THOUGHT TRAFFIC AND HOW TO AVOID CONGESTION
“Sometimes my head feels like it’s going to explode”.
The Therapist I was seeing after a bout of really bad anxiety asked me to explain this further.
“Sometimes I feel like my head’s going to implode”.
The words started differently so I hoped I’d get away with it being counted as an alternative description, but no. She wanted more.
If my head hadn’t been so ready to implode or explode or whatever it was ready to do, then maybe I could have found the words to describe it. But no. Not on this occasion. My head was so congested that I couldn’t think, and I couldn’t really speak either.
Months later, after reading every book I could find about exploding heads, I came across a very simple description and it’s really stuck with me.
It’s the idea that our heads contain a network of roads with a varying volume of thought traffic passing along them. On different days, at different times in our lives, the traffic build-up is very different…in much the same way the traffic report on the radio is different every time it (very annoyingly) comes on. Sometimes the roads are clear…with just the odd car / thought passing along…
and sometimes the roads are so congested with thought traffic that it feels like your head is becoming completely polluted and toxic.
This analogy worked for me because it’s simple (I needed simple, life felt complex enough) and from my limited understanding of the brain, very neat similarities could actually be drawn.
Our brain is made up of neurons (brain cells), and these neurons are connected by synapses which are a bit like roads. Our thoughts travel along these synapses / roads and take the form of different vehicles. You can have an electric car…a thought that is so quiet and non-polluting that you hardly notice it, and at the other end of the scale you can have a thundering great big HGV that knocks you sideways, or worst still, completely flattens you. I’ve had a few of those, we all have.
The more we have particular kinds of thoughts and feelings, the stronger those synaptic connections get…it’s like those roads in our heads get wider. And the wider the roads get, the more space there is for that particular thought to drive up and down it.
And then it all started falling into place…
So that’s why the more we think about a negative thought, the more we have that negative thought, it’s like we’re working a muscle and that muscle just gets stronger and stronger.
Once I’d found this quite neat description of the inner workings of my head, and an explanation as to why my head was replaying the same thoughts over and over and over again, I wanted more…an answer, damn it! How do I stop the toxic traffic from building up?
I know! I will block the roads, I thought. I’ll turn all the yuck traffic away…put up my own little blockades in the brain!
Turns out this wasn’t the best idea, I’m not the genius I thought I was. Turns out that thoughts are like an over-keen boyfriend, the more you resist, they persist!
It was time for Plan B…
Rather than getting carried away with the thoughts that come along, it is sometimes possible to just watch your thoughts come and go, just step back and observe them arriving and leaving, without getting carried away or hijacked by them.
This sounds simple enough, and whilst the idea is definitely simple enough to understand, it does take practise.
I reluctantly stuck with it, and it turns out that it is possible. After months of learning about Mindfulness and Meditation, I noticed that whilst I couldn’t stop the thoughts from coming, I could stop the way I interacted with them. In time, I’ve learned that I can’t control my thoughts, but I can stop them from controlling me. Rather than running out into the roads that fill my head, and trying to micromanage the traffic, I now plant myself quite comfortably on a bench by the roadside, and just watch my thought traffic passing by.
It turns out this inactivity is quite effective…who would have thought that doing nothing could reap such rewards! If only more of life was like that!
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