How to calm your mind

Photo by Prasanth Inturi on

As scientists and women in STEM, we highly rely on our mind and cognitive abilities for generating ideas, planning experiments, analysing data and writing things up. Thinking is great when it comes to problem solving (e.g. repair a bike). But is it equally useful when it comes to emotional challenges?

We are most likely the only species on Earth being able to deliberate on the past and the future. We can extensively stick to thoughts so that our sleep gets robbed. This kind of thinking is mostly related to emotional questions (“Why is he not calling back?” or “What did I do wrong…”). If the thought loops do not end, we risk to develop a psychological crisis. There is an amount of thinking that is no longer beneficial and serving us, but starts to be detrimental if we get too attached, most likely a side-effect of our cognitive abilities and intelligence. Or because the brain is evolutionary hard-wired to solve big problems such as “How does my offspring survive” or “How do escape from the saber-toothed tiger”, and is not challenged enough in modern societies after the invention of supermarkets, delivery services and canteens and the abolishment of saber-toothed tigers and other acute life-threatening events. If there are no challenges and you also don’t like parachuting, the brain will eventually create some wannabe threats aka “Why has my neighbour a bigger car than I do” or “Why has XYZ published more papers in shorter time periods than I did?” While I was in therapy for a depression, a wise woman once said to me: “Perhaps you should let your creativity out somewhere else, otherwise your brains starts being too creative”. Can’t tell you how useful that was, big aha moment for me.

So everyone knows this thinking machine in our heads. It’s talking most of the time, whatever we do, taking a shower, going to work…it always has something to tell or comment, and there is honestly a lot of bullshit in between. But here is the point: you are able to observe these thoughts and listen to them, that means the thoughts/thinking machine cannot be identical to you. It is a part of you, like your leg or chin, but it is not you. This is a first and very important point to accept: you are not your mind or the voice in your head and therefore you are allowed to take a step back from it. Second, you can decide not to take the advice and believe everything that is thrown at your from your inner voice. You can sort out what sounds reasonable and what is just useless. For instance, if the brain speaks: “you are sooo unproductive, you are a worthless piece of crap”, you can just refuse to believe what has been said and accept that you have a less productive day than normal and that this does not define your worth and there will be better days. Let the voice talk to the hand… At some point, the voice gets calmer and ‘gives up’ if you no longer consider taking all stupid advices and threads for starting thought loops. Another benefit: you stop living (with your thoughts) in the past and the future and keep them in the present moment.

This is also when meditation comes into play. Meditation usually gets promoted as stress-relieving super remedy and despite the fact that lots of hyped trends do not keep their promises … yes.. I must agree here, meditation has a lot of worth. Learning to observe your thoughts and to not get too involved with them is key to silence the thinking machine. And after a while and some practice, it helps you to step back from lots of other unpleasant things (anger, thought loops, self-critisism, impulsive reactions etc.). I practiced meditation in my therapy but it took me a year to really understand its value and to overcome my inner temptation and build an everyday routine of 15 min of meditation, and it served my brain health a lot!!! The drawback is that it is really hard to get started and develop a routine like with most things that have no immediate benefits (good nutrition, sports etc.). It’s still highly recommended and hopefully you found this text inspiring to get started!

Photo by Shiva Smyth on

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