“Calm your mind. Life becomes much easier when you keep your mind at peace.” ~Unknown
Let me start with a confession.
If I’m honest with you, even just writing these words actually makes me feel kind of uncomfortable.
But I’m going to say it because it’s true, and some of you reading this are going to realize that on some level you probably share the same feeling.
I hate meditation.
Now, let me do the obligatory defend-the-shocking-thing-I-just-said.
I mean, to be more specific, some days I hate meditation.
Most of the time, I love it. I really love it. It’s had the most positive influence of anything in my entire life. But so have my family, and some days… just joking. Look, normally meditation makes me feel on top of the world. I’m bursting with gratitude, and even the idea of stress can seem to be so far away.
But on other days, I do also kind of hate it. Actually, hate is too strong, let me say I really dislike it. I’m sure some of you can relate.
But there’s a reason we feel this way at times: exhaustion.
About six months ago, my meditation practice had been going well. I was feeling incredibly content, just with life in general. But after a couple of weeks of travel, difficulties with work, and family commitments, I found myself tired, very tired. And my mind started racing a lot more than it had been.
Mentally, I felt like I had lost my inner calm. Like I’d taken one step forward and two steps back.
So I tried to do what I always do. Meditate.
But for a couple of weeks, I was approaching the practice with completely the wrong attitude. I started trying to use meditation as my medication, and it had the opposite intended effect. It just wouldn’t work! I actually started to get completely annoyed with the whole thing.
So I tried harder, and harder, and harder. Every day I would sit down to meditate, only to leave the session feeling even more tired than when I had started.
It was at this point that I decided to shift my focus to other ways to calm my mind, at least until I had more energy.
And I realized a few very important things.
Firstly, I realized that I truly am in love with meditation. Even when I ‘hated’ it, I still wanted to practice consistently, and followed through with it.
But I also understood that in times of stress, we can sometimes start to resent things we love. I understood that although I’ve barely missed a day of meditation in the last couple of years, I’m still a human being in a human body and I’m going to have days where I feel like I’m back where I started.
I also came to realize that a calm mind is a focused mind, and a tired mind doesn’t have the resources to stay focused.
It’s an unfortunate reality of the human brain that the more fatigued we are, the more our thoughts start to race. Anxiety and tiredness work on a feedback loop. So when you’re struggling with one, it’s inevitable that you’re going to have problems with the other.
While meditation is the most effective way to calm your mind, it’s not an option when you’re incredibly tired! There is another way to do this, which is by doing things that naturally focus your mind outside of yourself and guide your brain to release calming neurochemicals.
The following five ways to calm your mind don’t require as much mental energy as meditation. And in the short term, they have the same effect on our mood.
1. Do something complex (but not too difficult).
The default mode network (DMN) is the part of the brain that is associated with reflections about yourself. Thoughts like: “Why do I feel lazy today?” “Should I text John back now or later?” “I’m starting to get hungry, maybe I should get a snack.” Meditation researchers call this “mind-wandering.” It takes up a huge portion of our waking life.
When we’re tired or anxious, our minds wander more than usual, which makes us more tired and anxious.
There are two commonly used ways we can consistently quiet the DMN. The first is meditation; the second is engaging in a complex task. (In fact, mindfulness coloring books are effective because of task complexity as well mindfulness.)
You can pick something you regularly do, like drawing, sports, creative writing, or a work project and just increase the difficulty slightly. With drawing, for example, you can try and draw something that is more of a challenge, or with sports or writing, you can try setting a timer and complete a task in a limited time period.
2. Do something for someone else.
This is another way we can get out of our own heads when exhaustion starts to set in. Obviously, you don’t want to do anything too strenuous, but even doing simple things, when focusing on others, can quiet a racing mind.
You can make it a habit to contact someone that you feel may need it, or you can spend some time volunteering or building something that you think can help others. Focusing on the well-being of the community can also give us purpose and meaning, which can be very reinvigorating.
3. Do something fun and creative.
When we are trying too hard to feel better all the effort can defeat the purpose and be kind of damaging. Doing something fun can help us break the cycle. This is because dopamine has a re-energizing effect on the nervous system and by engaging in play and creativity, we recharge our depleted energy reserves.
Sometimes for example, I like to do free-writing mind maps. Essentially you set a timer for fifteen minutes and just let all your thoughts out on paper, and create mind maps for how they relate to each other. You can do this as a mindfulness exercise or just to express any creative ideas you have. This helps you feel like your thoughts are organized and focused and not scattered and distracted.
Trying to do anything artistic like painting, origami, or even lego (if you have kids) can also be effective. Fortunately, YouTube has millions of tutorials if you want to learn something new.
4. Get some exercise and take a long sleep.
Exercise may seem counter-productive when you’re tired, but when we’re mentally exhausted, it can sometimes start to mess with our sleep. This varies slightly depending on each individual, but is largely because exhaustion and anxiety impact our ability to wind down before bed, which is a critical part of good quality sleep. Unconscious worries can also wake us in the night and stop us from getting into the deep states we need.
By exercising, eating a big and healthy meal, and taking a long sleep, you can get the restorative effects that you need. This isn’t an invitation to oversleep, but if it’s been a while since you got some deep rest, it could be exactly what you need. It’s also useful to create a pre-sleep ritual that involves calming down and not looking at any screens for two to three hours before sleeping.
5. Do something social.
This goes for introverts as well as extroverts. It’s a common belief that introverts are drained by social interactions, but typically this is only when interacting with people they’re not comfortable with.
If you’re an introvert, make the effort be social with someone who you always have fun with. When we’re engaged in a social situation that is fun, and not anxiety-inducing, we naturally get out of our own heads and begin to recharge our batteries.
Meditation is great for calming our minds, and while you should keep trying to meditate even through rough periods, it can be good to have some short-term solutions to help you get your energy back.
Have you ever felt this way with meditation? How else have you tried to quieten your mind? Let us know in the comments!
About Benjamin Fishel
Ben Fishel is a transpersonal psychotherapist. He has a background in neuroscience, counseling and existential psychotherapy and is on a mission to help people improve their mental health with cognitive science and spirituality. Ben offers online therapy worldwide (with the exception of Canada & the U.S.). You can book a FREE 15-minute call to see if you’d like to work with him—and don’t forget to follow him on Facebook for more of his essays.