How Self Absorbed Are You?
Before embarking on my personal growth journey, my mind was anything but the quiet and peaceful place it is now. It was filled with overthinking, rumination, and anxiety. I often wondered what it would be like to wake up and just get on with my day.
I was the kind of person who couldn’t even sleep when I was tired without consulting my mind first on how I felt about the day, all my anxieties about tomorrow, and replaying that one embarrassing moment in 8th grade (literal decades ago!).
But it wasn’t always this way. In fact, when I was a child — life was a lot simpler. Not because I was naive or innocent to the real world, but because my thoughts weren’t so entirely self-absorbed and self-referential. I suppose “self absorbed” isn’t the right word to use — I’m not egotistical or vain, but my thoughts were always about me, and I was always absorbed in them.
As a child, I remember waking up for school, and wondering about the day ahead. I thought about my friends, I thought about the school vacation, I thought about interesting lessons I had learned the day before. I thought about a lot of things outside of myself.
This changed as an adult. I became self-conscious, I worried about all the things that could go wrong, and woke up feeling the weight of every bad decision I’d ever made.
It wasn’t until one sunny afternoon when I was laughing with my friend that I had this realization: why can’t life always feel this easy and breezy?
In that moment of roaring belly laughs, I was lost in laughter and had temporarily forgotten about all the problems my friend and I were discussing beforehand.
(I’m sure there’s a great narrative here about the importance of friendship but let’s save that for another day…)
So how did it come to this?
It led me to a journey of questions.
Which specific brain regions are responsible for generating self-critical thoughts that often lead to various problems? And how can we initiate changes in these brain areas to effectively quiet our minds?
The Wandering Mind
It brings me to this quote “Idle Minds Are the Devil’s Playground”
You don’t have to be a devout evangelical to understand the sentiment espoused here. The whole concept of the wandering mind suggests that a busy mind can be troublesome. Scientists have argued that our brains possess negative biases, which tend to tilt our thoughts towards a more pessimistic outlook rather than an optimistic one. And apparently, this negative bias is an evolutionary adaptation that once allowed us to become aware of dangers and increase our chances of survival. It means we are predisposed to harboring negative thoughts and tend to dwell on the negative experiences rather than focusing on the positive ones, which can pose a significant risk for mental health challenges. For some of us, it takes just one negative experience to drown out a bunch of positive ones.
On the other hand, flow states — which are prolonged periods of intense focus on a specific task — are recognized for their positive impact on health. One of the reasons behind this is the reduction of self-referential thinking during such moments. For instance, consider the joy of immersing yourself in beloved hobbies, work projects, or other engaging activities. During these times, you momentarily forget about everyday concerns and experience a liberating sense of relaxation while also benefiting from the activity itself.
Many mental health issues stem from negative self-talk, where we tend to criticize ourselves, dwell on future worries, regret past actions, overanalyze situations, and obsessively list our mistakes. This self-talk has a myriad of ways to bring us down — and yet we allow our minds to wander freely.
Usually, we might assume that the brain’s activity decreases when we’re not doing anything, but that’s not the case. Instead, researchers found that certain brain regions, like the frontal lobes, angular gyrus, and posterior cingulate, showed increased activity during rest, even more than when people were busy with tasks. This suggests that something is happening in our minds while we’re at rest that keeps the brain active.
That something is thinking.
Recalling our previous discussion about flow states, it’s hard to think freely when we’re focused on a task. Our minds tend to conjure up thoughts about the past, future, or our current situation more when we’re not busy with tasks. Scientists believe that the default mode network is responsible for these wonderful thoughts.
They also think that disruptions in this brain area can lead to thought-related mental problems like schizophrenia, ADHD, depression, and anxiety.
For example, studies show that individuals with ADHD, who have an overactive mind, exhibit more activity in their default-mode network while doing tasks. More activity means more potentially distracting thoughts, which can make it harder for them to focus on the present.
Similar increased brain activity has also been noticed in people with anxiety and depression.
Take a moment now to relax, close your eyes, and ask yourself this simple question:
“What am I going to think about next?”
Take your time to truly focus on awaiting the answer.
Notice how thoughts seem to fade away when you are completely absorbed in this exercise.
In scientific terms, when we are intensely concentrated on something, our brains might suppress the activity in the default mode network, preventing new thoughts from arising. However, the moment we shift our focus away from this question, thoughts start to emerge once more.
This moment offers a valuable lesson: to quiet our minds, we don’t need to wish away negative thoughts or constantly immerse ourselves in distractions.
The key lies in being present, fully attentive to the here and now.
(Some people call that meditation — and we have more blogs on the way about it so stay tuned.)
Compulsive Thinking Is A Bad Habit — And it Can Be Broken
The more we engage in a particular activity, the stronger the networks in our minds related to that activity become. It’s how the brain is designed.
So could it be that our struggles with anxiety, depression, or self-criticism are partly connected to the tightly interconnected nature of the default mode network?
Could it be that the repeated activation of this network has turned it into our default mode when we’re at rest?
When we consciously decide to detach from our thoughts and direct our attention to the current moment, we not only reduce the intensity of activity within this network but also minimize its frequent activation. This process contributes to the gradual fading of habitual thought patterns.
So I guess the moral of the story here is to emphasize that our self-critical thoughts can and do have identifiable sources, and with dedicated practice — especially through mindfulness and staying present — you can practice the process of calming your mind.
One thought at a time.