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How to Stop the War in Your Head and Find Peace

“A mind at peace does not engender wars.” ~Sophocles

There’s a classic Buddhist story about two monks who come upon a woman at the edge of a river. One of the monks carries her across and they continue on their way. Several miles on, the other monk turns to the first and says, “How could you do that? We have made vows never to touch a woman!” The first looks serenely at him. “Are you still carrying her? I set her down at the edge of the river.”

This is exactly what our minds do, if we aren’t careful: We carry our upsets with us long after the original cause is over. (We also pick up imaginary burdens from a future that may never come.) It’s what I call “the war in your head.”

You know what it feels like. On the surface, you are going about your day—at work, driving, shopping, watching TV. But in your mind you’re going over, maybe for the hundredth time, what your boss or neighbor or ex-spouse said last week. Or what they might say or do next week.

Only a sliver of your attention is on what is happening now. The rest of you is in the future or the past, reliving an old battle or imagining a future one.

I say the war in your head, but you will inevitably feel its effects in your body as well. Maybe your throat or your chest is tight, your breathing is shallow, and your stomach feels a bit nauseous. As far as your body’s concerned, you might as well be experiencing the scene in reality: the stress hormones flow just as surely, doing their damage.

When the war is in your head, you are the loser, every time. It doesn’t matter how often you re-fight the battle (or fight it in advance)—you have ceded your peace of mind, and anything else that might be available to you in the present moment. You can wear yourself out, even boxing with shadows.

I learned this the hard way, during and after my divorce. I spent hours, days, weeks, and months with a full-scale war raging in my head. I sleepwalked through the rest of my life to the accompaniment of a continuous background rumble of outrage, pain, and anger.

Most of my energy and attention were sucked up in imaginary arguments with my ex-husband, his lawyer, and the judge. I would go over and over the same ground, inwardly reciting my grievances, telling them off, or spinning down the rabbit holes of innumerable “what if” scenarios. None of it did me any good—the war in my head only added to my suffering.

Eventually I realized what I was doing to myself and laid down my arms in sheer exhaustion. The quiet in my mind was almost eerie, like a battlefield after the ceasefire is called.

Although my divorce continued along much the same lines it had been, I refused to give up my entire life and energy to the fight. I consulted with my lawyer, did what was necessary when it was necessary, and slowly became aware of the life that had been flowing around me, unnoticed and unlived, while I fought my inner war.

The truth is, the war in our heads harms no one but ourselves, and even a small-scale war can have major consequences. How often has someone cut you off in traffic, or made a rude remark that you ruminated on for the rest of the day? How often have you spent anxious hours worrying about a possible outcome that never occurred?

Our mental real estate is too precious to give over to war and strife. Our bodies are too vulnerable to collateral damage. 

Luckily, it is possible to stop the war in your head. The first—and most important—step is to simply recognize when it’s happening and what it’s doing to you. Most of us are so used to the war that we become essentially unconscious of it. It just feels normal.

In the beginning, it will probably take a full-scale battle to get your attention, but eventually you’ll learn to recognize even a minor skirmish. When you do, the next step is to take a metaphorical “step back” from it.

Put yourself in the role of a war correspondent, who is there to simply observe, not participate. You can’t stop the war through resistance—that will only fan the flames. You stop the war by removing the fuel it runs on, which is your unconscious participation.

Imagine a dial that lets you turn down the volume on your thoughts, as if you were viewing a battle scene from a distance.

Take some deep breaths, and let yourself be gently aware of any sensations in your body. You don’t have to do anything about them—just notice them and let them be. Becoming familiar with the negative effects of your mental war will help you to recognize it faster, and also give you the motivation to end it!

If you’re a visual person, try imagining a breeze that blows through your mind, gently clearing away the thoughts… or perhaps waves crashing on a beach, leaving the sand smooth and empty. Then say to yourself: “I choose not to have a war in my head.”

It really can be as simple as that. The war thrives on our unconscious participation. Once you become conscious of it, and make the choice to reclaim your mental real estate, the episodes of war will become both less frequent and less intense.

When this happens, you actually become more effective at solving any actual problems you might have, because your thinking is not clouded by drama and noise. This kind of thinking—without the violent emotions and resistance attached—also doesn’t impact your body the way a mental war does.

