David Wray

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Personal Leadership: Escape Your Own Head

Maxine cartoon seeking to escape from herself
Credit: John Wagner, Hallmark

Why would you need to escape your own head?

Many of us get stuck in our minds, some more than others but does that mean you need to escape your own head? It’s liberating to ponder life and self-reflect, however, the issue is that many of our thoughts are a little downbeat. For example, when we’re strolling through our thoughts (aka “being in our own head”) we typically drift. We think about chores, payments owing, a recent argument with a loved one, a work peer that took credit for our work, or why we reacted a particular way to something. In these drifting moments, the brain’s Default Network engages. This means that our brains literally default to this worried basis of thinking.

Killingsworth and Gilbert (2010) conducted an empirical study through an iPhone app. They used the data to create a large database of real-time reports of thoughts, feelings, and actions of a wide range of people as they completed their daily activities. They found that the Default Network held true so much so that they titled their work “A wandering mind is an unhappy mind”.

So how do we escape our own heads and return back to the present moment?

Setting the stage for a reset

Dani is in a meeting and her peer, Pietro, who has just taken credit for her breakthrough idea and presented it as his own. Dani’s mind races, emotions build, and thoughts quickly turn a little darker. She is so upset that she is at a loss for words. The meeting ends and she returns to her desk, her mind still wandering and getting more and more negative.

Dani knows that she needs to snap herself out of the vortex she is in but isn’t sure how to do that.

Six ways to escape your own head

There are several techniques that can interrupt thinking patterns. Some work more quickly and effectively than others, depending on the circumstances.

Self-coaching techniques

  1. Regain Control: one of the best ways to take control of the situation is to physically and mentally slow down. Slow down your speaking speed, lower your tone, slow your thoughts, slow your whole pace and focus on the moment in front of you. This small series of actions is impactful almost immediately because it basically interrupts the brain circuit and allows a reset.
  2. Tackle it head-on: Connect with your inner voice(s). Why? Doing so allows you to process and move on from it. In reality, most individuals, depending on your generation, grew up with the idea that it’s better to suppress feelings than to talk about them. Of course, this philosophy has long since been debunked. It is one of the most destructive approaches to hold onto because thoughts progressively spin around without resolution. Vocalizing them aloud with friends, or someone you trust is an effective way to let them go.
  3. Turn off the “me” button: Mediation is backed by numerous studies: Princeton, UCLA, Harvard, Standford, Yale, and University Massachusetts, for instance. These studies show the effects of meditation on brain structure and function. In particular, it appears to turn off the “me” brain, the active centre during reflective self-thinking. Interestingly, expert meditators’ brains activate areas involved in self-monitoring. Perhaps suggesting they are always alert for me-centered thoughts, being ready to respond quickly where needed.

Redirecting your focus 

  • Focus on another person: A 2013 University of Exeter study notes that volunteering for various causes increases well-being and life satisfaction over those that don’t. This is important because it reinforces that focusing on something outside yourself creates greater resiliency. The simple gesture of asking someone if they need to talk elevates their (and your) feelings.
  • Be a storyteller: Put yourself in the shoes of a storyteller and place pieces into a general picture (framework), rather than obsessing with each detail. Self-reflection is a closed system, so we depend on input from others to grow past where we are now. Doing so takes us out of ourselves and constructively refocuses our energy outward.
  • Practice mindfulness: Another way to jump outside of your own thinking is with a few minutes of mindfulness. Do this when you notice yourself getting stuck. If thought is spinning around in your head, work to stop and investigate it. (Here’s a helpful recap on that.) Pay attention to how it feels, what started it, and how you’re physically responding (breathing, heart rate, gut responses, etc.). It helps to remember that thoughts don’t have to be believed. They come and go within our minds like the wind. Acknowledging a thought without judgment and then letting it go puts us in a good place. Letting go, of course, is the challenging bit but with practice, happens to allow us to regain control over our thoughts (or conversely, thoughts lose their power over us).

Applying the techniques in practice

Equipped with tools, let’s go back to Dani and assess what actions she could take:

  • Calming her racing mind by slowing her speech, lowering her tone and slowing down her breathing – this simple act allows Dani to regain control of her thinking in the moment.
  • Dani can turn off the “me” button by remembering that Pietro’s actions are not about Dani or her capabilities – they are reflective of his behaviour and character. She could quietly talk herself into a meditative mindset during these moments.
  • Dani can practice mindfulness by paying attention to how it feels in the moment, what started it, and how she’s physically responding. She can also utilize mindfulness techniques to stop it and then later assess it further to prevent a repeat.

Our mind is a pretty amazing space but when it gets to the point of being too much, it helps to remember how to take a break from your thoughts.

Your turn

Sign in to the Community Member Section or comment below to share your views, tips, and tricks on how you get out of your head and achieve more balanced thinking.

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