Declutter Your Mind: How to Stop Worrying, Relieve Anxiety, and Eliminate Negative Thinking - S.J. Scott, Barrie Davenport (2016)
Part I. DECLUTTERING YOUR THOUGHTS
Four Causes of Mental Clutter
“It’s not a daily increase, but a daily decrease. Hack away at the inessentials.”
- Bruce Lee
Before we dive into the various exercises to eliminate your negative thinking, it’s important to first understand why you have these thoughts. So, in this section, we’ll go over four causes of mental clutter.
Cause #1: Daily Stress
An excessive amount of stress is the primary reason many people feel overwhelmed by life. In fact, the stress created by information overload, physical clutter, and the endless choices required from these things can trigger an array of mental health issues like generalized anxiety, panic attacks, and depression.
Couple this stress with the legitimate worries and concerns in your life, and you may find yourself with sleep problems, muscle pain, headaches, chest pain, frequent infections, and stomach and intestinal disorders, according to the American Psychological Association (not to mention dozens of studies supporting the connection between stress and physical problems).
Dan Harris, ABC News anchor and author of the book 10% Happier, didn’t acknowledge how the stress of mental overload was impacting him until he had a full-blown panic attack on national television.
His demanding and competitive job (which took him to the front lines of Afghanistan, Israel, Palestine, and Iraq) had left him depressed and anxious. He self-medicated his internal pain with recreational drugs, triggering the on-air attack.
After a meeting with his doctor, Dan had a wake-up call about his mental state. He says in a post on the ABC website, “As I sat there in his office, the sheer enormity of my mindlessness started to sink in—from hurtling headlong into war zones without considering the psychological consequences, to using drugs for a synthetic squirt of replacement adrenaline. It was as if I had been sleepwalking through a cascade of moronic behavior.”
Dan’s “moronic behavior” was simply a human reaction to everything that was happening in his head. When life becomes so intense and complicated, our psyches search out escape ramps. Too much input, too much negative exposure, and too many choices can trigger a not-so-healthy coping response.
Cause #2: The Paradox of Choice
The freedom of choice, something revered in free societies, can have a diminishing point of return when it comes to mental health. Psychologist Barry Schwartz coined the phrase “paradox of choice,” which sums up his findings that increased choice leads to greater anxiety, indecision, paralysis, and dissatisfaction. More choices might afford objectively better results, but they won’t make you happy.
Consider a simple trip to the grocery store. According to the Food Marketing Institute , in 2014 there were 42,214 items carried in the average supermarket. What once might have been a 10-minute excursion to grab the necessities now requires at least that much time to agonize over the best brand of yogurt or the right gluten-free crackers.
Try to purchase a pair of jeans, the staple of most wardrobes, and you’ll be faced with an endless array of decisions. Baggy fit? Boot cut? Skinny? Wide leg? Vintage wash? Button fly? Zipper? A simple purchase is enough to make you hyperventilate.
Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, and even President Obama made the decision to limit their clothing options to minimize feelings of overwhelm from making decisions. In an article from Michael Lewis for Vanity Fair , the president explained the logic behind his limited wardrobe selections:
“You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits,” Obama said. “I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.”
Cause #3: Too Much “Stuff”
Our homes are filled with clothes we never wear, books we won’t read, toys that are unused, and gadgets that don’t see the light of day. Our computer inboxes are overflowing. Our desktops are cluttered, and our phones are flashing messages like “You need more storage.”
As mentioned in 10-Minute Digital Declutter, “We have become such slaves to our gadgets that we’d rather have the quick fix of instant information or entertainment over real-world interactions and experiences.”
With this constant flow of information and access to technology, becoming mass consumers of things and data is easier than ever. At the click of a button, we can order anything from a book to a motorboat and have it delivered to our doorstep.
We’re filling our homes with things we don’t need and filling our time with a steady stream of tweets, updates, articles, blog posts, and cat videos. Information and stuff is piling up around us, and yet we feel helpless to do anything about it.
