For many people who struggle with executive dysfunction, part of the problem is that their brain is chaotic. Thoughts and feelings are all over the place and they can’t find the focus they need to manage their time, prioritize tasks, etc. Learning to instill inner calm will help ease your mind so you can focus and change your habits.
Understanding Brain Science
You know that I’m not a scientist or a doctor, but in learning to be a Special Ed teacher and executive functions coach, I have consumed a lot of information about the brain and how it works. One thing that many people don’t think about is that they can learn to control their brains. Metacognition is one of the executive function skills I work on with clients.
Metacognition is a fancy word for understanding your own thought processes. Before you make changes, you have to understand where you’re starting from. This is why I spend time talking about mindset.
Fight, Flight, or Freeze
Most people only think about the first two in response to stressful situations—you hear it all the time: Fight or Flight. But some people also freeze. It’s knowing how your body instinctively reacts to a stressful or scary situation. Do you take action (fight)? Do you get away as fast as you can (flight)? Or do you stand still reflecting little to no reaction (freeze)?
You can’t control your instinctive response, but you can take a moment and ask yourself why you have this response.
I grew up with an abusive alcoholic. When I was young, my reaction was always freeze. I learned that you don’t let him see you cry. Let him rant and throw things and if you’re just quiet, it will die down.
By the time I was a teenager, I turned toward fight. Any time he said anything to me, I would goad him because I was so filled with anger. As an adult, when faced with conflict, I still freeze for a moment. Then I reframe my thoughts so I can proceed accordingly. It’s a choice I make, and one that has taken lots of practice.
Detach from Emotion
I’m not saying that you shouldn’t feel things. Emotions aren’t bad. But in order to instill calm in your mind, you need to recognize what you’re feeling and why you’re feeling it. That requires a level of objectivity. Don’t dismiss how you feel; just understand the reasons behind those emotions.
I’ve mentioned a few different breathing exercises in previous posts. You might even be tired of me telling you to just breathe. And I agree that in the moment of being upset or spiraling in panic, having someone tell you to breathe will piss you the fuck off.
That’s why it’s important to train yourself with methods when you’re not in an extreme situation. Practice when you’re faced with something that’s a little stressful but not overwhelming. If you know what works for you, it will become default and you’ll remind yourself to breathe instead of getting mad at someone else for telling you to breathe.
Breathing is important because when we’re stressed—especially when fight, flight, or freeze kicks in—sometimes we get so upset that we forget to breathe. Or breathe too heavily. Taking control of your breaths will instill calm before things get out of hand.
Calming a Chaotic Mind
Sometimes, it’s not stressful situations that add chaos, but our own minds that can overwhelm us. In my experience, neurodivergent people experience this a lot. They have a hard time “turning off their brain.”
If you have ADHD, your brain is often filled with tons of ideas about things you want to do or need to keep track of or things you’re afraid of forgetting. And sometimes it’s random bits of things that flash in your head that you want to investigate that take you down a rabbit hole of more ideas.
If you have anxiety, sometimes your brain replays interactions you’ve had with others and you try to figure out how you screwed up or what you could’ve improved. Or maybe you’re worrying about other things in your life or the state of the world.
None of these things is inherently bad. It only becomes an issue when it prevents you from doing the things you need to do. If you can’t fall asleep at night or you can’t get started on a project and you’ll miss your deadline, your chaotic mind might need to be calmed.
Learning to calm your mind involves relieving some stress or confusion. Here are 5 tips to help you calm your mind and instill inner calm:
1. Specific Tasks
You want your mind to be busy but not overwhelmed. If you have nothing specific to focus on, your brain spirals all over. You also don’t want to have a never-ending to-do list. Choose 3-5 things that you need to accomplish every day. Make sure the tasks are varied and at least one thing is something you enjoy. Being specific will help keep your brain focused without too much stress.
2. Help Others
Offering to help someone else will often calm your brain. Your focus is on someone else and not your problems or stress. Plus, it feels good to help someone. Just be careful that you don’t say yes to everything and everyone because too many obligations will ruin the positive effects
Choose something creative to do because it will engage and exercise parts of the brain you might not normally use. The way you focus on knitting a hat or writing a poem or even coloring in a coloring book is different than the way you concentrate on your day-to-day jobs and tasks. Give your brain that break.
You know I talk about self-care quite a bit because I know that as mothers, we usually suck at it. But like it or not, your physical well-being is tied closely to your mental well-being. Make sure you eat and sleep and maybe get some exercise. Do the things that will re-energize your body and your mind will follow.
This is a rough one for me because I am a true introvert. If I have to people for any length of time, I mostly dread it—not because I don’t enjoy it but because it can be so draining. But here’s the thing: as much as I am perfectly content to stay by myself in my office and do my thing, we are social creatures.
Connecting with other people feeds parts of your brain that work and TV and hobbies can’t. You don’t have to sign on for going to a crowded club (the horrors! – unless, of course, that’s your jam). You can choose something as simple as coffee with a friend. Social connections can help calm your brain and give you inner calm.
Bonus Calming Methods
If I were to ask most people how to instill inner calm in their lives, they would probably come up with the obvious selections: meditate, go for a walk, quiet music, etc. For some neurodiverse people, those things are more stressful because of the chaos in their minds. They get frustrated that when they try to meditate their brain won’t be quiet. Then they feel like a failure, which adds more stress.
So, here are some not-so-obvious ways you can instill calm:
- Turn your phone off—Whew! I know for some of you, this will be a big one. Maybe you want to start with some of the other methods. But silencing your phone can give you a break from the negativity of social media and the constant go-go-go and immediate attention that we feel we have to give everything.
- Mindful eating—Mindfulness in general is a good move. It’s about being present in the moment and really taking in what’s happening around us. Mindful eating is starting small. Instead of just wolfing down your meal, take the time to really taste and savor what you have. Focus on the flavors and textures.
- Watch TV—Yes, I know TV gets a bad rap for rotting our brains. For me, TV has always been a calming escape (even if I was watching something like Criminal Minds). You don’t want to curl up and binge a 14-season show without ever getting off the couch. That’s not healthy either. But watching something you’re familiar with, especially an old favorite, is relaxing. For many people who have anxiety, rewatching old shows is comforting because they know how it ends and how everything works out. It’s an escape from stress.
- Menial tasks—Boring things are just that—boring. Doing the laundry, washing dishes, and cleaning the stove are not tasks too many of us get excited about. Because these things don’t take a lot of mental power, they give your brain a break. They’re things you can do on autopilot, which makes them less stressful.
When searching for ways to instill inner calm, you might need to employ multiple methods. Some will work in certain situations better than others. You need to build a toolbox (or arsenal) of things to employ when the chaos of your brain is out of control. It will paralyze you and prevent you from functioning.