By: Cynthia Ackrill, MD

calm your mind

Do You Sometimes Suffer From “OTD?” I sure do and so do most of my clients—those bright, accomplished professionals, executives, and leaders who look like they have it all together. Even the most focused and grounded high achievers get sucked into today’s perfect storm of unremitting urgency and unhealthy expectations. Their sharp, but overworked, minds wind up circling in self-doubt or stuck on the simplest decisions… the result OTD: Over Thinking Disorder*.

You know the feeling. You’re tired, overwhelmed, or emotionally triggered or spent, and your inner critic just takes over the mic in your head to repeat old stories, rework past choices, or replay, “the problem with that” track until you’d like to pull the plug on thinking. Try as you may, you are unable to calm your mind. Unfortunately, attempting to go to sleep might not even pull that plug. (3 am OTD is the worst—too tired to think straight, too stuck in overdrive to sleep!)

These thought tracks tend to play off a common theme: somehow you are “not enough” or don’t have enough to deal with the challenge or decision in front of you. The shame trigger is pulled, and you feel powerless to come to any “aha!” or simply take back control of your own thoughts and calm your mind. F.R.U.S.T.R.A.T.I.N.G.!!! And it’s not like you are dumb—you know there’s a better way to use your precious brainpower, especially if your brain is supposed to be sleeping, relaxing, or playing!

As a coach, I hear a lot of thought circles before my clients drop down into their wisdom and find the clarity they need.  It’s helpful to look at why you are stuck by asking yourself some questions.

  1. Are my brakes working? 

    The number one reason I see my clients (ok… or myself!) fall into is OTD is a brain with a “brake” problem. Your frontal lobe (the executive center of your brain) is supposed to apply the brakes to non-productive, worrisome thinking. But when it is tired, hungry, thirsty, lonely, or sad, it just doesn’t do that well. You’ve seen your children melt down when they are hungry or tired. You have that same brain, and while it has learned some self-control, it is still not capable of full mental and emotional regulation unless it has fuel and rest.

  • HALT(T) check in: Am I Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired, or Thirsty. (I added thirsty to the AA acronym because even minimal dehydration reduces cognitive function and mood regulation.) Before you can calm your mind, explore these basic needs and do a full-body scan to see what you need to attend to first.
  1. Have I been hijacked? 

    This is also frontal lobe fail, but for a different reason. Whenever your brilliant brain senses danger, it sends the frontal lobe “off-line” to deal with the “threat.” (It actually directs the blood from your frontal lobe to your legs so you can run. Less blood = less effective.)

    Safety is your brain’s first job, one that trumps all other functions, like keeping your perspective or constructive thought. This hijacking can occur whenever your stress load adds up in volume (the proverbial “death by a 1000 paper cuts”), or you are dealing with a “biggie”.

  • Breathe!!! Take few long slow deep breaths, lingering on the exhale, and ask yourself, “What is my current stress level?” Keep breathing slowly and see if you can lower your body’s stress response. This will help ramp up your brainpower to deal. (Want some breathwork guidance?)
  • Ask the 4 Questions© to get clear about your stress and what you need now. Getting clear will build your coping confidence and help power up your brakes.
    • What is the real data?
    • What story or assumptions am I adding?
    • What do I need now?
    • Who do I want to be?
  1. Am I in quicksand? 

    Everyone has his/her own emotional quicksand areas. In hindsight, you probably know some of yours. These are places where you’ve stepped, been pulled, or pushed that triggered strong emotional reactions, despite your best efforts to be “rational.”

    But in the moment, or when you are worn down – physically, emotionally, or mentally – that self-awareness (another frontal lobe function) is MIA. So this frontal lobe fail often occurs subconsciously—you are on edge about something else and it affects your ability to think clearly about what’s in front of you. Your emotions have a far stronger hook on your mind than a cognitive challenge. And you can’t just “stuff” emotions. I cannot tell you how often in coaching conversations, when we drill down under the surface of “stuck”, we find an emotional trigger has been fired. So how do you climb out?

  • Breathe! Again?…yes…. This powers up your brain!
  • Notice how emotionally charged you feel. Put a hand down on your heart or gut and breathe deeply again.
  • Ask, “What is being tapped deep down under my swirling head?” Are you feeling vulnerable, betrayed, scared, or angry? Why? Is it an old pattern, not necessarily needed here? Honor the feeling with a little self-compassion, and then get strong.
  • Decide how you would like to be in this situation. Is there another conversation you need to have with someone or yourself? This is taking back control.

OTDlike many automatic patterns, is a great metric, asking you to check in and see how you are really doing. What do you need? How can you more proactively get it? So next time you really need to calm your mind, HALT(T), breathe, and get curious, and never, ever hesitate to seek some support! It is so much easier to get clear in conversation with someone else!

If you would like help conquering your OTD and lowering your stress … please call or email me today!

*Totally made that up and hope it means nothing bad to anyone!  I get so tired of hearing people spew acronyms, I thought I’d take the offensive and create my own! And my apologies to Doctors of Occupational Therapy, the offices of technology development, and those of you going Out The Door!