All of this extraneous stuff and data not only sucks our time and productivity, but also produces reactive, anxious, and negative thoughts.
· “My Facebook friend looks like she’s living a happy life. My life sucks.”
· “Should I buy that FitBit and start tracking my health so I don’t die too early?”
· “Oh no, I forgot that ‘How to Make a Million Before You’re 30’ webinar—what if they shared something really important?”
Everything seems important and urgent . Every email and text must be answered. Every latest device or contraption must be purchased. This keeps us constantly stirred up, busy with trivialities, and detached from the people around us and the feelings within us.
We often feel like we don’t have time to declutter because we’re too busy consuming new stuff and information. But at some point, all this busyness is leading us to mental and emotional exhaustion. As we process everything coming at us, we analyze, ruminate, and worry ourselves to the breaking point.
How have we lost sight of the values and life priorities that once kept us balanced and sane? What can we do about it? We can’t go back in time and live without technology. We can’t renounce all of our worldly possessions and dwell in a cave. We have to figure out a way to live in this modern world without losing our sanity.
Decluttering our stuff and cutting back on time spent with our digital devices does help eliminate some of the anxiety and negative thinking. But we still have plenty of reason to get lost in the mental clutter of negative thinking, worry, and regret.
We worry about our health, our jobs, our kids, the economy, our relationships, how we look, what other people think of us, terrorism, politics, pain from the past, and our unpredictable futures. Our thoughts about these things make us suffer and undermine the happiness we could experience right now if we didn’t have that constant voice in our heads stirring things up.
Cause #4: The Negativity Bias
“But it was in this moment, lying in bed late at night, that I first realized that the voice in my head—the running commentary that had dominated my field of consciousness since I could remember—was kind of an asshole.” - Dan Harris
The human nervous system has been evolving for 600 million years, but it still responds the same as our early human ancestors who faced life-threatening situations many times a day and simply needed to survive.
Dr. Rick Hanson, Senior Fellow of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, in an article on his website says, “To keep our ancestors alive, Mother Nature evolved a brain that routinely tricked them into making three mistakes: overestimating threats, underestimating opportunities, and underestimating resources (for dealing with threats and fulfilling opportunities).”
Thus evolved the “negativity bias,” our tendency to react to negative stimuli more intensely than positive. Negative stimuli produce more neural activity than do equally intense (e.g., loud, bright) positive ones. They are also perceived more easily and quickly. Hanson says, “The brain is like Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive ones.”
So what does the negativity bias have to do with your thoughts? It means that you are hardwired to overthink, worry, and view situations more negatively than they are in reality. You see threats as more threatening and challenges as more challenging.
Any negative thought that enters your mind feels real, so there is an impulse to accept it as reality. But you are not living in a cave, facing life-threatening situations daily. You may be hardwired to think negatively, but you don’t have to accept this predisposition.
Sam Harris says, “There is an alternative to simply identifying with the next thought that pops into consciousness.” That alternative is mindfulness . Mindfulness can be practiced in the most mundane activities, and it can be fostered through specific exercises that are provided throughout this book.
Mindfulness requires retraining your brain to stay out of the mental clutter from the future and focus instead on the present moment. When you are mindful, you no longer attach to your thoughts. You are simply present in whatever you happen to be doing.
Sounds simple, right?
The concept is deceptively simple—but changing your thinking is not so easy.
As with building any other habit, decluttering your mind requires practice, patience, and a willingness to start small, then grow from there. Fortunately, we’ll show how to do all of this throughout this book.
Not only will you learn the practices to train your brain and control your thoughts, but you’ll also build the specific habits that will support these mental practices on a daily basis.
In the remainder of this section, we’ll go over four habits you can use to declutter your thoughts . You’ll find that, as you master your thinking, you’ll not only be more focused and productive, but also feel more at peace with all the crazy demands of modern life.
So let’s dive into the first habit that will retrain your brain—focused breathing.