Rocks in Your Head?

“It isn’t the mountains ahead to climb that wears you out; it’s the pebble in your shoe.”–Muhammad Ali

Have you ever been walking along and discovered a rock in your shoe?  It doesn’t seem to matter how small it is, suddenly, it is all that you can think about.  This is especially true if you are on a solo walk or run.  With each step, that multi-faceted, miniscule rock pokes and prods your foot until it becomes your sole focus. Likewise, if you are walking or running with another person, try as you might to ignore the aggravating rock, it remains in the periphery niggling away at your attention in spite of your best effort to focus on the unfolding conversation. 

Have you ever noticed how much more free and spacious your mind becomes if you pause long enough to take the rock out of your shoe?  If you’re with a friend, your concentration easily returns, and if you’re exercising alone, your mind relaxes and resumes its free-flow thought.  When this happens to me, I often ask myself, why did I take so long to shake that rock out of my shoe?  Why did I allow myself to be tormented by such a small thing?  

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Oddly enough, there are times that I will go an entire run or walk, and complete an errand or two, before I take time to slip off my shoe. Once home, I’ll sit down on the front stoop of my porch, take off my shoe and shake out scanty pebbles and/or debris. Slipping the shoe back on, it’s like putting on new footwear–all because I had been too stubborn, lazy, or petulant to take off my shoes and toss out the rocks.

After a recent moment of emptying the rocks out of my shoes, it occurred to me that those crushed rocks were quite a bit like thoughts that can sometimes run through my head.  These are often circular notions of self-doubt, self-criticism, or self-reproach.  Depending upon the day, situation, and/or context, the narrative can vary, but the ongoing, well-rehearsed mental skirmish between Naysayer Nellie and Wetblanket Wanda certainly know how to prick and needle my grey matter like the crushed detritus poking and prodding my foot when trapped in my shoe.

These pessimistic pests tend to most often join forces during times of stress, change, and/or increase in workload.  Sometimes, all it takes is one moment of so-called failure, frustration, or new challenge to inspire those two negative allies to vie for my attention as they quickly assemble a barrage of heated messages designed.  Then, like a challenging adolescent, they turn up the volume, in case I didn’t hear their propaganda the first hundred times!  

Ironically, I know their stories aren’t true. I recognize the disinformation for what it is; and yet, like the proverbial pebble in the shoe, I don’t quickly empty the shoe, or in this case, the prodding thoughts.  Instead, I allow those irksome ideas to create a foothold in consciousness, and repeatedly nettle away. It’s as if these defeatist messages have hijacked my brain.  

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If I allow those obstructive thoughts to remain around long enough, like the shoe-bound pea gravel chafing my skin until blisters form, the negative mental chatter can create so much inflammation that my brain will begin its not-so-subtle messages of flight, fight, or freeze.  My head and heart will begin to pound, I will hold my breath, tighten parts of my body, such as my belly, back, or neck, and sleep becomes elusive or filled with nightmares.

What can I do?  Duh! Take off the proverbial shoe and shake out the rocks.  Not that it is easy, but I have to remind myself that thoughts are like clouds.  Even on the most overcast day, when all is gray and cloud-covered, the blue sky and the bright sun are still there–they have merely been hidden.  The sky is not the clouds, and I am not my thoughts–and neither are you, Dear Reader!  In fact, we are so much more than any negative messages sticking around in our heads. 

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 As I understand it, the emotional center of our brain is housed in the part of the area that evolved quite early in order to determine important life saving decisions such as, “Is this food poisonous or not?” or “Will this animal eat me?”  Once this area of the brain perceives something as dangerous–even if created by our own thoughts–this part of the brain won’t shut off until it feels safe.  (It is also worth noting that the same is true when this area of the brain experiences pleasure–it wants more and more.) 

However, we have another, more advanced part of the brain that allows humans to think, reason, make decisions, and plan.  Therefore, with practice, we can be aware of when the emotional center of the brain launches into its overwhelming fear-mongering.  We further have the capacity to choose whether or not we believe those negative stories, and we can also plan how to treat those thoughts when they do occur.  Furthermore, we can take daily actions to further reduce the rumbling rocky voices which are most often a product of fear . . . fear of failure, fear of success, fear of change, and fear of the unknown

“Remove the rock from your shoe rather than learn to limp comfortably.”–Stephen C. Paul

One of the best pieces of advice an acquaintance once shared with me:  “Stop yelling at yourself.”  She went on to ask if I would yell at my own daughter the way I think about myself.  When I said, no, she simply encouraged me to “play nice,” call fear by its rightful name, and then take steps to calm it down as you would with your own child.  

Many of the actions that can be taken to reduce negative/anxious thinking are not new suggestions.  Deep breathing, exercise, or simply walking away from a stressful situation for a specific time period are all actually quite helpful.  Other suggestions include: 

*Remind yourself of your past successes.

*Take small steps towards learning a new task. 

*Be willing to ask for help to reduce or understand new/heavy workloads.

*Talk to a trusted friend or family member–sometimes just naming your fears begins to tame them. 

*Write your problem on a piece of paper–dump it all, like you’re emptying your brain of pea gravel. The act of writing slows down the thoughts, relaxes your brains, and allows you to see things differently.  I’ve literally taken that written problem, slipped it under my pillow at night, and literally slept on it.  It never fails to surprise me how a little faith and trust that a solution will be found allows it to gradually unfold.  

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*Learn to nurture and protect your thoughts. 

*Cultivate affirmative thoughts.

*Take preemptive action if you know certain situations trigger a strong emotional reaction. 

*Be gentle and kind with yourself. 

If you begin to notice your brain is launching into story mode, each time a thought attempts to pop into your head, try to mentally swipe it away like a fly at a picnic before it can grow.

The point is, just because you think something, doesn’t mean it’s true.  Sometimes the solution is as simple as shaking out rocks.  I’m not saying it’s easy; it’s not.  Nonetheless, it is worth remembering that emotions come and go, like ever changing weather, but they don’t have to permanently hijack your brain.  

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