“Brain Drain” Exercise: How Stream-of-Consciousness Writing Can Help Over-Thinking

Do you commonly find yourself “over-thinking?”

According to a recent poll I did on Twitter, an alarming 68% of people said that they “Often” find themselves over-thinking and 26% said they at least “Sometimes” find themselves over-thinking.

Over-thinking can be a common psychological problem for many people and it is often associated with many mental conditions like stress, anxiety, and depression.

Of course our minds are designed to think to solve difficult problems and make good decisions – thinking is generally a healthy thing – but a lot of thinking can also become unnecessary, useless, and harmful.

Thankfully, there are a lot of different mental tools to help better manage your thinking, and one great tool for minimizing over-thinking is something called a “brain drain” exercise.

The “brain drain” exercise is incredibly simple to do. Just grab 2 pieces of paper and a pen, then write down whatever comes to your mind until both pages are completely filled.

The goal of the “brain drain” is to write down your thoughts in real-time as they are unfolding. Don’t wait. Don’t edit. Don’t second guess. Just write down whatever pops into your mind, even if it’s something as simple as “I don’t know what to write about right now.”

Then keep writing and keep writing, until the 2 pages are completely filled.

When you first start the exercise, you’ll likely be writing about a lot of surface level observations (“I’m hungry” or “I’m bored”), but once you get the ball rolling you will start touching on more important things (“I should be nicer to my coworkers” or “I need to be more comfortable being myself.”)

The “brain drain” exercise is great to practice in the morning before you begin your day. It should only take about 10 minutes, especially since you should be writing completely free-flow and stream-of-consciousness.

As the famous psychologist William James pointed out, our consciousness is like a “river” or a “stream” that is always flowing. This is where the phrase “stream of consciousness” first came from.

But with over-thinkers, their thoughts often get trapped inside their heads and keep swirling around over and over again. Instead of a river with a clear flowing stream, it’s more like a river with a dam in the middle, blocking thoughts from passing through and keeping our minds trapped in a cycle.

The “brain drain” exercise helps you to break through the dam that is trapping all of your thoughts inside your head, and allows them to flow more freely and finally get released. Instead of having thoughts blocked up in your mind, you’re metaphorically draining them and clearing them out.

In many ways, “thinking” is just as much of a biological process as sneezing, coughing, or using the bathroom. Sometimes there is no real meaning or purpose behind it, it just needs to be done to maintain psychological balance and homeostasis.

One big reason the “brain drain” exercise is so useful is that it gives our minds permission to run wild and think about whatever. You’re not fighting thoughts – you’re accepting them, embracing them, and releasing them.

By giving yourself time and space to engage with your thoughts (and write them down), your mind is given the opportunity to release thoughts so that you’re less likely to engage in over-thinking throughout the day, whether at work, school, home, or out socializing with friends.

Interestingly, one recent study published in the scientific journal Psychophysiology discovered that when individuals spent 8 minutes writing about their feelings before a difficult cognitive task, they were shown to have less active brains that were much more calm and relaxed.

This study presents some of the first neurological evidence on the benefits of expressive writing on stress and anxiety. One author of the study, Jason Moser, an associate professor at Michigan State University’s Clinical Psychophysiology lab, uses a car analogy to explain the process:

    “Here, worried college students who wrote about their worries were able to offload these worries and run more like a brand new Prius, whereas the worried students who didn’t offload their worries ran more like a ’74 Impala – guzzling more brain gas to achieve the same outcomes on the task.”

By practicing a “brain drain” exercise, you are offloading thoughts and freeing up your mind to be more focused, calm, and in-the-moment throughout the day – which is why it can be a perfect antidote for all types of over-thinking.

Try it out for yourself for a couple of mornings and see how it works for you.

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