If you are tired of the war that rages in your head, join me in declaring a “no-war zone” in your mind and be vigilant in keeping it that way. There will always be events and situations in life that bring up resistance, anger, worry, and upset, but we can choose to be like the first monk and simply set them down rather than carrying them endlessly along with us.

About Amaya Pryce

Amaya Pryce is a spiritual coach and writer living in the Pacific Northwest. Her newest book, How to Grow Your Soulis available on Amazon. For coaching or to follow her blog, please visit www.amayapryce.com.

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  • Upgraded Living

    First of all, I’d just like to thank you for opening up about such a big part of your life. I know its not always easy but it is clear that you are on the path to a more peaceful life.

    I heard the story about the two monks a while ago and I really found it interesting, it still stuck with me to this day and I use it whenever my mind seem to dwell on some useless ‘war’. One thing I learned is, WHAT YOU RESIST PERSISTS. So, as you said, just take a step back, don’t engage, just take a deep breath in and out and observe your thoughts.

    Thanks again for the great post.

  • no war zone.

  • cosmosmith

    It is false “the the ware in our head harms no one but ourselves.” It harms everyone who cares at all about us.

  • Amaya

    Yes, that’s true! Though what I meant was, no matter how much we fight the war in our heads, it doesn’t actually affect the person we are fighting with… only ourselves.

  • Amaya

    I mean – what you say is true. 🙂

  • Brandon

    Great article. I’m finding more and more moments of true peace when I disentangle myself from my thoughts. Not stopping or trying to control them, but as you say, becoming the observer and realizing that they’re just that, thoughts. I can choose to acknowledge or follow them or let them pass.

  • BTW

    Great article, not a coincidence that I am going through that also. I feel like two individuals firing in my mind: good vs evil.

  • You have the command. wisdom as you get older is more control over your mind. grit yur teeth in worst of times but hold on!!!!HAHAHAHAHAHAHA

  • T

    Many people who suffer in the mind or have no peace of mind are carrying problems and trauma and unhealthy issues from childhood , that’s where all trouble begins. The question is is how do you get to the core of the initial pain and problems, because not every human being is the same due to differing personalities . Some think money will cure all their woes and for some it might, but every pain and problem is different than the other. Therefore, it is my belief that any good teaching of spiritual awareness, wholeness and peace of mind will only register for the seeker.

  • You have the choice to fight that war. Yu can say stop! evry time it enters. You have control. remind yourself. You are in control. Nt Gd! You!

  • You are right!!!!! You are sage!!!!!! you know.

  • NeedCash

    If I had more money I’d find more peace.

  • disigny

    The very way you are talking about it shows how you are simultaneously CREATING the “Problem”. In what way do you imagine that “you ” is different from “Gd”, or anyone else , for that matter.?! Everyone has “Consciousness”. At least, I have never heard anyone deny it. And this “Consciousness” is THE SAME for everyone. Like Electricity, it may come in different concentrations, etc, but it is essentially ONE “Field” of Energy. There’s nothing more Basic, that we can express with our present Cultural Labels. Too bad the West got off the Track, by inventing the “Sovereign Individual”.

  • Don Elwell

    If I had more peace, I’d have more money

  • brucehiggins1253

    This is a paraphrase of something I have seen attributed to Henry Ford: Two men were discussing the nature of people. One said that they couldn’t be trusted and must be constantly monitored, lest they cheat you. The other said that people were basically good and would help whenever they could. Both were right. We create our own world. You may choose of world of distrust and agitation or a world of trust and peace. I have found you get what you expect.

  • Freedom From Tyranny

    what a bunch of crap. JESUS is the ONLY way to salvation.

  • Freedom From Tyranny

    And nice double triple 6’s in both hand gestures. You can tell them by their fruit.

  • Arthur Brown

    Wonderful article! Isn’t strange how negative events can have such a deep, long-lasting emotional impact on us – even more so than other things equally significant but positive. Is it fear? Is it ego? Is it survival? Anyway, one of my favorite comments is there’s only 2 emotions: One feels good, one feels bad.

