Steps to a Quiet Mind

The brain can generate 25 watts of power – enough to light up a light bulb.

3-Steps to a Quiet Mind

Our brain contains 100 billion neurons and each neuron has from 1,000 to 10,000 connections with other neurons. This means that there are 10 trillion neuron connections possible, making the brain the most powerful learning tool in the world! Just with its neural activity, the brain can generate 25 watts of power – enough to light up a light bulb. This wonderful organ allows us to think and feel, and has the wonderful ability of searching and retrieving information. In our modern-day society, we have been trained since our school days to refine our information-searching and analyzing abilities. This is of course very useful but when combined with the usual ongoing stress – it can sometimes be difficult to let our brains and minds get the rest they need to stay healthy.

The nervous system exists in 2 states – the “rest and digest” state – also called the parasympathetic branch – and the “fight or flight” state, also known as the sympathetic branch. These 2 branches are like the break (parasympathetic) and gas pedal (sympathetic) of our entire metabolism. When they work together in a healthy and balanced fashion, they can keep us going in times of stress and we can relax when things slow down. All too often in our modern-day world, our nervous system stays somewhat stuck in the “on” position. Our foot stays stuck on the gas pedal, so-to-speak, so that we are more of less constantly in the “fight or flight” mode. This leads to the production of the hormones adrenalin and cortisol in large amounts. This causes direct damage to our brains cells and activates the part of our mind which we affectionately like to call “the restless monkey”. Adrenalin and cortisol overly enhance our mind’s ability to search and retrieve, so that we get stuck overthinking, worrying or in a pattern of negative self-deprecating statements. We have all met the restless monkey in us. He is the one who says we’re just not good enough, or the one who makes us think about all sorts of random themes as we try to fall asleep at night. The restless monkey is our normal level of brain alertness pushed to the extreme. Although our inner monkey is normally a useful part of our brain function that allows us to connect pieces of information together, retrieve past knowledge and analyze a situation – when fueled by excessive adrenalin and cortisol, the monkey becomes restless and counter-productive. It leads to insomnia, light sleep, excessive worry, poor self-esteem as well as difficulty concentrating.

The first step to calm the monkey down and help channel its abilities in a productive manner is to recognize the existence of our inner monkey and realize that we are separate from the monkey. Our restless monkey is not us. This allows to distance ourselves from the negative feelings of worry that arise because of the adrenalin-fueled restless monkey. Simply observing what the restless monkey is doing is an essential first step to then implement our tools to regain mental centered-ness. So, is your inner monkey making you worry excessively? Is he preventing you from concentrating by making you have scattered thoughts? Or is he creating a situation of low self-esteem? Keeping a journal of when the restless monkey wakes up is also useful. Simple physical factors can also be triggers for the restless monkey. Skipping meals or overeating simple refined carbs while undereating healthy protein and fat sources will trigger adrenalin production and thus feed the monkey. Nicotine, sugar and caffeine are also direct stimulants of adrenalin and cortisol products. Thus, regular protein-rich meals, and a lifestyle with minimal coffee, chocolate, sugar, cigarettes and refined foods is often a good first step.
The awareness of jumping thoughts or excessive worry is the first step of mindfulness.
Finding our center when the monkey is very restless usually requires one of three actions:

 Finding our center when the monkey is very restless usually requires one of three actions.

1) Give the monkey free reign:

Like a small child who has extra energy to burn, the restless monkey sometimes needs to just keep going with its scattered thoughts before it will have burnt all its cortisol and adrenalin and may then calm down on its own. As such, taking 15 minutes to journal freely and jot down every thought that crosses our mind may be very useful. The idea is to keep a mindset of curious, non-judgmental attention. Just let the monkey express itself. Sometimes, very creative insights can come out of this exercise. This is not a good tool to use if the monkey’s restlessness is creating anxiety or mounting negative feelings. In those latter cases, it is more helpful to rely to the tools below.

2) Exercise:

A simple way of physically burning the excess stress hormones that are feeding our inner monkey is intense physical activity. This may be anything from dancing around our home to spending 30 minutes at the gym or swimming. Any activity that solicits our muscles in a sustained manner will exhaust the monkey and distract ourselves from negative unproductive thoughts. It is a good idea to follow an exercise session with 5 minutes of deep, belly breaths as an extra grounding tool.

3) Using our rational mind:

This can be useful when the monkey is creating a pattern of repeating negative thoughts. This tool usually needs to be used after exercising as it can otherwise be difficult to befriend the negative monkey with our rational arguments. After exercise, the monkey has mellowed, the mind is more focused since there is less adrenalin and cortisol in our system and we are more open to our rational arguments. As we catch ourselves thinking “I’ll never be able to do this” or “All my friends must hate me” – the idea is then to oppose a rational argument to each negative thought. For instance, as we think “I will for sure fail this exam”, we can then catch ourselves and show ourselves all the instances in the past when we have in fact done well. Or if one thinks “I am a terrible mother”, we can then think of the times our children have coddled us and loved us for our mothering. It is helpful to use a pen and paper to do this exercise as it keeps the focus. Taking 15 minutes to fill out 2 columns on a piece of paper with 1 column being our negative thought and other column our rational counter-argument is all it takes.

The term “mindfulness” has become increasingly popular since it is a tool that is necessary in the stressed-out world in which we live. Constant excessive levels of adrenalin and cortisol have led our minds to become over-excitable and easily in the “worry” or “overthinking” mode. Simply being aware of what our minds are doing and implementing three simple tools is oftentimes all it takes to find our center again and solve issues like insomnia, worry, and symptoms of chronic stress – all of which are associated with our “monkey mind”.

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franco nero
about the author

Franco defines itself as a person trapped in a sedentary lifestyle, however, he is an avid fitness "addict" and like, many more in his environment spends vast parts of his leisure time on a gym, running, cycling.