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Running on Idle

Running on Idle

This past year has had a lot of stress, grief, and anxiety in it for me. So it’s been good year to practice coping skills and find new ways to keep sad or stressful events from swamping the good things and the little joys.


Most days, I have periods of undirected thought. It usually happens when I am doing something that does not absorb my full attention, something that I can do nearly automatically. When driving a car, for example, or stirring a sauce, or routine household chores, or even playing games on my phone. When that happens, it is very easy for the part of my brain to start replaying memories and thoughts in the background.


My mom used to call that ‘playing the tapes’.*


The thing about my brain, when it is running on idle like that, is that it doesn’t pick happy memories, or good thoughts about myself. It always goes for the tapes that have strong negative emotions attached. So suddenly I find myself replaying embarrassing or humiliating moments, or thinking about how difficult, bad, or sad a situation is.


It doesn’t matter what my current mood is. I haven’t found any one thing that would trigger such thoughts and memories. I think my idle brain is lazy. It goes for the tapes with the deepest groove, or the biggest cloud of emotion and then starts the tape rolling.


I had a particularly bad time of it, just after my mom died. I’d been one of her caregivers and there were events I witnessed that were sad, stressful, and powerful. In the months after her death, my brain suddenly had a new cache of tapes to constantly replay. I didn’t want those memories to become the first ones that came up when I thought of my mom.


To combat this, I used a technique I stumbled on years ago. I had to have an endoscopy done and the medical technicians gave me medication as a part of the procedure. One of the effects of the medication was to keep short term memories from forming. So, while I was technically awake during the procedure, by the time it was done I should have no memory of the icky parts. As I was coming out of the medication fog, I had a very clear memory of part of the procedure start to surface. Since I knew I didn’t want to be remembering that particular moment, I deliberately focused my attention on something else. Luckily it worked. While I have a memory of making that choice, I have no conscious memory of the procedure.


Since I knew I didn’t want to have some of those last memories of Mom to become my default thoughts of her, I worked on spotting when those tapes started playing in the background of my mind and deliberately stopping them. Then I would bring up a memory of Mom that I wanted to reinforce. This took conscious effort. I even had to go so far as to give myself a list of positive memories so I could deal with it in the moment. It was like planning a difficult conversation with a friend, co-worker, or boss. I had to work out my strategy in advance, because the feelings involved were so powerful that it was hard to remember my plan in the moment.


I think of it as directed attention. Instead of letting my brain play any old tapes it feels like, I bring my attention and focus to choosing what I want to remember and think about. 


Another option, instead of replaying chosen memories, is to use intentional prayer as a focus. 


That turns my attention away from the tapes my brain wants to run and towards thinking about God and ways that my relationship with God can help me work in the world.


I have written before about other ways that I deal with stress and grief, but it has become even clearer to me over the past year, that there is some truth in the saying that an idle mind is the devil’s workshop. 


I don’t know when I first heard that phrase, but since it’s been around since at least the time of Chaucer, it’s not surprising that I would come across it. I’ve always dismissed it because: 1. I don’t believe in the devil, or devils; 2. It seemed to negate free will; 3. It seemed to be an excuse to make other people keep busy; 4. I most frequently came across it as a thing that was said to women or young girls to keep them in their place.


However, as a metaphor for the way my brain can wreak havoc on my emotions or sense of well-being, it is very powerful. When my brain is idle, it plays those depressing, humiliating, and defeatist tapes. When I move it from idle to active, it is too busy and engaged to make trouble.


Grief, sadness, stress, anxiety, and humiliation come to all of us. When left unattended, my brain seems to like to wallow in these feelings and bring them into my present. 


Prayer, mediation, and other forms of directed thought can help me stop the tape, live my life, and find joy again.




*I know it’s not original to my mom, but that’s the first place I ever learned that concept.


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Mary Barrett

Yes, yes I too can suffer from obsessive thoughts which create a worldview of anxiety and depression. Both Christian and Buddhist studies on contemplation and meditation really helped me overcome such crippling thought activities. Thomas Merton and Pema Chodron and others have been most meaningful. A ritual of morning and evening prayer bring comfort as well.


You have clearly explained a concept that I’ve struggled for years to explain to other about how my memory works. I also try to control some of the things I see so that I don’t have the loop of vivid recall running in my head!

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