You know the feeling – you can’t sleep, your mind is whirling, thoughts going around and around like clothes in a washing machine. You know it doesn’t matter, that you can’t do anything now (it’s 3am!), but you can’t stop these crazy thoughts whirling away in your head.
We're all still lizards and apes
Our brains are formed of three stages in our evolutionary development - in the centre, our simple lizard survival system (limbic), then the emotional and social ape (mammalian), and finally the outer layer, the intelligent human (pre-frontal cortex). These layers are all active, and often in conflict. This is why our brains are both remarkable and complex, brilliant and frustrating.
The survival system
Our bodies are highly tuned to the environment to detect predators, and anything can set off our internal alarm system (the amygdala) – a shadow, a strange sound or the look in someone's eye, fear of the unknown or our own feelings. Once the amygdala is triggered, our ancient survival system kicks in and our rational pre-frontal cortex is switched off.
In response to threat, our body naturally prepares its physical defence responses - fight, flight, freeze, play dead or submit, or completely shut down (think of blackouts). Freezing is perfect when trying to escape detection from a T-Rex, which according to the film Jurassic Park, responds to movement - not so helpful when you have to give an important speech. A huge surge of anger propelled by fear might be what you need to smash down a door and escape a sinking ship, but not if you are at a drinks party discussing Brexit. Having a burst of adrenalin that enables you to run away or perform actions of strength to save your life is fantastic - unless you are stuck on a tube, or lying in bed wondering why you are feeling petrified and unable to do anything to make the feeling go away. You so feel vulnerable, how can you relax and stop looking around for signs of danger? You are on high alert, waiting for the ceiling to fall down, looking for the tiniest cracks.
The sense of being unable to control your feelings makes you more afraid, more angry with yourself, more frustrated, all of which feeds your tension and fear. Your emotions take control, hence the childlike, helpless feeling. Your thoughts, instead of adult and sensible, are anxiety producing.
I can't do this, I am useless, no-one will like me... (You will have your own unique branch to beat yourself with. Mine is I will fail, I always fail, because I am such a failure - this kicks in even when I can't find my glasses!).
Your mind will the leaf through the entire photo album of your life for examples of your failure or uselessness, or of people not liking you. It will drag a fine toothcomb through conversations that occured in the past week, or years ago. It will imagine future scenarios in which your same foolish mistakes are repeated endlessly, although you will keep relaying them, hoping for a different outcome.
However, with a little patience, we can get our brains back in the driver’s seat.
What can we do?
Body: Breathe Deeply
If you can convince your body, rather than your mind, there is no immediate danger, then your body will slow down, and your mind will follow. Breathing out activates our self-soothing system that calms our survival system. At that point, the kindest solution might be: get some sleep, and we will put aside some time to think about it in the morning.
Some people find counting each in and out breath slows the heartbeat and releases tension – a longer out-breath slows down a rapid heart beat which may be triggering the whirring thoughts – while counting distracts from the thoughts and engages the more rational part of the brain. Sort of like counting sheep.
Breathe deep into your belly. As you breathe in count to three, and out slowly to five. Do this a few times and when you feel calmer, try and breathe in for five counts and out for seven. It’s really good to practise this and other breathing techniques when you feel calm in the day; it will then become second nature, a go-to response that will replace the whirring thoughts and anxiety.
You can try a sleep meditation online: Youtube carry many, or download apps such as insight timer (free), buddhify or headspace (£8.99 a month).
Mind: Activate your compassion system
“If you were to meet your critical voice at a party, you would assume he was really damaged. And you would be right.”
We’ve talked about the survival system triggered by fear and fed by anxiety and the slowing-down soothing system. There is also a compassion system that can help if you have a strong critical voice. This is not a pleasant part of ourselves, but it can be very persuasive and persistent. You know the saying, we can be our own worst critics? In some cases, our own self-criticism can boarder on abuse. As author Ruby Wax says, we wouldn’t talk to our dog the way we talk to ourselves.
Our critical voice is part of our security system: think of the Sergeant Major yelling abuse at his soldiers to make them tougher. But it is not helpful or useful, in fact it is making things worse. It can undermine our self-confidence to the point where we believe we can’t cope with anything, that we are terrible people. It is very black and white: if you make a mistake, people will die or hate you; if you don’t lose weight, you won’t be loved. Really? Is that true?
It may help instead to develop a compassionate, nurturing voice, one that can truthfully list your talents, skills, and examples of where you are loved – we say ‘truthfully’ as it is important to believe this voice over the critical one, which is exaggerating and lying at best. This part of you doesn’t want to punish you or create internal conflict but ease your suffering.
Ask yourself: what would your best friend say to you right now? Or what would you say to your best friend?
Heart: Embrace your fear... literally, give yourself a hug
Finally, don’t fight the whirring thoughts. Let them happen. Sit with them, ride them through. If you can, step back and work out what they are saying. Write down the main message you think you are getting from them and look at it closely. Perhaps ask yourself where these beliefs come from. Who else in your families has anxious thoughts? Who or what in your past has undermined your sense of safety? A bully? A former partner? A traumatic incident?
If we feel afraid about something and our response feels over-the-top, it is often because it reminds us of a previous bad experience that didn’t end well, and perhaps left us hurt and wounded. We become frightened and need compassion.
We also need reassurance that this situation is different, or that we are older and wiser, before we can think clearly and calmly and recognise that a) everyone makes mistakes all the time, b) no one is perfect and c) we are perfectly capable of coping, of doing the best we can in the circumstances.
Picture your whirling thoughts as scared children, because that is often where they come from. Activate your calm, nurturing and compassionate self that can soothe the child. Then the rational, grown-up part can get back into the driver seat and deal with the real situation.