“I can’t turn off my brain. I’m just thinking all the time!”

Lots of my patients tell me something to that effect. Usually they are also the ones who suffer from insomnia, anxiety, or both.

Many of them belong to a typical American workplace, filled with myriad distractions, high pressure, noise, and multitasking, leading to difficulty with focus and a sense of overwhelm.

Most of them suffer from stress-related physiologic changes.

It’s true that mental chatter tends to improve when these underlying conditions are addressed—more sleep, better adrenal function, and balanced hormones and neurotransmitters certainly make a big difference. But what can you do in the moment, when your thoughts are going a mile a minute and you can’t seem to get them under control?

Meditation to Calm Mental Chatter

Meditation involves focusing your awareness on a central point or idea. Guided meditations will teach beginners to focus on the breath, to tune into their bodies, or to focus on a particular idea. Some forms of meditation focus on a particular mantra, usually one that directly addresses the source of stress, if there is one. Most beginners require some sort of focal point, because without direction, the mind is too restless and undisciplined to remain silent and still for long. But with a focal point, though thoughts will still come and go, in a few minutes to half an hour or so, most people will find that the thoughts begin to subside.

Start Small

If you find your thoughts restlessly flitting from one idea to the next, even a few minutes of meditation at a time will help. On your lunch break, or a study break, first thing in the morning or last thing at night, set aside five minutes to start. If you’re an exceptionally disciplined beginner (enough to make yourself do this), you can set a stopwatch and count your breathing: sit up straight, close your eyes, and breathe such that your belly expands, in to the count of 8 and out to the count of 8. Thoughts will probably continue to come during this process, and that’s okay. Don’t fight them. Just gently bring your thoughts back to the focal point of your breath. (Resistance only breeds frustration, which is the opposite of what you want.)

If you’re less disciplined and know you’ll give up before the five minutes is over, then I’d recommend a guided meditation. There are a number of free podcasts you can use to help guide you. Just type in “meditation” into iTunes and choose the one that you like.

If your thoughts are simply disjointed but not necessarily about anything, a few minutes is probably all you will need to find at least some relief from the mental chatter. But if you’re actively anxious about something in particular, I’d recommend a longer meditation, and on the subject that’s bothering you. For instance, if your struggle is with perfectionism, try a mantra such as “I love and accept myself exactly as I am.” If your struggle is with fear, you can try a general mantra for peace such as “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10)… or another mantra that more specifically addresses the issues you are afraid of.

Benefits of Meditation

People who can’t turn off their brains are also frequently high achievers who place a premium on productivity. If this is you, consider this: a calm, quiet mind is a more effective mind. Rather than face the overwhelm that comes from too many tasks to accomplish in too little time and an inability to prioritize them, a quiet mind automatically becomes more decisive and focused. Counterintuitive thought it may seem, the more you prioritize (and schedule time for) your mental health, the more productive (not to mention happier!) you will actually become.

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