Hi Brain, Can You Please Shut Up Now

Have you ever stepped out of the shower and not been able to remember if you washed your hair? Or walked into a room and questioned why you went there at all? Odds are you answered yes to one or both of those questions. They say this happens when our brain kicks into cruise control. During our more monotonous routines, our consciousness zones out and our mind wanders. For me, however, I tend to think the cause is a bit more complicated. It’s not so much a lack of thought that numbs my present sense. Really, it’s the opposite – the result of too many thoughts taking place all at once in my overactive mind.

At times it feels like my brain is speeding down a highway, shifting gears every few seconds. Thoughts race in and out so quickly that I find myself multitasking against my will. I start doing one thing, then become distracted by something else entirely to the point that I forget what I was doing in the first place. Some days I’m energized, other days I’m preoccupied. And then there are days when the news headlines and images from social media cast a heavy cloud over my mind, bringing with them a sense of despondence that at times feels inescapable.

At night, I’ll lie awake in bed. Eyes up at the ceiling as my thoughts do jumping jacks in my brain. My mind resists slowing down. It prefers to keep moving. Even when I’m so tired that my body aches with exhaustion. I feel my heart rate accelerate under my chest. I place my hand over it, an attempt to quiet the beating drum, all the while thinking to myself, “Brain, could you please shut up.”

The Overactive Mind – What Is It?

Overthinking everything, Overactive mind

I wonder from time to time why my brain thinks and responds to situations as it does. Do other people feel this way or is this a product of my own neuroticism? The answer to this very well may be both. If you type “overactive mind” into Google, you’ll find numerous articles about how to calm your mind and cope with racing thoughts. It seems more of us than not are seeking solutions to this kind of psychological distress. But what does an overactive mind really mean?

I recently found what could be, at least in part, an answer to this question – a term that describes the experience of having an overactive mind, separate from general overthinking and anxiety-driven intrusive thoughts. Hyperactivity, as it’s appropriately called, is defined as, “a state of being unusually or abnormally active.” Now that definition alone is a little vague but when you consider the common characteristics of constant movement, impulsive behavior, difficulty concentrating, and trouble remembering, it helps to create a clearer picture.

According to Healthline, hyperactivity is often caused by an underlying mental or physical condition, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), being one of the most common or well-known. But there are others, including generalized anxiety disorder and major depressive disorder. And while I haven’t confirmed this with a professional, I suspect there is also a correlation between hyperactivity and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). OCD is, after all, a disorder characterized by increased brain activity, and as someone who has been diagnosed with and sought treatment for OCD, it makes sense to me that OCD could be the underlying cause of my hyperactivity.

How Much of Our Mind Do We Control?

For much of my life, I’ve thought of my thoughts, the good and the bad, as part of who I am. However, some psychologists seem to suggest otherwise. Elliott Dacher M.D. in Huffington Post says, “Our overactive mind seems as if it is our normal state-of-being. It isn’t. It is learned, reinforced, and rewarded from early age onward. It’s a mental habit.”

Reading this reminded me of a conversation I had with my psychiatrist roughly a year ago. After a few months of therapy and taking medication for OCD, my psychiatrist asked if I was still experiencing negative, obsessive thoughts. “Well, yeah,” I said, sort of shrugging off the question. To me, these thoughts were part of my identity. My brain and my obsessions were one and the same. I didn’t expect anything, including my medication, to absolve them entirely. And honestly, a part of me worried who I would be without them. When she suggested I increase my medication to help reduce these thoughts, I said no.

There have been moments since when I’ve wondered if this was the right decision. Ultimately, for me, I think it was. At the time, the concept of being able to control my thoughts felt foreign. I was still learning how to recognize my obsessions and compulsions. Doing so didn’t come naturally, largely because OCD was my normal. The thoughts and fears and nagging reminders in my mind were like guests who had overstayed their welcome but nonetheless they had become part of my home. However, with more practice and time (and for the sake of my sanity), I’ve come to understand my brain as having two parts: the OCD side and the rational side. The two are often in conflict with one another. This I’ve learned I can’t always control. But what I can control is how I respond.

Our Thoughts, Our Brain and Us

To view my brain through this duality strikes me as a bit odd at times. I very much associate my mind with being the hub of my identity – it is what holds my ideas, my creativity, my dreams, my goals. But at the same time, I view my relationship with my mind as being somewhat detached. It’s almost as though I’ve created a degree of separation within myself. And while that sounds a bit strange, I think it is perhaps what has allowed me to heal.

I still experience negative, obsessive thoughts sometimes. I worry about things I cannot control. At times, I struggle to keep up with the pace of my brain. It distracts me from work, it pulls me in ten different directions all at once but if I could change it, I’m not sure I would. Not everything about having an overactive mind is bad. It propels me into deep thought and introspection. It is a catalyst for my creativity, even if that means I occasionally get out of bed at 1 a.m. to write down an idea. The reason I can’t remember if I washed my hair is because I was submerged in contemplation so captivating that everything else around me faded away.

I’ve spent a lot of time trying to quiet my thoughts. I suspect a lot of us have. But when I think about it now, I wonder why so much of the literature out there is about silencing our overactive minds rather than about how we can leverage them to live our best, happiest lives.

This article is a reflection of my personal experience and is not based on clinical expertise.

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Kate Warrington is a New York based writer and contributor to She Explores Life, where she writes about mental health, culture and sexual wellness in her column Overthinking Everything. In her words, Overthinking Everything is not meant to be an advice column of any kind. Instead, as a twenty-something woman acutely aware of how little she knows about life, sex, relationships and even her own body, Kate invites us to explore some of the nuanced, and at times laughable, questions of what it means to navigate coming of age. Her work has appeared in outlets including Thrive Global, Forbes and Impakter Magazine. She is also a regular contributor to Medium and previously contributed to the New York City documentary series Stoop Stories. Find more of Kate’s writing at katewarrington.medium.com and follow her on Twitter and Instagram @warrington_kate.