I used to spend much of my time worrying about the future and mulling over things that happened in the past. Mind-body syndrome symptoms such as chronic pelvic pain, interstitial cystitis and vulvodynia are often the result of the body being in the fight, flight or freeze response most of the time. Worrying, self-criticism, and focusing on what was wrong or what could be better contributed to the stress in my body and only made my pain worse.
The Resting Mind’s Default State is Active
Turns out, neuroscientists now know that at rest, when we’re not focused on a specific activity, our minds automatically go into an active default mode. It mulls over what’s wrong and what could be better. Often, this gets us in the mind loop of the “worst case scenario.” Sometimes this default mode is helpful, but most of the time it just creates more suffering. When the mind is busy thinking and the body is at rest, the body still responds with subtle muscle activity, making for a less than restorative experience overall.
Health Psychologist Kelly McGonigal, in “The Neuroscience of Change” Sounds True audio course, discusses this default mindset activity. When the brain is at “rest” and not engaged in specific tasks, its default state actually becomes much more active with inner chatter and distractions.
The default state automatically goes to these four main mental activities:
- Inner commentary – creating an opinion on the present moment and looking for what is wrong and what can be improved in a type of alternate reality.
- Time traveling – thinking about the past or the future, imagined scenarios, inner fantasy.
- Self Referential processing – Creating a sense of self – who you are, “I am the person who ____, I like this and I don’t like that, other people should treat me a certain way because of who I am.” It defines your identity, also known as ego. This solid rigid sense of self distances you from others and the present moment.
- Social cognition – Thinking about others, what they think about you, what you think about them, looking at yourself in relationship to others, comparing yourself to others.
Your Mind Automatically Goes to its Most Popular Critical Stories.
This default state of the mind is not helpful most of the time and just causes more suffering. If you observe yourself for a while, you’ll notice your mind’s most popular critical stories. One of mine began in childhood. When family members weren’t home when I expected them I would go to the “killed in a car accident” story. More recently, since my husband is a sport fisherman and often goes out on the ocean in his small boat, my mind goes to the “drowned in a boat accident” story when he is later than I expect. I start planning how I’m going to spend the life insurance money and how I’m going to survive without him.
The “killed in an accident” story has driven me almost crazy over the years and if I let it get the better of me, it makes for an unpleasant experience of muscle tension in my body, anxiety, restlessness, and trouble focusing. I can’t relax and enjoy myself in the moment until the person arrives or I hear from them. It feeds right into habitual muscle tension in my body and flares up my pain.
Deliberately Think About The Best Case Scenario Instead.
Now, when I catch myself in this story, I either tell my mind to stop or I imagine the “Best Case Scenario.” I imagine that my husband is having a great time. He just forgot to call me, his cell phone is off, he had a change of plans, or he’s talking to somebody and will be home safely soon. I also let go of what time I think he should be home by and give him way more time to get home before I freak out. And I’ve never had to freak out. I have learned to take charge of my mind. It doesn’t get to misbehave any more.
Trusting My Future Self
Focusing back on the present moment and how I am feeling in my body also gets me out of the worry mode and reassures me that I’m okay right now. I give myself permission not to worry and to be patient until my loved one comes home. I give myself permission not to stress until I get notified about the bad thing happening. I trust that my future self will know what to do if and when the bad thing happens. And the bad thing hasn’t happened yet. In the mean time I get to enjoy the moment without worrying. Which makes for a much more pleasant experience including a more relaxed body and mind.