  • Deborah LaFleur

    Wonderful post at a time I needed it! Thank you! I have one suggestion (because I’ve watched The Secret and it left it’s impression on me) and that is instead of saying “I choose not to have a war in my head”, say “I choose to have peace in my head (or mind)”. This eliminates the word ‘war’, which has a great deal of negative association with it. Changing our way of thinking can greatly impact our inner and outer selves. As a person with Anxiety Disorder, changing my way of thinking to keep as many words in a thought positive has been bringing me closer and closer to peace.

    As Mother Teresa said:
    “I was once asked why I don’t participate in anti-war
    demonstrations. I said that I will never do that, but as soon as you
    have a pro-peace rally, I’ll be there.”

  • excelent considerations. thanks for sharing!

  • Words that divide and attack others shows selfishness. When we speak good of others who are reaching out we are helping them. Wisdom guides a soul to be better and to rise above conflict in their lives because we have gone through the same situation and wish to impart knowledge and strength to rise above and be a better person. Gd can mean many things, but ‘I AM’ is the best for a person who struggles with self control.

  • Peter Belanger

    AS IF…
    As if one can just “turn down the volume on your thoughts”. Sorry, my brain rages on 24 hours a day. Some silly simplistic ‘visualization’ dosen’t work.
    Sometimes someone just get so ‘not well’ that they just can no longer concentrate on anything, life become futile and hopeless, in one’s mind they just feel like a psychic pinball.
    No reprieve from the madness, just a hurricane of thoughts, never ending.
    If this kind of stuff works for you, you didn’t have a problem in the 1st place. Some of us are just FUBAR.
    I’m autistic, there is no ignoring the sensory madness and distraction.
    A soul never at peace.
    No advice ever make sense.
    Just normal people flaunting their emotional healthiness over the frustrated and hopeless.
    “self help blogs” are just to feed the egos of the author.

  • Peter Belanger

    That is a myth, we are at the whims of the universe knocking us about, no self determination, no free will, just agony and confusion!
    There is no “god”. Only an uncaring machine of a universe, no point to anything. No reason to even exercise this mythical “free will”.

  • Amaya

    That is the part that’s hard to learn – to not resist or fight the war, but just to gently recognize it for what it is. Such peace in that!

  • Amaya

    Me, too! I love that it doesn’t depend on what happens around you, but what happens inside you. 🙂

  • Amaya

    I agree that this “stuff” takes some consistent practice in order to work. And when there is an underlying problem, such as autism, depression, bipolar disorder, etc., maybe it won’t work without other measures as well. I do believe that we all deal with the voice in our heads, and have to gradually learn to ignore it. It will never stop!! I hope that you will find the peace you’re looking for.

  • Abigail Morris

    That’s Hobbes and Locke, not Henry Ford.

  • Debrael EarthAngel

    “I sleepwalked through the rest of my life to the accompaniment of a continuous background rumble of outrage, pain, and anger.” — this is exactly how it feels for/with me too; and yes, the stress hormones have me feeling profoundly anxious and yet wretchedly wiped-out/exhausted at the same time! When I’m not crying, I feel like my feelings are *trying* to numb-out…but it doesn’t last long, and I know that’s unhealthy too. This is all so utterly and completely overwhelming! My apartment is a mess too, reflective of how I feel within. Thanks for your story and advice, I am already working on doing as you suggest.

  • Debrael EarthAngel

    You are so right Deborah…that is a much more positive affirmation!

  • Ankur

    Hey Amaya,
    I am really happy I read your article. It has helped me realise how to prevent the war in the head. I was aware of the fights I was carrying in my head. I thought that was a big achievement, coz plenty of people dont acknowledge the war. But reading your article made me realise that it is equally important to know that we dont need to fill out head with the issues that create the war.
    “You can wear yourself out, even boxing with shadows.” is so true that I instantaneously realised the importance of not giving any space to the war.
    I just hope that I keep this in my head when I wage a war next time.
    Thanks for sharing this.

  • Amaya

    My thoughts are with you – be gentle with yourself. <3

  • darren w

    Thanks for this article I have battled with such negative thoughts going round in my mind which I would act out with them creating a miserable life destroying relationships thoughts are much better due to reading article such as this one and others on this great site and medation the saying we are what we think. Is so true

  • Amaya

    Darren, thanks for writing. I agree that meditation is the most important thing we can do to turn down the volume on the mind. It sounds like you’re on the right path!!