Every morning I wake with my brain already running full tilt. Thoughts race with everything from creating grocery lists to subplots I should add in the latest work in progress. It’s like my subconscious keeps working while I go to sleep. In college, I’d listen to whatever song I had to memorize before going to bed. In the morning, I’d wake to my mind still running through the melody. Other singers thought I practiced for hours on end when, in truth, I’d learned the song in my sleep. (Not sure if that’s a scientific thing, but it always worked for me. 🙂 )
But there’s a downside to this little quirk. Having a brain that never shuts off can be an incredible tool when life is good. But if stress takes over, it can be a nightmare. Falling asleep while worried or anxious leads to waking up in the middle of the night, heart pumping, adrenaline rushing like an ax murderer is chasing me. And the nightmares–oh, good Lord. Throughout my childhood, more often than not, I was afraid to fall asleep.
Asking me to clear my mind or meditate is like asking me to be six-foot-tall and thin. I’m just not built that way. But over the years, I’ve learned to work with my thoughts instead of fighting them.
By practicing gratitude.
I got into the habit years ago after my marriage fell apart, and I found myself raising two precious babies on my own. Those were tough days as I fought to protect my children, praying I could love them enough to heal the emotional wounds their father had caused.
I poured everything I had into them, making sure we laughed at something stupid or did something fun. We kept to a schedule where the days ended in reading together. And when they’d argue and fuss, I’d smile through gritted teeth determined not to lash out. God knew they needed patience and kindness in their little lives.
But at night, after the kiddos were tucked into bed, worry set in. As well the pain of the betrayal and feeling like a failure. And then came a heaping plate of guilt. My babies were suffering because I hadn’t chosen a better man to be their father.
I’d wake in a cold sweat, my mind racing about finances, or the lawyer, or that my son was acting out in school, and my daughter now questioned every decision she made.
Exhaustion set in. Something had to change.
And so, instead of fighting the thoughts of worry and loss trudging through my mind, I acknowledged them. And then I focused on everything we still had. We were healthy. We had a roof over our heads and friends and family that loved us. And we would make it through.
That list became my mantra. I’d fall asleep reciting it, and in the morning, I’d run through it again. Gratitude set the tone for the day. It was my first understanding of just how powerful thoughts can be. They color our perceptions of how we see the world.
As one season passed to the next, new dreams replaced shattered ones. The kiddos got into sports and music, and I started writing. Time marched by, the children grew into incredible adults, and I slipped out of the daily habit of practicing mindful gratitude.
Until this past year.
Between toxic politics, the pandemic, teaching online, a son now living where wildfires raged out of control, and a daughter working where the constant threat of hurricanes was the norm, stress, and worry came back full force.
When the school closed because of COVID, I spent a few horrible nights of tossing and turning. So I pulled the list back out. And over the past eight months, I run through it several times a day, especially at night as I drift off to sleep.
- I’m grateful that my family is healthy, and those that contracted COVID survived.
- I’m grateful that I have a roof over my head, food in the pantry, and health insurance if I get sick.
- I’m grateful my children still have their jobs and can financially make it through.
- I’m grateful that my family understands the meaning of unconditional love.
- I’m grateful that I have the technology available so I can teach from home.
- I’m grateful that I work with a team of teachers who encourage and inspire me every day.
- I’m grateful for my best friend, Reen, who is such a source of comfort, laughter, and joy.
- I’m grateful for the writing community that helps me stay focused even in these ridiculous times.
- I’m grateful for my agent and publisher, whose constant support, friendship, and understanding keeps me grounded.
- And I’m grateful for the members of The Society and everyone who reads this blog. You are the reason I publish what I write.
If you’re struggling this holiday season, try practicing gratitude by making a list. I’d love to hear if it helped you as it has me.
While I am also blessed (cursed) with a mind that never shuts down, I have not often worried about what is, let alone what happened in the past. My tendency is to focus on where I want to be. You cannot change the past that brought you to your present, but you can take steps to direct where you wind up in the future. While there are things you cannot control which do alter or delay your course (hello 2020 in all your horrific glory), there are always things that can be done, little tiny steps, to keep you moving forward. Or you may realize the goal you are trying to achieve isn’t one you want badly enough, so you reassess and perhaps go a different direction.
Do I battle with sleep? Almost every night, but usually not from things racing through my mind. When I finally lay my head on the pillow and consciously slow my thoughts, I don’t review my day, I focus on breathing, but the things I have been able to suppress throughout the day … the aches and pains … finally have a chance to be heard. So it is more getting me settled physically that is an issue vs. mentally. But I also take a few moments as I am focusing on my breathing to think about all that I have been blessed with, and I am truly grateful.
Thank you for this, Beth! It’s a wonderful blog and you offer a great solution. I suffer with the busy mind syndrome, as well, often due to stress, anxiety, things that need doing, and issues that seem more out of my control than in. But I take steps to reign this in, and meditation is one of them. I try to spend 20 minutes every morning reading a meditative thought and sitting quietly.
One thing that came up recently is how showing gratitude is a very real way to break away from ego, to shift from anxiety to relief and even joy. One trick — when you feel especially stressed, call, text, write or speak to 5 people in your world and thank them for something they’ve done or said. It can be the mailman, the pool guy, the neighbor, your parents or children, best friend, boss, whomever. But that little effort will help break down the seemingly insurmountable walls that reflect our own egos at work.
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