This time of year, many folks typically begin the annual ritual of rummaging through their closets, basement, and garage; an “editing of possessions” if you will, with the ultimate goal of purging those items one considers to no longer be necessary. That’s not so easy when it comes to decluttering one’s mind.

Before visiting some of the ways I’ve personally found helpful in reducing the overload of thought, it’s important to highlight the most common examples of these burdensome mental occupants. 

In a recent post for her online site “The Best Brain Possible,” author, inspirational communicator, and a leading blogger in the brain health arena Debbie Hampton cites the work of S. J. Scott and Barrie Davenport, who’ve shared an abundance of information relevant to the topic in their book “Declutter Your Mind.” 

The authors have identified four primary sources that are the likely culprits: everyday stress, too many choices, too much stuff, and the brain’s natural inclination towards negativity bias.

Any one of these causes in and of themselves places a heavy burden on our normal brain function. Retaining two or more over a prolonged timeframe pushes us into overload, with a greater likelihood of developing more serious health issues.

In a previous column covering a different subject, I shared with readers a few details of what happened to me when an accumulation of stress went unabated. No sooner having celebrated my 50th birthday (some five months after my mother had passed away), I suffered what’s referred to in medical terms as a Transient Ischemic Attack (TIA), or more commonly known as a “warning or mini-stroke.” 

The symptoms: severe numbness along the entire left side of my body, slurred speech, and cognitive disorientation, all of which appeared steadily over the course of an hour without a single warning sign prior to this extreme event. Fortunately, I wasn’t behind the steering wheel of a car or in my usual teaching capacity, where I’m responsible for 16 preschoolers each weekday.

Once admitted to a hospital, after a slew of tests and consultations with physicians, I was overcome with emotion, with a profound sense that maybe I’d just sidestepped a long-term disability or even worse. It was the closest I’d ever come to the edge, with one doctor stating that under different circumstances (ie., walking alone on a deserted beach, as I’m often inclined to do out here), the outcome could have been much more severe. Both the neurologist and psychiatrist on duty so much as confirmed that sentiment before my release the following day, which was all the validation I’d needed to choose a healthier path moving forward.  

When looking back upon that dark period of time, it’s clear to me that I’d fallen into a pattern of self-destruction, particularly leading up to the eventual passing of my mother. What stands out most was an undeniable admission that I had lost the ability to control my thoughts and their subsequent actions. Additionally, as unfiltered inner dialogue continued to fester and accumulate, I clearly hadn’t employed any helpful release mechanisms or strategies. Eventually, something had to give. 

The aforementioned Ms. Hampton, a remarkable survivor of brain injury in her own right, addresses this common occurrence rather articulately later in the posting, where she states: “The good news is that even though your brain is naturally inclined to be cluttered and on-edge, you can change this by routinely calming your brain’s fear circuit, while consciously engaging your thinking brain. Over time, with regular practice, and because of neuroplasticity, your brain can actually physically change its connections and patterns so that calm and decluttered become the default.” She has also produced a video segment on the topic, which can be found on YouTube titled, “You’re Not Stuck With the Brain You’re Born With.”

Dr. Lara Boyd, a brain researcher at the University of British Columbia, recently explained in a TEDx presentation that the data her team has gathered regarding neuroplasticity (principally from stroke victims), indicates the primary driver of change in our brain is behavior. In essence “brain reorganization” takes place; some of it via chemical actions/reactions, some of it by altering its structure and functionality. 

But, as she states emphatically, “Nothing is more effective than practice at helping you learn, and the bottom line is you have to do the work.”

Over the last five years, I’ve incorporated several exercises into my daily routine, such as focused breathing, mediation of various types, and the reframing of negative thoughts; coupled with specific mindfulness techniques (all of which are given ample justification in Scott and Davenport’s book). The amount of inner peace I’ve achieved from doing so has been transformational. 

Indeed, we are all wired differently, with a lifetime of experiences behind us, so the variability amongst individuals naturally will range accordingly.

Though much of the impetus to begin decluttering my mind was initially borne as the result of a “wake-up call,” it most certainly applies to any of us who frequently feel overwhelmed by our thoughts, endure stress, or suffer with uncontrollable rumination on a regular basis.  

So as we slowly begin transitioning from winter to spring with regards to our physical surroundings, let’s not ignore the fact that it may also be the perfect time of year to begin a process of letting go of the mental impediments that have been occupying far more space in our mind than they rightfully deserve.

Dave Davis
Dave Davis teaches preschool for the Head Start program based at the Children’s Museum of the East End in Bridgehampton, NY. He is also a frequent contributor to “Who Smarted?,” a popular educational podcast for elementary school children.

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