.
Joking aside, I now know that my ability to discipline my thinking affects my sense of well-being more than anything else I do. My chainsaw brain can even tear apart the endorphin-fueled well-being I feel after I exercise.
No wonder I’ve come to view mental discipline as an essential responsibility to myself and to others. For HSPs, mind management is essential because—
- Our minds generate possibilities and permutations rapidly
- We have strong emotional reactions to the mental scenarios we generate
- We are deeply affected by the inner environment we create.
How do you master a chainsaw brain? Here are four practices I use to build mental discipline:
1—I meditate every day
Meditation is my most essential antidote to chainsaw brain. When I’m observing my thoughts and allowing them to pass by on the screen of my mind, I don’t get caught up in them. In the process, I remind my mind—and myself—that it is a part of me, not all of me. In addition, by sitting regularly, I strengthen the muscle of concentration that allows me to choose where my mind goes.
To put this another way, when I sit, I strengthen my ability to walk the dog, rather than letting the dog walk me. Even on those days when I feel like ten Great Danes are pulling me down the sidewalk, the effort I’m making to hold on builds strength. Meditation is not a quick fix, but it is the most powerful way to discipline the mind over time.
2—I practice mindfulness during the day
I keep an eye on myself as I work. Ideally, if my mind starts to run, I’ll notice that, and pause to do some breath practices. Why do breathing practices help? I think it’s because they bring me back down into my body.
However, I’ve found that I can’t count on myself to notice I’ve gone into chainsaw brain. That’s why I now rely on a timer to remind me to take breaks any time I’m writing, answering emails, or doing administrative work. I use the Pomodoro technique: 25 minutes of work followed by a five-minute break.
3—I consciously set my intent for each activity
My mind is like a dog. It looks for bones to chew on. Unfortunately, left to its own devices, it prefers to chew on anxiety-producing bones. To prevent this, I try to be very intentional about what I’m doing during the day.
For example, if I’m working on an article like this one, rather than sitting down for a 25-minute Pomodoro saying, “I’m going to edit for 25 minutes,” I set very specific intent: “In the next 25 minutes I’ll clean up the next 500 words and find all the related links.” Otherwise my mind will take any rabbit hole it can find and dive down it.
4—I practice Focusing
I mentioned earlier that when I meditate, I remind my mind—and myself—that it is a part of me, not all of me. Over time, meditation helps me create the inner space I need to notice that I am bigger than my mind. But I’ve found that’s a slow road to managing my chainsaw brain.
An unsupervised chainsaw brain is a mild (and sometimes not-so-mild) form of dissociation. That is, my mind takes over in an effort to protect me from something, by thinking. In the process, my mind takes me out of my body.
Here’s where I tap into the power of my Focusing practice. With Focusing, I can develop a relationship with this thinking part of me, rather than merely passively observing it. I can find out what it is so worried about. And gradually, I can take over the role this worried part has been playing. In other words, Focusing gives me the power to manage my mind rather than letting it manage me.
Going beyond the mind
On a very few occasions, during some of the seven-day Zen meditation retreats I attended years ago, I experienced an absence of thoughts. What a memorable experience…a vast spaciousness, and a sensation like fresh, cool air behind my forehead.
Those Zen retreats were physically painful, but they did make it much easier to focus my mind. The setting, the unvarying schedule—with each transition marked by a bell—and even the clothing we wore minimized the necessity for any thoughts or decisions.
Life outside the zendo, though, presents a formidably greater level of difficulty. Can I find ways to discipline my mind in the midst of the complicated stimuli of every-day life? I’ve needed patience and persistence to set up systems that support my mental focus and discipline, and these practices have certainly helped.
Ultimately, though, even a well-supervised mind cannot answer my deepest questions or solve my most challenging problems. For that, I have to surrender to something greater than myself. I call it the Divine. You may have other words that work better for you, like Mind, or Source, or God, or “the universe.”
I cannot connect to and surrender to this all-encompassing greater beingness, unless my mind is reasonably still, and that only happens when I’m fully present and aware that my mind is not all of me.
Needless to say, this is a never-ending project. In the end, though, it is the mother of all other projects: nothing matters more. For HSPs, this spiritual connection—whatever we call it —is our essential inner compass. Without it, we feel like we are groping in the dark.
Photo: Nickolas Kissam on Unsplash
An earlier version of this article first appeared on April 11, 2016.