How to get out of your head and focus

27 April 2021

Pushing away intrusive throughs is a hard task and one that many of us struggle with. Cognitive Behavioural Therapist Liane Thakur from Student Psychological and Counselling Services talks us through some ways to get out of your head and focus.

Man sitting on sofa looks at laptop

Have you ever felt just stuck in your head, with unhelpful thoughts just swirling around, getting in your way of moving forward and focusing on the task at hand? Yeah, me too. It’s very frustrating. And yet, there are some exercises which you may be able to use, that will help, depending on the situation you find yourself in.

Our brains are constantly trying to problem solve situations that bring us anxiety, frustration and fear. It doesn’t know that it’s not a bear coming at us that could kill us. That part of our brain that deals with fight, flight or freeze responses will even see a 1000-word paper as dangerous. Unfortunately, the messages it sends tend to be about short-term solutions for those feelings (“It’s okay, you can do it tomorrow”). And sometimes, our brains send messages that once worked but are now inhibiting (for example, “This is so tough” may have once made us work harder but now makes us want to hide in bed). We must figure out ways to deal with those currently unhelpful thoughts so that we can do what is best for us, in the short- AND long-term.

Guy Winch, in his Ted Talk, “How to Turn Off Work Thoughts During Your Free Time”, speaks of taking those thoughts and posing it as a problem to solve. For example, if you are getting overwhelmed by all the work you have, and your brain is saying, “There’s no way I’m going to get it done”, you can instead ask yourself, “Can I problem solve this?”. Perhaps it means breaking tasks down into small bits or figuring out a schedule. And once you’ve figured out a solution, well, then you don’t have to worry about that thought. But, Liane, my brain keeps sending that thought over and over. What do I do? Well, dear reader, one idea is to have a lovely conversation with your brain. “Hey brain, thanks for trying to get me motivated to do work, but I already dealt with this thought.” And then let it go.

Other things that have worked for my clients, and myself, have included writing down and leaving thoughts behind in a notebook, checking off the thought every time it comes up, and then turning back to what you are trying to do. If you struggle to get yourself started, give yourself permission to just do the activity for 5 minutes and then you can stop. At least it’s 5 minutes more than before. Or try doing it badly. I had a client write the worst possible paragraph she could start off her thesis. She found out just how hard it is to write really badly and could move forward more easily (as it could only get better). For those with a visual mind, imagine the part of your brain that sends you unhelpful and critical thoughts as being a separate entity from you (and if we look at the brain, in some ways, it actually is). Make it a person or a character who is sitting on your shoulder like a devil telling you all the bad things. Acknowledge what they’ve said and then knock them off your shoulder. How dare they tell you that you aren’t good enough! (I’ll be honest, I use a politician I don’t like as my critical voice, so that I can imagine them tumbling off my shoulder. Can’t feel anxious when I’m giggling.)

Dealing with persistent and intrusive thoughts is tough to do, especially if it’s something that’s been going on for a while. We have gotten so many messages from our past experiences, so they feel so real and immediate. Yet, even if you believe what your brain is telling you is true, is that “truth” actually helping you? If you think it’s probably hindering your progress, then it’s worth trying to make a change. Just the act of asking yourself, “Is this helpful?” can sometimes be enough.

Other resources you can check out:

The Confidence Gap or The Happiness Trap by Russ Harris

Mind Over Mood: Change How You Feel by Changing the Way You Think by Denis Greenberger & Christine Padesky

Overcoming Anxiety by Helen Kennerley

Liane Thakur, Cognitive Behavioural Therapist, Student Counselling and Psychological Services