can't pin me down

Using your brain for both: When anxiety and your work live in the same brain - a #MindfulPhD post!


On one of my more dramatic days, I complained to my therapist that I hated that I had to have anxiety happening in the same brain where my work was expected to go on. 

"It seems like too much to process at once! How dare I have to battle my anxiety WHILE ALSO creating new knowledge!!!!!" 

The reality, she gently pointed out, is that everyone has to do many things in their brain at once. Anxiety thought patterns, and the bodily responses that go along with them, run in parallel with all kinds of work, play, rest, and creation. That's just the way it works.

But in my defense, it can feel overwhelming when your primary task for the day is to input a bunch of information, or draw connections between information sources, or translate your thoughts into language and your anxiety is kicked up at the same time. Other tasks (washing the dishes! tiling a back splash! walking the dog!) have a more concrete presence in the world for you to focus on and thus, you have several ways to know if you're doing it well. When you're reading, writing, or crafting an argument, you just have your thoughts. And when your thoughts are also of an anxious flavor, it can be difficult to pull the tangles apart. 

So, here are a few of the things I do to help that "busy brain" feeling - I can't always make the anxiety stop (although my tool belt also includes: talk therapy, medication when the conditions are right, exercise, sleep) but I can make things a little bit more concrete, making it just a tiny bit easier to be mindful. 

  • Make your anxiety thought process more visible. Sometimes, this means doing a word dump where I pull out my journal or a blank word processing document and just write out the contents of my brain. It can be a little bit overwhelming to see the contents of your anxiety thoughts spilled out onto the page, but seeing the thoughts for what they are can help bring them back down to size (they're just thoughts!) and help you combat any misinformation you might be giving yourself. 
  • Make your work thought process a little more visible. Sometimes when my mind is spinning, I make an extra effort to make the work thinking more concrete. I make a mind map, or I start a new document where I write out what I know so far. Taking notes can definitely help keep me focused if I'm reading, or highlighting or underlining. Anything I can do to connect the abstract process I'm working on to a concrete action can help to ground me. 
  • Have some scripts ready. I like to talk back to my anxiety, literally speaking words in my head or out loud, to counteract some of the feeling of spiraling. Here are a list of some of my standard responses to anxious thoughts while I'm writing - please know that I can repeat these MANY times an hour, but acknowledging the anxious thoughts rather than pushing past them, hoping they go away, usually is more effective for me. 
    • Thank you for your input, brain. 
    • We will decide if the work is quality when it is finished/on the page. 
    • I am working at the pace that I can work. 
    • Focus is not an objectively measured state - I will measure my work by the tasks I complete, not how easily I felt I completed them. 
    • That is an anxious thought.
  • Add in a little movement. When my anxiety is high, it often can feel like I have a lot of extra energy in my limbs/torso/head, neck, and shoulders. Moving my body can help to disperse that feeling, even if it doesn't shift the anxiety itself. I love to do inversions (downward facing dog, folding in half to touch my toes, or sitting with my legs up the wall) or put on some jams and have a mini dance party. Regular exercise also helps!