When You’re Stuck on a Mental Merry-Go-Round

Tony hadn’t been sleeping well.

One night of no sleep was manageable. Two nights in a row felt worrisome.

By the third and fourth nights of very little sleep, his mind was hyper focused on how he was feeling and what would (or wouldn’t) happen when he crawled into bed that night.

Am I tired? Could I sleep now if I wanted to? What if I have another sleepless night? And what if I have another after that?

His doctor gave him some medication to try in case he couldn’t sleep on the 4th night. His mind turned to: Should I take the medication? What if I become dependent on it? How will I feel the next day? Should I take it right away or first try to go without? What if it causes anxiety?

At times, Tony was so snarled in the specific thoughts and worries that flowed through his mind that he could see nothing else. He had no peripheral vision, no perspective.

He was blinded by questions that appeared to require answers. He felt a racing mind, shallow breathing, and a stomach in knots.

At other times though, Tony caught glimpses of life beyond those thoughts. When he was less focused on the emotional content of those worries and questions, he vaguely saw the mental process taking place within him.

With less focus on content, the mental process didn’t feel quite as serious or personal.

He’d say things like “But as I’m telling you these worries, I’m remembering this is just more of the same chit chat that doesn’t really matter”.

And “My mind is desperate for a game plan and I’m having a hard time letting go of that”.

That tired Tony could see that his mind was spinning, posing questions and searching for a plan that wise Tony knew he didn’t actually need, was awesome.

You can relate, right?

You know the feeling of your mind spinning, questioning, hyper-focusing on something that looks and feels so important.

Maybe it’s in the midst or that or maybe not until sometime later, but at some point, you see the process. Not just the content—the worries, questions, fears—but the process of a mind creating worries, questions, and fears.  

Interestingly, while I was texting back and forth with Tony one evening this week, Willow was having her own moment.

She takes two pair of snow gloves to school every day in her winter bag (if you aren’t familiar with the winter bag, it’s exactly what it sounds like).

She came home that day with one lonely little glove. One glove accounted for, three missing.

Her mind started up, just like Tony’s. What will I do tomorrow with only one glove? What if I can’t find the other three? Where are the other three? In my desk, on the playground, in Ashley or Eli or Cullen’s winter bag?

Willow and I sat down and played out the scenarios a bit. She is eight, after all.

I didn’t play out scenarios to the same extent with Tony when we spoke earlier that day because I could see that the details didn’t matter. I knew he had it in him to look toward what his mind was doing (the process) and in that, the content would work itself out.

But for newly eight-year-old Willow, it seemed like it might help to give a few answers to her questioning mind.

You’ll take Miller’s extra set of gloves tomorrow. When you go into school in the morning, you’ll look around and see if the gloves were left in the classroom. If not, you’ll check lost-and-found and ask your classmates if they accidentally took your gloves home.

That should do it, I naively thought. She has a plan, now she can let this go.


“But then what?” her busy mind kept asking. “What if I still can’t find them?”

Then you’ll use your own money to buy two more pair of gloves (these are far from the first lost gloves this season. Don’t get me started…)

“What?! What if I need that money for something else some day and I had to spend it on gloves?”

And on and on, where more answers led to more questions.

Tired, adult Tony. Worried, eight-year-old Willow.

You, me, everyone. Sleep, anxiety, gloves, money, or literally any other storyline you can think up. No difference.

Like Tony said, it’s just more of the same chit chat. Different day, different story, exact same universal process. The process is the same because we all have a mind. The process is simply what a mind does.

The same anxious energy that’s bringing all of these questions to mind is convincing you that they require answers. That a game plan will quiet your mind.

But game plans don’t quiet minds. Not engaging, seeing thought as thought, glimpsing the process rather than the content…that’s what leads to a quieter mind.

Answering all your mind’s questions most often leads to more, not fewer questions. Buying into the illusion that these worries are valid and require action is what keeps us hooked.

Back up. Remember that minds will do this. All of them, about anything and everything.

Then just go to bed or to school in the morning, and trust that you’ll know the next step when it’s time.

Epilogue:  Tony took the medication and slept that night. His mind is still running him through some scenarios but he’s doing his best to notice the process rather than the content.

Willow’s three missing gloves were sitting in her cubby when she got to school the next morning. How they got there is a mystery, but she’s willing to let it remain a mystery for now.

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