Do you ever feel like your brain is full of clutter and you can’t find things when you need them? School, work, family, chronic illnesses, pets, food, exercise, friends, and now COVID-19 … all these pieces of life litter our brain if we don’t clean or organize them. They can cause anxiety, panic, fear, helplessness, sadness, and depression. As we start to spend more time in isolation, different parts of our lives are blurring together. Fortunately, there are ways to keep things compartmentalized – just like rooms in a home.
You’ve heard the saying, “There’s a place for everything, and everything has a place.” Under normal circumstances, you wouldn’t put a bed and dresser in the kitchen or put clothes away in the refrigerator.
Imagine your brain as a home. Look at the main room of the house. Are thoughts and emotions compartmentalized, or is there anxiety and chaos in every room? When you don’t put thoughts away – or you put them away incorrectly – it allows feelings and emotions to clutter your view in every nook and cranny of your life.
Admitting there is a mess is the first step. Stop and look around each room. Be sure to look in the junk drawer, closets, attic, and basement. Is your patience with family wearing thin because your job requires you to go to work amid the COVID-19 pandemic? This may compute to a family room filled with anger because of a mess in the office. How about the worries of uncontrollable circumstances? Are those frustrations spilling out of the pantry or fridge? Is the grief from the loss of a job running your liquor cabinet dry? Maybe intimacy and connection are suffering because you haven’t unpacked that closet in the spare bedroom for 20 years.
Here is the part that takes some courage and may be a bit draining.
Are you feeling overwhelmed just looking at the different rooms? Chances are, there are some emotions that came up. Grab a note and start jotting them down. Acknowledge these emotions and give them a name (happiness, anger, sadness, disgust, joy, love, unease, fear, peace, etc.). If you are having trouble naming them, search ”emotions wheel” on Google or Pinterest. Also, list the physical sensations in your body (headache, tight throat or stomach, back pain, shakiness, etc.).
Next, let’s tidy up the clutter with these five tips:
- Plan ahead. Humans have the uncanny ability to make plans and foresee outcomes because of the upper part of our brain, known as the prefrontal cortex. Unfortunately, we can also experience decision fatigue and have a hard time with even the smallest choices. Cutting down on minor decisions gives us more time to spend on more complex ones. Spend 10 minutes planning your day. Make a meal calendar. Give yourself a workout schedule.
- Keep a gratitude journal. Active gratitude is one of the best ways to instill life satisfaction and happiness. It promotes serotonin (happy neurotransmitter) release when we genuinely connect with the things we are grateful for. It’s hard to see things through rose-colored glasses all the time. Ask yourself, “What am I learning from this situation?”
- Allow yourself time to worry. You can set a timer for five minutes to allow room for worry. The purpose of this is twofold. The first reason is that it allows you to make room for emotions without trying to push them away. Just because we have a negative emotion doesn’t mean we need to get rid of it. The other reason is to recognize that anxiety is a healthy emotion. In the right context, you can give it boundaries.
- Connect with your spirituality. Connection with your higher power or self is a way to release some feelings of powerlessness and instill hope. Hope is the expectation of a certain positive outcome. The genuine feeling of hope also promotes new growth of neurons that produce the happy chemicals in our brains (serotonin and dopamine). We produce dopamine when we have the expectation of a reward. Also, handing the things you cannot control over to a higher power can give hope to feelings of helplessness.
- Keep a feelings journal. There is a free app called “Moods” that can act as a feelings journal. Some prefer the pen-and–paper method. Either way, journaling helps to organize thoughts and feelings and expel a bit of energy. When we put it on paper and visualize it, it frees up some brain space.
If you find yourself having trouble unpacking a certain space, try talking to a therapist. Licensed mental health counselors and licensed clinical social workers are highly trained professionals. Their main focus is to guide and teach you how to best care for yourself.
Therapy is like a roller coaster. It can go up, down, upside down, forward, or backward. It can have sharp turns, and you may have no sight of what is around the corner. It can be slow, fast, scary, exciting, underwhelming, or overwhelming. Just remember: Your therapist is right there beside you. Most therapists offer telehealth, which connects right to your phone, tablet, or computer without requiring extra software. Many insurance companies cover psychotherapy, but it’s a good investment if you must pay out of pocket.
Keeping thoughts and feelings in their respective places is important, though it’s a tricky art to master. Be patient with yourself. You may not realize that a thought or emotion is in the wrong spot at first. It’s very humbling, and it’s uncomfortable. After some self-reflection and purging, you’ll feel more comfort in the freedom it brings.
Denise Etherton, M.A., LPC
North Tampa Behavioral Health